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Web tours reveal plight of 'no man's land' communities

A Colombian rebel leader's jungle villa, a Trident jet abandoned in the Cyprus buffer zone and France's WWI killing fields are among the virtual reality 'tours' available through an innovative research project.

Visitors can for the first time take an online adventure by 'walking' through dozens of places deemed to be 'no man's land' — areas left unoccupied or ungoverned because of disputes between people, nations or regimes. 

The University of Durham study, documented on Google Arts and Culture, also features stories of communities living or working in these remote and often hazardous zones. They include ranger Guillaume Rouard who oversees WWI battlefields in north east France, now planted with forests but still littered with deadly munitions.

The issues highlighted by the six-year project will be showcased at an event as part of the annual Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) Festival of Social Science.

A definition of a 'no-man's land' does not exist in international law yet these no-go areas are increasing in the modern world, according to Noam Leshem who led the six-year project. He says they are associated with violent conflict, criminality and environmental destruction.

The message to world leaders from his ESRC-funded study is to fulfil their obligations to stranded citizens and devise new mechanisms to deal with the issue as a matter of urgency.  

"What we're increasingly seeing is no-man's land emerging not out of error or mistake but by design," says Dr Leshem from the University of Durham's department of geography.

"These aren't just a relic of the past or dead zones — they're living spaces affecting human lives and the environment. Yet governments are withdrawing protection over certain regions and their populations.

"We need to wake up to this reality and end the international gridlock caused by competition between powers that prevents us finding a solution."

The study includes first-hand accounts from ordinary people worldwide, including in the western part of the Colombian Amazon. The former FARC-occupied area has become a target for illegal mining and rainforest decimation since demilitarisation by the government, according to the research. 

However, the findings show positive outcomes are possible in no-man's land. The Verdun WWI battlefields have become a safe haven for wildlife since their cultivation by French authorities. Says Dr Leshem: "It's effectively become a green sarcophagus that holds down all the hazardous material lying buried beneath."  

The findings referenced in this release will be shared as part of an event entitled Into No Man's Land on 4, 5 and 6 November for schools and the general public. The event is part of the ESRC’s flagship annual Festival of Social Science.

Dr Leshem will also be discussing no man's land for the Royal Geographical Society's Monday Night Lecture on 9 November 2019.

Further information


Tamera Jones, Media and Communications Manager,, 0734 202 5443, 0117 905 7606

Notes for Editors

  1. Event: Into No Man's Land
    Organiser: Noam Leshem
    Date: 4, 5 and 6 November 2019 10:00 to 14:00
    Venue: Various schools in and around County Durham doing GCSE and A Level classes
    More Information: please contact Noam Leshem
  2. The 17th annual Festival of Social Science takes place from 2-9 November 2019 with over 470 events nationwide. Run by the Economic and Social Research Council, part of UK Research and Innovation, the festival provides an opportunity for the public to meet some of the country’s leading social scientists to discover, discuss and debate how research affects their lives. With a range of creative and engaging events going on across the UK, there’s something for everyone including businesses, charities, schools and government agencies. The full programme is available at: Catch up and join in on Twitter using #ESRCFestival.
  3. The ESRC is part of UK Research and Innovation, a new organisation that brings together the UK's seven research councils, Innovate UK and Research England to maximise the contribution of each council and create the best environment for research and innovation to flourish. The vision is to ensure the UK maintains its world-leading position in research and innovation.
  4. The ESRC is the UK’s largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policy-makers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective.
  5. UK Research and Innovation is a new body which works in partnership with universities, research organisations, businesses, charities, and government to create the best possible environment for research and innovation to flourish. We aim to maximise the contribution of each of our component parts, working individually and collectively. We work with our many partners to benefit everyone through knowledge, talent and ideas.


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