Rich farms, conflict and climate change

22 May, 2008 (IRIN)

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has called for a moratorium on the expansion of large mechanised farms in Sudan's central semi-arid regions, sounding a warning that it was a "future flashpoint" for conflict between the farmers and pastoralists.

Northern Sudan's huge commercial farms have been blamed for fuelling conflict, driving small-scale farmers off the land and into menial jobs, environmental degradation and human rights abuses.

However, in its Green Programme, launched in 2006, Sudan's Government of National Unity has called for the expansion of both rainfed and irrigated mechanised agriculture.

Andrew Morton, project coordinator of UNEP's Post Conflict and Disaster Management Branch, said the moratorium was necessary because the farms were "already degraded in many areas, and a historic and potential future flashpoint for conflict between the numerous agricultural and pastoralist groups".

The solution might be to make better use of the land. "This can happen through rehabilitation and increased investment in sustainability and yields through options such as improved seeds, improved techniques, agro-forestry, the appropriate use of fallow periods, and crop rotation," he suggested.

"On the governance side, a key need is improvements to the land tenure regime [both the legal framework and its application] to allow for all three groups [mechanised farmers, pastoralists and small-scale farmers] to co-exist and cooperate under the rule of law," said Morton.

In the drive to establish mechanised farming large numbers of trees were cleared to make room for cropland, disrupting a fragile ecosystem already under considerable pressure from climate change and recurrent drought, according to various studies. This not only sparked conflicts as fewer subsistence farming families had access to land, but also led to the degradation of the land denuded of trees and agriculturally overworked.

As droughts become more frequent and intense, particularly in the semi-arid regions, and pressure on water resources increased, enlarging big mechanised farms and establishing more of them was not a viable option, said Ahmed Hanafi, of the Ministry of Agriculture's Western Sudan Resources Management Programme, which is financed by the International Fund for Agricultural Development.

In an effort to redress the past the government recently set up two land commissions - one national and one for Southern Sudan - to help arbitrate disputes over ownership and ensure that land is used efficiently. Since there is now less land available, aid agencies have emphasised the need to shift to promoting small-scale agriculture, especially in the semi-arid regions.

History of conflict

Mohamed Suliman, chair of the UK-based Institute for African Alternatives, a policy research network, noted in one of his several papers on land management that the Sudanese government had allocated parcels of land big enough to make commercial farming viable to absentee merchants, politicians and soldiers.

The purpose had been to implement mechanised farming, as part of a national programme to revive agriculture in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile State, during the late 1960s and early '70s, financed in part by the World Bank.

Analysts have said this was a major reason for conflict in these two regions, as it drove the displaced small-scale agricultural and pastoral farmers into the arms of the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), and fuelled a 21-year civil war that ended with a peace agreement in 2005.

In testimony recorded by Suliman on the spread of mechanised farming in Sudan's Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan State during the 1970s, a civil servant recalled how those who were powerful and well-connected were able to seize land.

"The government just demarcates land, regardless of the realities of the area; they do not care if there are villages in this land or not. In the area of Habila, in the Nuba Mountains, mechanised farms have circled many villages," the civil servant said.

"There is no more land for the Nuba; no land for farming and no land for the animals to graze. The Nuba are squeezed and have to choose between two options: either leave the area to work for the government as soldiers, or become workers in a mechanised farming scheme."

The story of the Nuba is just one of many similar histories across Sudan. The mechanisation of rain-fed agriculture was initiated by the British in Gedaref in 1944 to meet the food needs of their army in East Africa. The Sudanese government expanded mechanised farming after independence in 1956, and encouraged the private sector to invest.

UNEP's post-conflict assessment report on Sudan, released in 2007, underlined the role of the mechanised farming campaign in precipitating conflict, particularly in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile State, but pointed out that the government's original plans to promote mechanised farming had not been properly followed, which also led to the rapid degradation of prime land.

In the original plan, half the plots of land were to be set aside for lease to private tenants while the other half was to be left fallow, as grass. "After four years, farmers were to exchange the formerly leased land with adjacent fallow plots to allow the soil to recover," said the UNEP report.

