Land Grabs and Deforestation in South Sudan

[Cross-linked at Bertelsmann Stiftung – Future Challenges’ blog]

According to a report issued by the Oakland Institute, hedge fund land grabs in Africa are a contributing factor to “food insecurity, the displacement of small farmers, conflict, environmental devastation, water loss and the further impoverishment and political instability of African nations.”

The implications of land deals in the Republic of South Sudan are particularly troubling in the light of the fledgling nation’s turbulent history and its relations with the Khartoum government. South Sudan was granted autonomy from Khartoum on July 9, 2005, and officially became an independent country on July 9, 2011. However, South Sudan’s autonomy and independence could well be under serious threat from land deals.

In March 2008, Nile Trading and Development Inc (NTD), a Dallas Texas-based company headed by former US ambassador Howard Eugene Douglas, leased 600,000 hectares of land in Mukaya Payam, Lainya county in South Sudan’s Central Equatoria State. The 49 year land lease was bought for 25,000 USD (about 75,000 Sudanese pounds). The lessors were the Mukaya Payam Cooperative, a fictitious cooperative “made up of influential natives from Mukaya Payam and other neighboring payams (districts)” and the contract was signed by the Mukaya paramount chief, Scopas Loduwo.

This deal comes to about 0.04 USD per hectare for the duration of the lease and the contract allows for an additional 400,000 hectares to be leased to the company with virtually no limit placed on the use of the land and its resources. The contract reads:

The development, production and/or exploitation of timber/forestry resources, including without limitation, the harvesting of current tree growth, the planting and harvesting of megalopolis-paulownia, palm oil trees and other hardwood trees and the development of wood-based industries; and
Agriculture, including the cultivation of the jetropha [sic] plant and palm oil trees (and the exploitation of any resulting carbon credits).

In reporting this deal, the largest land deal to date in South Sudan, the Guardian pointed out that Nile Trading and Development Inc stands to profit heavily as it gains millions in revenue from UN-backed carbon credits. This is in addition to the profits garnered from the exploitation of the land’s forests and farmland. Once the trees are logged, the land may be reforested or turned into farmland, but the contract also allows NTD to explore and drill for oil and other minerals.

As late as July 26, 2011, the people of Mukaya county refused to give the land to NTD, stating that the paramount chief and other members of the ficticious Mukaya Payam Cooperative did not consult with the community before agreeing to the 49-year land lease. Such a lack of transparency among the most influential members of the Mukaya is a further blow to indigenous land and water rights.

What are the possible environmental effects of this land deal?

The contract allows Nile Trading and Development (NTD) unlimited use and exploitation of the natural resources of the 600,000 hectare plot of land. This includes logging, harvesting palm oil, and mining for oil, all of which could contribute to deforestation and the degradation of the topsoil in South Sudan.

Deforestation or the loss of woody vegetation is a major factor in desertification. Desertification means, among other things, a decrease in soil depth and fertility and a decline in the quality and quantity of ground and surface water. (Remember that flooding is another consequence of deforestation – as loss of trees is loss of the root systems that soak up ground water and hold the soil together. Flooding furthers the loss of topsoil and thus accelerates desertification.) As parts of South Sudan are already semi-arid, deforestation would further exacerbate the southward encroachment of the Nubian and Bayuda deserts while also reducing biodiversity and disrupting the ecology. The soil erosion following deforestation could lead to the land being stripped of essential nutrients needed for food cultivation when the 49-year lease is over.

So what can be done?

While African governments typically want to encourage investment within their borders, it is important to weight the benefits and downsides of these land deals. Nile Trading and Development is paying 25,000 USD for unlimited land and water rights to from 600,000 to a million hectares of land in South Sudan. Yet how do the South Sudanese benefit from this deal? Is 25,000 USD sufficient payment for 49 years of unlimited use of land and water rights? And what of the land rights of the indigenous Sudanese?

Displacing Sudanese people who have lived on this land for years can have a destabilizing effect. The displacement of small farmers undermines local food security while environmental devastation and water loss increases the chances of conflict. In the light of South Sudan’s history of civil war, conflict and the resultant food insecurity, such considerations need to be taken very seriously indeed.

Solutions are easier said than done, but what is really needed is more responsible and transparent governance with regard to land and water rights on the part of African governments. This applies equally to governing bodies at local, regional and national level. The Mukaya paramount chief’s abuse of his position and authority will no doubt affect the political stability of Mukaya Payam and will most certainly lead to disillusionment or antipathy among those displaced or otherwise affected by the land deal.

See also:

Agricultural Expansion and Deforestation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
Drought, Reforestation and Ethiopia’s Land-Tenure Problem
Water Scarcity and Conflict at the Ethiopia-Kenya Border

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