South Sudan: Land Deals 'Threaten Country's Development'

Juba — Land deals done in newly-independent South Sudan "threaten to undermine the land rights of rural communities, increase food insecurity, entrench poverty, and skew development patterns" in the resource-rich but poor nation, a new report says.

The US-based Oakland Institute (OI) says deals done prior to South Sudan's independence this year for almost 9 percent of the new nation's land will do little to help the nation build itself up from one of the least developed countries in the world.

"In order to meet its developmental challenges, the government of South Sudan has begun promoting large-scale private investments as a short cut to rapid economic development. However, recent data about the rate at which the government is leasing land to foreign and domestic companies" shows questionable benefit, the report says.

South Sudan became the world's newest country on 9 July when it seceded from the north after decades of war.

OI's research follows on from a report by aid agency Norwegian People's Aid (NPA). In March NPA said over five million hectares of land had already been signed away for investment for biofuels, ecotourism, agriculture and forestry in the four years leading up to a January 2011 referendum on independence.

"The government's support for land investments is predicated on the myth that large-scale development projects are the quickest way to improve food security and stimulate the economy in South Sudan," OI reports.

But evidence from documented deals "suggests that these projects are far more likely to undermine food security by dispossessing people from land and natural resources that are indispensable to their daily livelihoods", it says, as deals have been struck with individuals with little or no community benefit or consultation.

The government's support for land investments is predicated on the myth that large-scale development projects are the quickest way to improve food security and stimulate the economy in South Sudan.

The government has said it will review all the deals done by foreign companies and try to close the many legal loopholes that have allowed foreign companies to "grab" large tracts of land without the knowledge of government and communities.

Organizations such as OI and NPA have urged a moratorium on new land deals until the right framework is in place to avoid exploitation.

Flawed 2009 Land Act?

Jeremiah Swaka, undersecretary at the Ministry of Justice, says the government is aware that a 2009 Land Act - passed in a hurry without a policy to clarify land tenure and usage - has allowed foreign companies to buy up the country's fertile and largely uncultivated land.

"It was like putting the cart before the horse," he said, stating that many people did not understand the Act and it left all stakeholders confused about their roles.

Like many other sectors in South Sudan such as oil and construction, Swaka says land deals are another case of "hit and run" by foreigners wanting to exploit the country's wealth and cannot be called "investment".

NPA is working to empower civil society organizations in all 10 of South Sudan's states this year to try and prevent more land being sold from under communities' feet.

"There's so much focus on getting investment to South Sudan, and we're a little concerned if the people negotiating the terms really know the value of the land they are selling", said Nina Pedersen, manager of NPA's Civil Society Development Project.

In many cases, aid agencies say deals were done between companies and a single local signatory without local consultations or the input of local, state and central government.

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) has been working with the government and carrying out consultations in all 10 states to draft a land policy which was submitted to the government in February. But the country has 98 pieces of legislation to pass as it takes baby steps towards building a nation from scratch.

Until there is a clear policy which should amend the Act, USAID Economist David Gosney thinks South Sudan would have to "get lucky" in attracting the right kind of investor.

Gosney said the two classes of investors currently coming to South Sudan were those looking for quick returns or buying speculatively in a murky market.

"The only real demarcated lands you have are in Juba and maybe two other towns", he said, noting that vague concepts of land ownership were open to different interpretations.

Swaka said the government's role as "trustee" has disenfranchized it from the entire system, making it very hard to intervene in deals which dispossess and displace communities.

In addition to transparency over who has the right to lease, sell or buy land and up to what limit, USAID is also hoping the new policy will create greater equity to ensure land rights for all.

Gosney said it aims at "balancing South Sudan's cultural history with returnees, gender issues, who owns land when somebody dies", and especially for women, who traditionally have no rights to land and inheritance.

Land and conflict

Robert Lado, who heads South Sudan's Land Commission, a body tasked with advising the government and drawing up the new policy, is pushing for land administrations at county and sub-county level that are run by community members, including women and tribal elders.

"Everything rests on land because we depend on oil exploration, our resources beneath the ground, subterranean resources, and we have arable land in South Sudan" which supports its 80 percent pastoralist people, Lado said.

He said avoiding disputes over land was key to ensuring peace, but issued a warning to foreign companies which have entered into dubious deals: "Their projects will never be realized as people will rise up."

In a country with high levels of inter-ethnic violence and cattle raiding often sparked by disputes over grazing land and resources such as water, other aid agencies are concerned at the potential for violence.

USAID fears that if large tracts of land are suddenly taken over, communities already contesting the use of undefined land could turn on each other and the state.

Lado said locals had threatened to kill a chief who signed a deal with US-based company Nile Trading and Development (NTD) in Lainya County, Central Equatoria State.

Biofuels

NTD's 2008 deal to lease up to a million hectares of land to produce biofuels has been described as "South Sudan's largest land grab".

"Evidence suggests that the companies are using the agro-forestry venture as a means of advancing their oil, gas, and mining interests in South Sudan", OI's December report said of NTD's 49-year lease signed with an allegedly fictitious cooperative in a densely populated area.

OI worked with the local community to obtain South Sudan President Salva Kiir's promise to overturn the deal. Executive Director Anuradha Mittal called this "a rare example of a community viewed by investors as near-squatters and essentially dispensable who are getting their voices heard by the highest officials in government".

Road-building

While everyone agrees that agriculture is the key to weaning the new nation off a 98 percent dependency on oil and turning it from an import-reliant subsistence market to an export one, it needs proper investment at a national level.

"If food is going to be produced for export, then there is no way it is going to help the local community.... On the other hand, if fertile land is taken away by foreign companies, it will impact food security negatively," said NPA's project manager for land and resources, Jamus Joseph.

Joseph wants investors to sign leases for up to 99 years to help build roads to feed a nation where one in three is food insecure.

In a September report, aid agency Oxfam said large-scale land investment in Africa was "putting development in reverse". It said drought, high commodity prices and biofuel mandates aimed at combating climate change had fuelled a new scramble for land in Africa.

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]

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