Sheng DA firm, a Chinese firm in Gumbo, Rajaf Payam along the River Nile.

In South Sudan, a young country mired in a decades-long conflict, the scramble for land along River Nile by foreign investors has seen swaths and stretches of hectares of fertile communal lands being allocated without the due involvement of local communities. Though renewed conflict in 2016 drove many investors away, some have come positively to help grow food to ease the country’s hunger crisis.

The Land Matrix database has tracked about 2.6 million hectares of land grabbed in South Sudan since 2006, with another 1.5 million hectares of intended deals.

Land Deals in South Sudan

A Flourish data visualisation

Most of this land was allocated to 11 transnational deals, with companies from the UAE, Sudan, Norway, UK, Saudi Arabia and Egypt acquiring vast swaths of land for food crops, timber production, carbon sequestration and tourism.

Until the 2016 civil war, foreign investors such as ones from the United States, United Kingdom and some Arab countries owned about 10 percent of the country’s land for extracting resources, oil mining and agricultural production, according to the Norwegian People’s Aid-South Sudan.

The land acquisitions were largely in the greater Equatoria region and some parts of Bah er Ghazel region where thousands have been displaced by the renewed conflict in July 2017.

Massive land grab in these regions were focused on resource extraction, oil mining and agricultural production, RT News reported.

Along the Nile River on Gumbo to Rajaf Road, about 10 kilometers south of Juba city, a running row of signposts with many in Chinese language indicate how far and wide investors have come for a stake of these prime Nile-irrigated lands.

Forty-eight-year-old Paulina Wani, a Bari by tribe, decried land grabbing in her ancestral land. The mother of seven said the stretch of land between Gumbo and Rajaf belonged to the Bari community, but individuals have been pushing them out since conflict in the 1980s.

“During the 1983 Anyanya 1 warfare, some people came here to claim were hosting rebels here, so they literally ran over this village. Some of us were displaced by raging perennial floods up the river”Paulina Wani, Resident from Bari Tribe

It was at this time that some politicians and multinational companies started targeting fertile land along River Nile, she said.

“Can you believe they have grabbed even the small highlands in the river? Those small 10 by 10 feet patches you see there have their owners,” Wani said as she pointed at the tiny and rocky islands.

Wani, who said her grandfather owned swaths of land, said today she has been left only with a very small portion of land to host her family and do some small-scale farming.

Pauline Wani, a resident of Gumbo, Rajaf

Pushed by the unending land pressures, the River Nile has been forced to redefine its course. The Nile River’s rugged banks are evidence that it is struggling to breathe and enjoy its once good health.

Some South Sudanese communities have successfully fought back against unfair land grabs. A $25,000 agreement between a U.S. Texas-based firm, Nile Trading and Development, that gave the company sweeping rights over a 600,0000-hectare area of land in central South Sudan was eventually cancelled due to community protest. The farm would have displaced more than 600 households, and the local community was not consulted in the leasing process.

Much of the struggle over land arises from a lack of clear land laws and processes after South Sudan gained independence from northern Sudan in 2011, according to Moses Maal, the Acting Director General at the South Sudan’s Ministry of Lands.

Currently the country relies on the pre-independence 2009 Land Act while each state has its own land policies, laws and regulations. Though the government is formulating a new nation-wide land act, a draft Land Policy document has lain in the assembly awaiting approval from Parliament for five years.

Easing food scarcity through attracting commercial farmers

To some, South Sudan is in dire need of foreign investment. Over 7.1 million people – more than half the population of South Sudan – are at risk of starvation, due to an economic crisis caused by the civil war as well as drought in recent years.

About 1.2 million tons of food is needed to feed three meals a day to every South Sudanese, but in 2018, the country produced only 404,109 tons of food, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

Amount of Food Produced Versus Amount of Food Required in South Sudan

A Flourish data visualisation

The government is thus now encouraging investments in hope that the foreign companies will help ease this food scarcity crisis, said Dr. Loro George Leju Lugor, the Director General of Agriculture Production and Extension Services.

