Uncertainty over laws fuel land grabs in South Sudan

By Paul Jimbo

South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation, has been grabbing international news headlines, not for any good reasons but for odd ones including civil wars, tribal conflicts and land grabs.

Many tribal conflicts stem from fights over the ever shrinking land and water resources in a less than a decade-old country. 

In a place with high poverty levels, massive grabbing of communal land has left herders with little grazing land and affected their traditional water points. Not spared the pain of the wanton land grab are local communities whose major source of water is the mighty River Nile.

Continuing massive deforestation to pave way for commercial investors has also taken a toll on the River Nile banks due to the use of the river’s waters for irrigation.

The scramble for land along River Nile by foreign investors has seen swaths and stretches of hectares of fertile communal lands being allocated without the due involvement of local communities.

The Land Matrix database, which compiles data on land grabs from governments, companies, NGOs, the media and citizen contributions, has tracked about 2.5 million hectares of land grabbed in South Sudan since 2006. Most of this land was allocated to 11 transnational deals, with companies from Egypt, Mauritius, Kenya, Canada, the UAE and Norway acquiring vast swaths of land for food crops, timber production, carbon sequestration and tourism. 

According to Norwegian People’s Aid, from 2007 to early 2011, foreign investors acquired 2.64 million hectares of land, a land that is the size of Rwanda. 

Most of these lands were in the greater Equatoria region, thus Eastern, Western and Central Equatoria as well as some parts of Bah er Ghazel regions.

Massive land grab in this particular region was focused on extracting resources for land itself, oil mining and agricultural production for foreign investors including ones from the US, UK and some Arab countries, RT News reported.

In 2008, the UAE’s Al Ain National Wildlife Company gained a 30-year concession of about 1.7 million hectares to build safari camps and themed wildlife parks within most of Boma National Park, which hosts one of the world’s largest grasslands animal migrations.

In 2009, the Egyptian company Qalaa Holdings acquired 105,000 of prime Nile-irrigated farmland to plant crops for export to Egypt, part of the arid country’s strategy to lessen its dependence on Egypt’s Nile-irrigated fertile valley to grow all of its food.

In 2007, the Green Resources company of Norway acquired about 180,000 hectares in Central Equatoria state to plant teak forests for carbon sequestration. Under the international REDD scheme to mitigate climate change, carbon-emitting companies can buy carbon credits from tree planting companies to offset their emissions. 

But such monoculture plantations have long been documented to have a range of negative effects on ecosystems and local communities. A report from the California-based Oakland Institute revealed that in Uganda, Green Resources had evicted local communities, restricted their access to water and grazing lands, and used chemicals that destroy traditional ecosystems.

In other land deals, in 2010, Prince Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud, formerly King Abdullah’s Special Envoy and Director General of the Saudi Intelligence Agency, gained about 100,000 hectares in Gwit, Unity State for agriculture. Now, his land lays dormant.  

Communities lacking consultation

One of the largest and most controversial land deals was signed in 2008 between a Dallas, Texas-based firm, Nile Trading and Development, and Mukaya Payam Cooperative. This $25,000 agreement leased 600,000 hectares of land in central South Sudan to the American company for 49 years.

The agreement allowed the firm full rights to explore timber/forestry resources, according to a report by the Oakland Institute, a California-based think tank. This included, without limitation, the harvesting of current tree growth, the planting and harvesting of hardwood trees, and the development of wood-based industries.

The company also gained numerous other sweeping rights, including the rights to trade and profit from any resulting carbon credits from timber on the leased land; to engage in agricultural activities, including the cultivation of biofuel crops (jatropha plant and palm oil trees); to explore, develop, mine, produce and/or exploit petroleum, natural gas, other hydrocarbon resources and other minerals for both local and export markets, to engage in power generation activities on the leased land; and to sublease or sublicense any portion or all of the leased to third parties.

Mukaya Payam, located in Lainya County, in the Central Equatoria State (CES) of South Sudan, is 63 miles from Juba and 37 miles to Yei River County.

In the agreement, it was decided that 40% of the profits from the land agreement would go to the Mukaya Payment Cooperative and 60% would go to Nile Trading and Development until 2033 when the profits would be evenly distributed. 

A Mukaya Payam Trust was established as a trust fund to funnel money for community members. However, according  to Oakland Institute, ‘South Sudan Parliament member speaks on land grabs’ there is no evidence to suggest that this plan has been carried out.

“We, the chiefs, elders, religious leaders and the youth of Mukaya Payam, unanimously, with strong terms, condemn, disavow and deny the land lease agreement reached on 11 March 2008 between the two parties.”   This is according to Think Africa Press | September 7, 2011.

