South Sudan: the Scramble for Land

On July 9th, 2011 South Sudan became Africa’s 54th nation, after the vast majority of its people voted for secession from the North. The ink has barely dried on the documents formalizing South Sudan’s self-determination, but the scramble for its land is already in full swing. Over the last two years, researchers estimate that approximately 10% of Africa’s most fertile land in over 20 countries, has fallen into the hands of foreign companies and speculators seeking to exploit its resources.  South Sudan has simply become one of the latest investment frontiers for foreign speculators, prompted in large part by its newly found independence.

The struggle for Southern Sudan’s independence began in 1955 and cost the lives of millions, displacing many more. At the center of this struggle for independence was the desire for the people of South Sudan to control and benefit from their own resources and land. Yet according to a report released by the Oakland Institute earlier this year, 9% of South Sudanese land has already been bought or rather leased to foreign companies and governments.

The irony of the situation is astounding and deeply troubling. According to a Norwegian People’s Aid report authored by David Deng, over “28 foreign and domestic investments are planned or underway across the ten states of Southern Sudan totaling 2.64 million hectares of land in the agriculture, forestry and bio-fuel sectors alone.”  The total land area is larger than the entire country of Rwanda. The investors include several North American, British, Egyptian, South African and Emirati companies.

A brief look at U.S. and European involvement in Sudan’s peace process can shed light on the current scramble for land. It appears the same governments – and the corporations affiliated with them – who took an interest in Sudan’s peace negotiations over a decade ago, are now involved in acquiring some of the South’s most fertile, oil and mineral-rich regions. Before the discovery and flow of oil in Sudan beginning in 1999, the Sudanese peace process was dominated by neighboring African countries. The Clinton Administration was in fact criticized by Jimmy Carter for previously undermining the Sudanese peace process by militarily supporting Southern Sudanese rebels in an effort to destabilize and overthrow the Northern regime.

Once it became clear that 80% of Sudan’s oil was located in the South, the calculus for U.S. and European oil interests and policy shifted towards supporting a peace process which would likely lead to the South’s secession. Clinton-era sanctions, had previously made Sudan’s oil, mineral and agricultural sectors off limits to North American and European investors. As a result, these sectors were dominated by Chinese, Malaysian and Indian companies. With the emergence of an independent South Sudan comes an opportunity for U.S., Canadian and European companies to now invest in these sectors.

The fragility of South Sudan’s transitional period and the legal ambiguity that surrounds it is a big draw for investors. A recent Rolling Stone article  on foreign landholders in Africa appropriately refers to them as ‘Capitalists of Chaos.’ Phil Heilberg, who was interviewed for the article and now owns over 800,000 hectares of land in South Sudan through the New York based Jarch Management group speaks openly about his motivation to invest in the region. “I saw the Soviet Union split up,” he recalls. “Saw it up close. I realized there was a lot of money to be made in breakups, and I vowed that the next time I’d be on the inside.” “The world is like the universe – ever expanding,” he adds. “I focus on the pressure points.”

The Oakland Institute recently released a land deal brief which details one of the biggest land deals in South Sudan, which was negotiated between the Texas-based firm Nile Trade and Development and the local Mukaya Payam Cooperative. “The 49-year lease of 400,000 hectares of central Equatoria for around $25,000 allows the company to exploit all natural resources including oil, timber and minerals.”  According to the brief, the deal was signed without the knowledge or input of the community living on the leased land. The Mukaya Payam cooperative is in fact said to be fictitious.  Members of the affected community have put pressure on their government to annul the agreement, which is currently under scrutiny. But other communities across the region continue to be at risk of dispossession because the Southern Sudanese government has yet to establish land and mining laws that would protect the nascent nation from foreign resource exploitation. In addition, no laws have been created to ensure that the communities affected by land acquisitions and foreign investments are protected from imminent displacement and loss of livelihoods.

An upsurge of post-referendum clashes in April, has already led to the displacement of hundreds, in areas leased to Jarch Management. According to a Sudan Tribune article “hundreds of civilians were displaced in Mayom County as a result of clashes between the South Sudan army (SPLA) and militia loyal to Peter Gatdet,”  who incidentally also serves on the board of Jarch Management. Moreover, the areas designated for Nile Trade and Development and Jarch Management have populations of approximately 90,000 and 120,000 respectively, largely dependent on land for survival.  According to the Norwegian People’s Aid Report: ‘Even if companies were to invest in a manner that does not require resettlement of local communities, such extensive development would still significantly affect patterns of land access and use for tens, or even hundreds of thousands of people…’

It becomes clear from these examples that some foreign interests have never been committed to true self-determination for the people of South Sudan. Instead, they supported secession in order to clear the way for resource exploitation. While investors are needed to help South Sudan recover from decades of war, they must operate within a legal framework, which ensures that its citizens will benefit from their country’s resource wealth. Without such a framework, the scramble for land and resources will continue unhindered, with potentially devastating effects on the new nation’s most vulnerable communities.

Nisrin Elamin is a Sudanese educator and activist living in New York City. She blogs at