As the season for wheat planting in Iraq wound down early last month, farmers in areas under the control of Sunni militant group ISIS grew worried.
More than two dozen farmers told Reuters they had not planted the normal amount of seed, because they could not access their land, did not have the proper fertilisers or adequate fuel, or because they had no guarantees that ISIS would buy their crop as Baghdad normally does.
Farmers, and Iraqi and United Nations’ officials, now fear a drastically reduced crop this spring. That could leave hundreds of thousands of Iraqis hungry. But another big loser would be ISIS, which controls territory that normally produces as much as 40 percent of Iraq’s wheat crop.
The breakaway al Qaeda group, which declared an Islamic caliphate across parts of Syria and Iraq last summer, has killed thousands and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes. ISIS militants had hoped to use wheat to show it can govern better than the Arab governments it condemns as infidels. They have published pamphlets with photos of golden fields and fighters distributing food.
A bad crop might not cost the group control of territory, but it would seriously dent its campaign to be seen as an alternative government, and hurt its credibility among some fellow Sunnis.
Iraqi farmers have long complained of Baghdad’s neglect and mismanagement of agriculture. International sanctions and the U.S. invasion further hurt the sector. But many farmers say this planting season marks an all-time low.
Across the border in Syria, where ISIS has controlled the city of Raqqa since May 2013, wheat production last year was down almost 70 percent from the level before the civil war, according to the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
Syrian farmers in ISIS-held territory say production was hit by the conflict, poor rainfall and fuel shortages. Several told Reuters that ISIS did not help farmers plant, and did not purchase their harvest as the Syrian government used to. Instead, farmers say they were forced to look for new buyers and often fell prey to avaricious middlemen.
U.N. and Iraqi government officials don’t have access to much of Iraq, so cannot provide an accurate forecast of the country’s 2015 wheat crop. Farmers will begin harvesting in April and production will also be determined by the weather - so far very favorable according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) - and farmers’ access to their fields.
Farming in huge swathes of the rural belt around Baghdad has also shut down because of violence, or because farmers fear the Shi’ite militias which now control the area and are fighting ISIS.
But the greatest concern is in northern Iraq. Interviews with farmers who remain on their land or have left for Kurdistan, suggest that few in ISIS-controlled parts of the country's breadbasket region were able to plant as normal.
Recent satellite imagery from NASA and USDA reinforces that. The imagery, publicly available through the Global Agriculture Monitoring Project at the University of Maryland, shows that crops in Islamic State-controlled parts of Nineveh and Salahadeen provinces appear far less healthy than in Kurdish-held territory.
Sunni farmer Abu Amr laments how tough it has become. Abu Amr once hated Iraq’s Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who lost power following elections last April. But his view began to change when he was not paid for last season's harvest. Instead, Islamic State militants stole it from a government silo they had seized.
“When we saw the chaos of ISIS we wanted Maliki back. Everything is gone, my livestock, my harvest, everything,” he said.
Abu Amr has moved to peshmerga-held Kirkuk. Old neighbours have told him by phone that they have planted about a third of his 25 hectares (61 acres) using seeds stored in his house. He sent some cash to buy fertiliser, but not enough.
“We used to blame Maliki for everything. Now we cry and hope for the return of those days,” he said. “Before, there was some kind of security, some kind of state. It is incomparable to the current situation.”
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