The Mukaya Payam Community Petition alleged that the company did not seek the consultation of the Mukaya community in particular and Pojulu in general and sought dissolution of the land deals. In March 2008 Nile Trading and Development (NTD), a Texas-based company, signed a 49-year lease agreement with Mukaya Payam Cooperative, an organization that presented itself as the representative of the local community.

According to Sudan’s Agency for Independent Media as quoted in the Oakland Institute report, the Mukaya Payam Cooperative, which signed the lease, is a “fictitious cooperative” comprised of “a group of influential natives from Mukaya Payam and the neighboring payams (districts)…The influential natives leased out the land behind the backs of the entire community…” 

The petition stated that the lease agreement was reached without the knowledge of the community and that it is therefore illegal. 

“We the chiefs, elders, religious leaders and the youth of Mukaya Payam, unanimously, with strong terms, condemn, disavow and deny the land lease agreement reached on 11 March 2008 between the two parties,” the petition reads.

It is signed by seven chiefs, a reverend, two elders and two other community members. The President of South Sudan, H.E Salva Kiir, has subsequently given his support to the community.

The agreement has since been deposited with the National Lands Ministry and the South Sudan National Lands Commission. However the 2016 civil war in South Sudan scared away most investors who took off in a huff.

Nile lands parcelled out 

Driving on the nearly 10-kilometre stretch of land on Gumbo to Rajaf Road, about 10 kilometres south of Juba city, it was clear that many parcels of land along the Nile River have been dished out to foreign corporations.

Some sites had erected major signposts with words such as “property of” and “not for sale” to indicate their private ownership. Other demarcated parcels were fenced off with concrete walls, yet there was no evidence of farming within the plots.

Some sign posts were written in Chinese language, a clear tale of how attractive the River Nile’s lands have been to investors far and wide. 

One side at a farm’s gate read, “Sheng DA, Chinese Street No 9, Gumbo, Rajaf Payam”. The firm hosted both construction and vegetable farming businesses.

In the compound were Chinese nationals, men and women, along with some huge black and healthy dogs. They did not speak English and only engaged their farmhands in gestures. They had huge farming machineries, including stalled earth movers, ploughing and harvesting tractors: remnants from the 2016 war.

Today, the machines only engage in small-scale vegetable farming and making construction blocks.

Several similar parcels not far from the Chinese farm were lined up in sequence, all stretching into River Nile banks.

In the neighbourhood, some compounds were heavily guarded by armed security personnel. Containers of 20 feet and 40 feet in size were mounted on each other: most likely massive storage facilities owned by container freights firms.

48-year-old Paulina Wani, a Bari by tribe, decried land grabbing in her ancestral land.

The mother of seven said the stretch of land between Gumbo and Rajaf belonged to the Bari community, but individuals have been pushing them out since conflict in the 1980s.

“During the 1983 Anyanya 1 warfare, some people came here to claim were hosting rebels here, so they literally ran over this village. Some of us were displaced by raging perennial floods up the river,” Paulina recalled.

It was at this time that some brokers started targeting their fertile land along River Nile.

She said nowadays, some politicians and land brokers have signed deals with multinational companies to illegally lease fertile communal land for agriculture. 

“Can you believe they have grabbed even the small highlands in the river? Those small 10 by 10 feet patches you see there have their owners,” Paulina said as she pointed at the tiny and rocky islands.

Today, Pauline, who said her grandfather owned swaths of land, said she has been left only with a very small portion of land to host her family and do some small-scale farming.

The tale of land grab along the River Nile in South Sudan amplifies the need to protect the river banks, as some investors have literally encroached into the banks. They have erected concrete walls that stretch into the water itself.

These are the parcels of the land that have been fenced off by private investors who produce soft drinks and go downs for hire.

In some case, investors including those in the hotel industry have demarcated their own beaches to tap into the highly lucrative hotel business in Juba, the capital city of South Sudan.

Apparently pushed by the unending land grab pressure, the River Nile has been forced to redefine its course. 

The Nile River’s rugged banks are evidence that it is struggling to breathe and enjoy its once good health.

Confusion over land laws fuels land grabbing in South Sudan

Moses Maal, the Acting Director General at the South Sudan’s Ministry of Lands, said that much of the struggle over land in South Sudan arises from a lack of clear land laws and processes after the country gained independence from northern Sudan in 2011.

In many land deals, local governments failed to protect the rights of those originally occupying the land because such people do not have legal land tenure that is recognized by the state government.

