Unchecked foreign investment in Sudan endangers locals, says new report

A new report from the left-leaning Norwegian People's Aid group highlights concerns in South Sudan as foreign investors buy up fertile farmland and potentially lucrative territory.

International companies and investors are snatching up much of the most fertile farmland and lucrative territory in what will soon be the world’s newest nation, endangering food security and future livelihoods for local populations, according to a report released last week.

Juba, the capital of war-torn, underdeveloped, and oil-rich South Sudan already has an air of the Wild West. Many foreigners live relatively indulgently as the majority of locals scrape by, unsure what the next day will bring in a city where army-led demolitions of markets and residential neighborhoods and brutality at the hands of plainclothes security agents are everyday occurrences.

The extent of foreign investment and business interest outside the capital, however, is not as well known. But a new report by Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) – the Norwegian labor movement's humanitarian organization – sheds light on a spate of recent investments made possible due to a dearth of land use policies and scant oversight mechanisms.

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The report, available here, found that between early 2007 and late 2010, “foreign interests have sought or acquired a total of 2.64 million hectares of land” for agriculture, forestry, and biofuel projects. The total land area is equivalent to a territory larger than Rwanda.

Given the history of land acquisition by force and subsequent brutal displacement of whole villages and communities during Sudan’s long civil war, the prospect of further potentially unlawful land seizure is raising concerns here.

The report puts the case of Sudan – which it calls one of the “global ‘hotspots’ for large-scale land acquisitions” – in the context of a trend across the African continent of increasing foreign interest in farmland, the merits and problems of which have been hotly debated by proponents and critics in recent years.

In the case of South Sudan, which, despite the “unpredictability of the current transitional period,” has experienced “a surprising number of large-scale land-based investments” in recent years, the report finds that:

[the] influx of investment could provide a sorely needed source of development for the region. However, with the nascent state of government, a society still reeling from years of conflict, and the legal ambiguity of the transitional period, there is also a danger that this influx of investment, if left unchecked, may serve to undermine livelihoods.

Whether international actors will be compelled toward responsible action that promotes the development – rather than the mere exploitation – of South Sudan will be something to watch.

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