by David Deng
David Deng is Research Director for the South Sudan Law Society. These observations were originally presented at “Turning Point: What future for people and resources? A panel on the trends shaping rural lands and lives” on February 1, 2012 at The Royal Society of London.
The new report by Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) paints a vivid picture of a world in flux and the various struggles that are emerging over wealth, power, and natural resources. I’d like to pick up on a couple of these themes and flesh them out a bit with examples from South Sudan, where I’ve worked for the past few years on several projects relating to land rights. Most recently, my work has touched on the surge in land-based investment after the 2005 peace agreement, which brought to an end the 22-year civil war between north and south in Sudan.
Investment and conflict
The first issue that I’d like to touch on is the complex relationship between investment and conflict in resource-rich states. I think it is fairly clear to us all that poorly planned investments can contribute to conflict, particularly in fragile, post-conflict states; but what is perhaps a little less obvious is how conflict can actually serve to attract certain types of investment.
Let me explain. Struggles over land and natural resources were among the root causes of the civil war in South Sudan. Foreign investments during this period often contributed to the violence. Oil companies colluded with the government in Khartoum to forcibly displace local populations from oil producing areas, in order to make the land available for oil exploration. Armed groups in South Sudan used local monopolies of violence to control cross-border trade in precious woods.
And in the Nuba Mountains along the border between north and south, where today, we hear reports of mass killings and hundreds of thousands of people at risk of conflict induced-famine, the government expropriated community lands and gave them to foreign and domestic elites in order to establish large-scale mechanized farms. The disregard that Khartoum showed for their community lands caused many Nuba to join the liberation movement in the south. What followed was a long and costly civil war that eventually resulted in the secession of South Sudan.
But with its newfound independence, South Sudan finds itself in a harsh new world. It has a population of only 8 or 9 million, spread across a land area more than twice the size of the UK, considerable supplies of oil and minerals, fertile land and water; all this makes South Sudan an attractive prize in a resource-strapped world.
by Rhodri C. Williams
In a post late last month, I delved into the problem of ‘public/state land’ and the opportunity that this overwhelmingly post-colonial tenure form presents for state predation in a context of spiraling commodity prices. In taking on such a broad and complicated topic, I am afraid I may have oversimplified things. Toward the end of the piece, I noted Shaun Williams’ suggestion (in an earlier TN post) that focusing on effective management of urban public land was likely to be both more feasible and more rewarding than dealing with customary tenure issues for low capacity governments interested in reforming their land systems. Shaun’s insight on the relative tractability of public land issues was reinforced by Erica Harper’s previous description of the difficulties inherent in implementing – or even generalizing about – reform of customary law systems.
All that said, having pushed the ‘publish’ button, I reflected on the fact that this dichotomy between state and customary tenure regimes might be a bit too pat, at least as a global generalization. After all, Shaun’s comments were focused on urban land and the particular context of the Solomon Islands. Was it not actually the case that in rural contexts, in particular, the problem was precisely that the two categories overlapped, with both the state and customary communities essentially ignoring each other’s mutually exclusive claims to the same land until they came into direct conflict? By and large, this seems to be the issue, with the maintenance of public land regimes allowing inchoate colonial era mass-expropriations to be projected into the twenty-first century with a veneer of legality.
This sense of things got a significant boost with the launch last week of a new report – Turning Point: What future for forest peoples and resources in the emerging world order? – by the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI). As indicated in the launch webpage, RRI has traditionally been concerned primarily with forest tenure. However, this report, as well as an accompanying set of issue briefs by Liz Alden Wily, reflect the fact that forest land now faces many of the same pressures as other rural land, and that the tenure rights of forest dwellers are no more secure than those of smallholders anywhere. The basic issues at stake are set out starkly in the RRI’s press release on the report:
In presenting the results of an analysis of tenure rights in 35 African countries, by international land rights specialist Liz Alden Wily, [RRI Global Programs Head Jeffrey] Hatcher noted that despite the clear potential for bloodshed, “local land rights are being repeatedly and tragically ignored during an astonishing buying spree across Africa.” Alden Wily’s review found that the majority of 1.4 billion hectares of rural land, including forests, rangelands or marshlands, are claimed by states, but held in common by communities, affecting “a minimum” of 428 million of the rural poor in sub-Saharan Africa. “Every corner of every state has a customary owner,” Alden Wily concluded.
The launch of the RRI report was accompanied by a panel discussion describing the effect of large-scale land investments and concessions in a number of settings. One of these was South Sudan, and it is a pleasure to announce that the corresponding observations, by David Deng, will be reproduced in the form of a guest posting on TN tomorrow.
Those familiar with the increasingly urgent debates surrounding the ‘global land rush’ will be aware that Mr. Deng authored a report published last March by Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) indicating that as much as nine percent of South Sudan’s territory – an area larger than Rwanda – may have been ‘spoken for’ before the country came into formal existence. Mr. Deng was also one of the contributors to a massive study on transnational land deals and human rights undertaken by the NYU Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ) in support of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. He is now Research Director for the South Sudan Law Society.