The rate at which agricultural land was abandoned after the collapse of the Soviet Union was roughly the same as that immediately after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster five years earlier, according to researchers. While the effects of the Chernobyl disaster on land-use systems were fairly local, the collapse of the Soviet Union affected one sixth of the planet’s land surface.

The research, which is published in Environmental Research Letters (ERL), highlights how institutions such as governments play important roles in mitigating the impact of socio-economic disturbances on land-use change.

“While the dismantling of the Soviet Union had drastic effects on land-use systems in both the Ukraine and Belarus, continuing state-support for agriculture and a stronger institutional inertia resulted in substantially lower abandonment rates in Belarus when compared with the Ukraine,” Tobias Kuemmerle from Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany, told environmentalresearchweb.

Agriculture had been heavily subsidized and intensified during the socialist period. The post-socialist period was characterized by a drastically lower profitability of farming, unsecure land tenure, and decreasing agricultural workforces. This resulted in millions of hectares of farmland being abandoned, practically overnight.

While the Ukraine allowed privatization of all farmland, but implemented land reforms slowly, in Belarus farmland was not privatized and government support for agriculture continued after the collapse of the Soviet Union. As a result, land systems in Belarus were more resilient against the effects of the socio-economic disturbance caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“We were not surprised that the nuclear meltdown and the collapse of the Soviet Union had an effect on land-use but we were surprised at how similar that effect was,” said Kuemmerle. “It shows that when we think about land-use change we need to consider sudden socio-economic changes as well as gradual ones. The research also highlights the strong role that institutions, such as governments, play in the outcome of land-use change.”

Twenty-five years after the Chernobyl disaster and nearly twenty after the collapse of the Soviet Union, most abandoned lands continue to lie idle and are slowly reforesting.