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Investment-related conflict in South Sudan: contested rights and the power of information

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.

Introduction

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.

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