When conflict spiked in 2016, many large-scale international agricultural companies actually left the country, leaving their farms idle. Drought and civil conflict have further displaced most people from the food producing towns of Yei in Central Equatoria, Yambio in Western Equatoria and Torit and Magwi in Eastern Equatoria.

“As we speak, three quarters of the country is going to be hit by famine because we have less food production. We don’t have farm under irrigation now, no, no commercial farm but we used to have them before the 2016 war,” said Dr. Loro George Leju Lugor, the Director General of Agriculture Production and Extension Services.

The government’s 2014 Drought and Flood Vision Comprehensive Agriculture Master Planenvisions large-scale commercial production of food through local and foreign investors. The government plans to gazette land into agricultural areas, grazing lands for cattle and national forest reserves, as well as rehabilitate stalled farming machines that have lain abandoned since the war. 

‘Land Grabs?’ Not all bad

On the margins of society, almost ignored, there are land deals that have empowered local communities to fight hunger and develop their communities. One of these investments is the Israeli company Green Horizon, which was contracted by the government in 2015 to help fix the gap in food production. 

According to local leaders, this foreign agricultural project is helping alleviate poverty and improve livelihoods through training local farmers and producing food for both local and international markets. 

Jo-Anne Dorrington (R) Green Horizon project’s Chief Operations Officer (COO) in a 
banana plantation at the New Land Farm Photo: David Mono Danga)

The project was allocated 500 hectares of land in Jebel Ladu, 37 kilometres in the outskirts of Juba city.  It runs modern farms in Juba and Jebel Ladu in Central Equatoria State, Bor Jonglei State, Renk Upper Nile, and Torit, Eastern Equatoria State.

It also has Community Commercial Farming Projects, which empower local farmers to increase production of crops on a large scale by giving them certified seeds, equipment, fertilizers and technical guidance, with farmers expected to give a percentage back to Green Horizon after selling the output. 

The project has also been celebrated for introducing modern farming technologies to the country, including pivot and drip irrigation systems. 

The company produces about one tenth of the total production of food in the country, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

Young Farmer in Luri Surre Village, Northern Bari Payam – Central Equatoria State

Beyond benefits to the national economy, the company also has a good relationship with the local community, residents said.

Catharina Poni, a mother of six, said Green Horizon provides scholastic materials to pupils of Gwerekek Primary School the only school in the area and where her grandchildren study.

The 58-year-old said whenever the company harvests, the community is given part of the harvest – something she said is “unheard of” with most companies.

Vita Samuel, a farmer in the community, said the company has provided farming tools and seeds to local residents, among other benefits.

“During funerals and parties, Green Horizon also provides clean drinking water, onions and some necessities like transporting to the city. It’s not easy to get transportation to the city from this village,” he added. 

“The greatest benefit that Green Horizon has offered to us is the employment of the youths of Jebel Ladu. They have brought jobs closer to the people of this land,” Vita noted. 

Sucked Dry; A Summary

An Investigation By: 

Story, Photos and Videos by: Fredrick Mugira and Annika McGinnis in Uganda, Geoffrey Kamadi in Kenya, Nada Arafat and Saker El Nour in Egypt,

Ayele Addis Ambelu in Ethiopia, Paul Jimbo and David Mano-Danga in South Sudan

Visit the Sucked Dry project hosted by Pulitzer center at – Sucked Dry

Data Research: Tricia GovindasamyAngela Harding

Data Visualisations: Chrispine OdhiamboTricia Govindasamy and Sakina Salem

Principal Investigators and Editors: Annika McGinnisFredrick Mugira and Jacopo Ottaviani

Design: Chrispine OdhiamboSakina Salem and Emma Kisa

Produced in partnership with: Code For AfricaInfoNileAfrican Network of Centres for Investigative Reporting (ANCIR) and IHE Delft Partnership Programme for Water and Development

This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting