For more than four years, the headquarters of the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in the Syrian town of Tal Hadya has been occupied by the anti-Assad groups Al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. ICARDA is one of 15 major international agricultural research centres, and the site of a seed bank housing some 150,000 samples in temperature-controlled vaults.
Periodic bulletins have assured the public that ‘the seeds are safe’ in the midst of conflict, duplicated at seed banks outside the country. The Syrian war precipitated the first ever withdrawal from the subterranean seed vault at Svalbard in the North Pole last year when ICARDA staff requested previously deposited material to populate new seed bank facilities in Lebanon and Morocco.
Yet remarkably, while ancient archaeological sites are destroyed and Syrian people experience inconceivable loss, the seed bank in Tal Hadya continues to operate. Its refrigerated vaults remain powered, and a small number of Syrian staff are permitted by occupying rebels to maintain the facility. Why?