But demand outstripped the capacity of the government to demarcate land and private farmers began to seize land outside their designated blocks. UNEP researchers found that in Gedaref almost 66 percent of the 2.6 million hectares under mechanised agriculture in 1997 were unauthorised holdings; in the Habila region about 45 percent of mechanised farms in 1985 were unsanctioned.

The Ministry of Agriculture in Sennar State, adjoining Gedaref State in eastern Sudan, reported that 60 percent of the mechanised farms set up in the 1950s were unauthorised, indicating that the practice had been ongoing for at least half a century.

Most of these farms had also affected transhumance routes, the corridors used by pastoralists to move their livestock through farmed areas between seasonal pastures. "These changes in land use continue to lead to violent clashes between farmers and nomads," said the report.

"Today, mechanised agriculture occupies a swathe of the clay plains in the high-rainfall savannah belt, estimated to be 6.5 million hectares extending from the Butana Plains in the east to Southern Kordofan in central Sudan [covering parts of the states of Gedaref, Kassala, Blue Nile, Sennar, White Nile, Upper Nile and Southern Kordofan]," according to UNEP.

Still provocative

Almost four decades after the civil servant's testimony, the situation was still tense because the rich farmers have failed to reach out to the local community, said Faisal Eljack of SOS Sahel UK, a development NGO. "They [rich farmers] are then seen by the local community as invaders who come into their area, pocket the profits and get out."

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) say rich farmers, who grow cash crops such as sorghum, sesame, groundnuts and, to a lesser extent, cotton and sunflower, also need to do their part by reinvesting in communities hurt by their unplanned growth.

Absentee farm owners in Habila, in the Nuba Mountains, still drive into the region only to load their trucks with the harvest and leave their workers behind, said Eljack. "They only make water-points for their workers ... The situation in Gedaref [State, eastern Sudan] is better, as the farmers are literate and are originally from the area."

Initiatives to build bridges between the rich and subsistence farming communities and share limited agricultural land have now begun.

Eating up valuable land

Mechanised agriculture in Sudan has generally not used fertilisers, crop rotation or the fallow system, which has led to a collapse in per hectare yields. "In Gedaref State, for example, sorghum and sesame yields in 2002 had reportedly dropped by about 70 and 64 percent respectively from 1980 levels in established areas," the UNEP report noted.

Instead of improving yields by investing in fertilisers, the trend has been to clear more land and expand the area under cultivation, said Hanafi, of the Western Sudan Resources Management Programme. "We are now trying to emphasise the vertical expansion of agriculture rather than horizontal; we not only save more trees, we will improve yields."

Farmers practicing mechanised agriculture often abandon land once yields start dropping. According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, millions of hectares are believed to be abandoned, and the resultant desertification is particularly apparent in Khartoum, Kassala and Northern Kordofan states.

"In a country with massive food insecurity and ongoing conflicts over land, such waste of natural resources is tragic, and raises the spectre of the intensification of existing problems," the UNEP report commented.

The way out

Efforts to support small-scale agriculture are relatively new. The World Food Programme 2006/07 Annual Needs and Livelihoods Assessment for the Centre, East, and Three Areas (Abyei, Nuba and Blue Nile), notes that in previously SPLM-held areas, especially Southern Kordofan, access to farmland is often difficult because of unexploded ordnance and mines, and insecurity related to localised conflict.

"As a result, many households were cultivating small plots on the top of hills or on hill slopes. These plots could not be easily expanded due to the limitations of the terrain, while the soils had low fertility," the assessment noted.

Al-Dirdeeri Adam El-Zein, head of the Farmers Union in Northern Kordofan, said they lacked information and access to inputs to improve yields. "We support the efforts to improve small-scale farming - we hope the government will help us."

Hanafi said the Western Sudan Resources Management Programme being implemented in Northern, Southern and Western Kordofan states had set up land committees involving rich and poor farmers and all sectors of the communities, to decide on the use of the land and the type of agriculture to be practised.

"The ecosystems, particularly in North and South Kordofan, are extremely fragile," said SOS Sahel UK's Eljack. "We are trying to build the capacity of the pastoral and the farmers' unions to be able to negotiate their points of view." Rich farmers were also being encouraged to participate in development projects in villages near their farms.


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