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.