Iraq: Safety, credit and opportunities are all key for displaced farmers to return home

Rome -The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) released a study investigating obstacles to displaced farmers in Iraq returning to their work after conflict forced them to leave their homes.

“Are Iraqi Displaced Farmers Returning to Agriculture?” relies on data collected in 2020 from 774 households who were farming before 2014 but were subsequently displaced due to the conflict. It found that only around one in four agricultural households had returned to their areas of origin by 2020, six years after the country declared the defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which wrought billions of damage in Iraq’s breadbasket regions.

Even fewer had been able to resume their farming activities, due to safety concerns and lost assets but also to a number of obstacles linked to local agrifood markets and access to credit.

Based on recent government estimates, the scale and pace of return has improved notably in the past few years.

The study aims to adequately inform decision-makers on critical areas of policy and investment support, also identifying durable solutions for the displaced farming families, says Ahmad Sadiddin of FAO’s Agrifood Economics Division lead author of the study.

The results, which may be salient in other post-conflict situations around the world, suggest that restoring security and reconstructing agricultural assets and infrastructure are pressing requirements for farmers to resume their agricultural activities. Iflocal conditions are not improved in the areas from which people have fled, returns may not be sustainable.

Key findings

The joint FAO-IOM study focused on seven governorates – Anbar, Babel, Baghdad, Diyala, Kirkuk, Ninevah and Salaheddin – which cover almost two-thirds of the country’s total cropped areas and a higher share of its wheat production. It used longitudinal data from a set of surveys of more than 3800 households conducted since 2016 and a focused survey of 774 households who were farming before 2014 but were subsequently displaced.

Massive destruction of farm assets and lack of access to markets productive services and finance are major factors hindering household returns and the resumption of agricultural livelihoods, along security concerns. Farming households lost on average 83 percent of their farm assets. Yet the report found that, with affordable and available credit and capacity development, they would resume farming, and far more would do so if they had the resources to cover basic needs.

Other factors affecting the prospects for resuming farming activities include age and the market impact of the surge of imported foods that Iraq has relied on in the wake of the conflict

For example, younger farmers who did return to their lands are less likely to intensify their cropping efforts than older ones, due to less experience or lower interest in the activity. Bolstered extension services could help raise interest by younger farmers, as could restoration of rural services and non-farm employment opportunities.

A striking finding is that more returnee farmers cited the low prices offered for agricultural products as a greater challenge than lack of access to seeds, feed or equipment, and even to irrigation. Prices of subsidized imported food may be low but they are putting huge pressures on the national budget, and while they provide cheap – but poorly targeted – food baskets to ensure food security they contribute to depress grain prices for local producers and hindered investment.

Currently, nonfarm informal jobs, business and public employment are covering more than 80 percent of the income of rural returnee households, and the share that depends on agriculture has plummeted. Meanwhile, unemployment in Iraq’s urban areas has risen to above that in rural areas, highlighting broader benefits of restoring rural livelihoods.

“Investing in agriculture can create more stable sources of income and offer rural opportunities to remain in their rural areas rather than migrating to the cities,” the report said.

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