On one side of the road that runs between the northern Iraqi cities of Tal Afar and Sinjar, a combine harvester whirrs through a glowing field of wheat. On the other side, a group of men crouch dejectedly beside a battered pick-up truck, watching a vast expanse of the horizon as it burns.
“This was the first year we could farm because there were still a lot of explosives on the land, so we couldn’t start until those were cleared,” says Nuri Faisal, the day after his crops were destroyed in a blaze he believes was caused by a spark from electricity cables.
Faisal, who spent time in a displacement camp before returning to his home in Sinjar, had been expecting 15 to 16 tonnes of wheat from the 40 dunams (0.4 hectares) he planted. It should have fetched him 10 to 12 million Iraqi dinars (around $8,000-10,000).
But it was all lost. All he has left is a modest flock of sheep and a large vegetable patch.
“We were completely relying on this money,” he explains. “Right now we’re still in shock and cannot think about the future.”
Widespread fires in northern Iraq have caused the loss of much of this year’s harvest and dealt a severe blow to farming communities, including many people – like Faisal – who recently returned to their land for the first time in years, since occupation by the so-called Islamic State.
The Iraqi government has reported crop fires in 13 of Iraq’s 19 provinces from May to late June, with the worst damage in the north. Nineveh province, which includes Mosul and Sinjar and was known as the country’s breadbasket before IS seized control here in 2014, has been the hardest hit.
Iraq officially declared victory over IS in December 2017, but responsibility for setting some of the fires has been claimed by remnants of the group. Other fires have been put down to arson attacks, lightning storms, burning cigarette ends, glass bottles thrown from passing cars, and hastily restored and poorly insulated electricity supplies – all nurtured by an especially hot and dry summer.
No matter the cause, Iraq’s farmers were counting on this year’s harvest of wheat and barley. That’s especially true for those who were among the 3.4 million people displaced at the height of the conflict with IS in 2016 and have now returned and are trying to rebuild their lives.
Yazidi livelihoods as targets
Faisal is Yazidi – a religious and cultural minority that IS singled out for treatment so cruel that a UN Commission of Inquiry labelled it genocide in June 2016.
In addition to killings, kidnappings, and forced sex slavery, IS targeted Yazidi livelihoods. Starting in 2014, it set beehives, fruit orchards, and oil groves ablaze; stole and destroyed farm machinery; and looted cattle. The group also targeted agriculture owned by Shia Muslims.
Numbers vary on the amount of crops that have burned in Nineveh and across the country. The Iraqi government said on 8 June that 55 fires and 25,944 dunams (2,594 hectares) had been lost in Nineveh – more than five times the crop loss in the next hardest-hit province, Salahaddin.
But local officials reportedly recorded the loss of 65,000 dunams of wheat and barley to fire in Nineveh alone by 10 June. Hamam Mirza, a senior member of the Yazidi ruling class who many expect will be chosen as the group’s next leader, told The New Humanitarian that about 60 percent of the Yazidi crops in Sinjar had been lost to fires.
The UN has announced a new programme to help boost Iraq’s agricultural sector, although not directly in response to the fires. And the Iraqi government is looking into compensating farmers for the losses. But that may not be enough to shore up recovering agricultural communities.
Mirza said the loss was “a huge amount, and the impact runs very deep, especially because farmers nurtured these crops for a year”.
Scant resources to fight fires
Dedicated fire-fighting services are few and far between in rural parts of north Iraq, making containing the fires an even more difficult job.
In the Sinjar village of Mujama Domiss, now a military base, a battalion of soldiers has become a makeshift fire-fighting unit. Battalion 33 belongs to the Popular Mobilisation Forces (the Hashd al-Shaabi, in Arabic) – a group of mostly Shia fighting groups that was allied with the Iraqi government against IS and is now formally part of the country’s security forces.
With military trucks and a water tanker, Battalion 33 has been able to quell some of the fires around Sinjar, but not all.
“Wheat burns like petrol and, when a fire starts, it’s incredibly difficult to extinguish,” said Battalion 33 Commander Abu Fatima al-Maliki. “But we have had some success and have been able to save several half-fields and stop fires spreading.”
The area around Mujama Domiss is still considered a closed military zone. Al-Maliki said his group had nonetheless helped farmers access their lands by clearing IEDs and unexploded ordnance, as well as by fixing roads and wells.
“The Yazidi economy, especially, was destroyed by IS, leaving them in a very difficult financial situation,” he said. “One of the most important things we could do was to help them restart their livelihoods, and this year they have finally been able to make some money.”
But al-Maliki said the crop burnings had dealt a devastating blow to the farming community, as well as exacerbating fears of former residents still too scared to return.
“After all that happened to us in Sinjar, it’s better to be here in a tent than living in fear.”
While Faisal is determined to stay in Sinjar, the fires have sent some people into flight once again.
Sixty-five-year-old Shereen moved some 130 kilometres from Sinjar into a camp in the semi-autonomous region of Iraq run by the Kurdistan Regional Government.
“I came back [to the camp] 20 days ago, after our crops were lost,” she says. “I was very scared and had pains in my chest, so I left. After all that happened to us in Sinjar, it’s better to be here in a tent than living in fear.”
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Association announced on 17 June it was releasing $17 million from the European Union to support agricultural recovery in northern Iraq.
In a statement, the FAO said the project was expected to “directly benefit almost 10,000 vulnerable farming families” and would include the rehabilitation of agricultural facilities and equipment. The FAO did not respond to questions about how and when the money would be disbursed.
Iraq’s parliament is also mulling a decision that would press the government to compensate the farmers for their lost crops – a move Richard Pearshouse, head of environment and crisis at Amnesty International, said was sorely needed.
“These most recent fires signal that Iraq's farmers need protection and assistance. Iraq's government needs to help farmers back on their feet,” Pearshouse said. “Iraq has identified priorities for agricultural reconstruction in its national reconstruction plan – it should now fund and implement those.”
But given that many rural Nineveh residents say they have not yet received any help following the massive losses sustained by IS destruction in 2014, some say they are not holding out much hope for it this time.
“There is talk about the government giving compensation,” said Faisal. “But we’re not expecting it. And, if it does come, it will only be a little money.”
(TOP PHOTO: A field of wheat burns near the town of Sinjar.)