“According to the pre-independence Constitution of South Sudan, land belongs to the people-the communities. They use the allotments to enter into deals,” Maal says.

After independence, South Sudanese land policies were taken back to Parliament for review, and no formal law has yet been passed, Maal said. Currently each state has its own land policies, laws and regulations. 

Three groups generally own land in South Sudan: ethnic communities, state and local government, and private leaseholders. 

Community land ownership is dominant, which allows communities to use land under customary laws. Government owned land mostly falls under national parks, game reserves and forests. 

Although private land ownership or private land leaseholders are predominantly found in urban areas, recent foreign investors such as Israeli-owned Green Horizon are mainly interested in acquiring land in rural areas. 

Land in rural areas tends to be leased by communities and government institutions.

However, investors take advantage of the lack of proper land laws to enter into deals with unsuspecting individuals and communities, Maal said.

To avoid further disputes on land, the ministry is currently formulating a Country Land Act, Maal said.

But this process has been long-ongoing: Documents intended to craft the country’s land policy were first presented in 2014 by the chairperson of the South Sudan Land Commission, Robert Lado, at a Council of Ministers meeting chaired by former Vice-President Riek Machar.

“The policy adopted a number of guiding principles, which included security of land rights, equitable access to land and provision of security and diversity in tenure types. The policy divided land into three categories: public, private and community-owned lands .

Maal says the National Government should be responsible for public land and the procedure for any investor to acquire land should include identification of the land and informing the state before entering into an agreement with concerned authorities.

“How do we govern public, community and private land without proper land laws?

“At the moment, these investors you see around are exploiting local people because they refer to the agreements signed before we even had land laws in place,” Maal said.

Since 2014, the Land Policy document has lay in the assembly awaiting parliament’s approval.

William Ebere Amosa, a land expert at the National Land Ministry, said that the new policy recognises the importance of individuals acquiring land and providing them with tenure security, which he said is essential to economic development in the country.

“The Land Act is there, it is the same one the country has had since independence, but it needs reform so it can accommodate several things left out; that means we have weak laws in place. Land unification document will help in land governance, but at the moment we are not implementing the Land Policy and Regulations Act,” Amosa said.

In 2013, South Sudan’s cabinet adopted a different long awaited policy which sought to address some issues pertaining to land acquisition and management in the country. The 2014 proposed land policy document lies in the national assembly to date.

The new policy was aimed at addressing post-war conflict over land rights, informal settlements in cities and towns, and conflicts over access to land with pasture and water.

Land grabbing, which is the acquisition of land without regard for the interests of existing land rights holders, and disagreements regarding boundaries between counties and payams (districts) will also be addressed by the policy.

Plans to ease food scarcity through commercial farming

Dr. Loro George Leju Lugor, the Director General of Agriculture Production and Extension Services, said many investors are now acquiring land in the country to engage in food production to help reduce the country’s food scarcity crisis.

Over 7.1 million people – more than half the population of South Sudan – are at risk of starvation, due to an economic crisis caused by the civil war as well as drought in recent years.

According to the Norwegian People’s Aid-South Sudan, until the 2016 war, foreign investors owned about 10% of the country’s land. Massive land grab in South Sudan was focused on extracting resources for land itself, oil mining and agricultural production for foreign investors including ones from the US, UK and some Arab countries. 

But in 2016, when conflict spiked in South Sudan, many foreign investors that were engaging in large-scale farming left the country. Today, most of these farms are still lying idle.

“As we speak, three quarters of the country is going to be hit by famine because we have less food production. We don’t have farm under irrigation now, no, no commercial farm but we used to have them before the 2016 war,” Leju said.

However, the government has now put in place strategies to engage new commercial investors in large scale-food production to meet the high food deficit. The 2014 Drought and Flood Vision Comprehensive Agriculture Master Plan envisions commercial production of food through local and foreign investors, Leju said.

This will include more research-based farming to ensure quality food production, he said.

“We have so far divided the country into six ecological zones to ensure food security. We have the Nile corridor, Eastern and Western flat places, Hills and Mountains, Semi-Arid areas and agro-ecological zones,” he said.

Leju says the government will also gazette land into agricultural lands and grazing lands for cattle, as well as national reserve forests throughout South Sudan.

The ministry is also currently rehabilitating the stalled farming machines, some of which were expensive, he said.

He says the fact that land belongs to the people provides opportunities for individuals, families and communities to become easy targets of land frauds in the country.

As far as the government’s plan to “massively invest in food production through investors,” “how they acquire land is not our business because there are people responsible for land matters,” Leju said.