South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir arrived in Washington DC Dec. 14 to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, World Bank president Robert Zoellick and international investors at a two-day conference. Simultaneously, California-based Oakland Institute issued a report, based on on-the-ground-research, warning of a scramble for the new nation’s land as foreign agribusiness interests move in. “As South Sudan opens for business, foreign companies are flocking to invest in the new country and buy up land,” said David Deng, author of the report looking at land deals covering an estimated 5.15 million hectares. ” For a school, a health centre, some vague promises of employment opportunities, or a couple of thousand dollars in annual lease payments, companies are given long-term leasehold rights of up to 99 years, often without the knowledge of the local populations living on the land.”
Land deals recently sealed in newly-independent South Sudan “threaten to undermine the land rights of rural communities, increase food insecurity, entrench poverty, and skew development patterns” in the resource-rich but poor nation, the report says.
Jeremiah Swaka, undersecretary at the Ministry of Justice, says the government is aware that a 2009 Land Act—passed in a hurry without provisions to clarify land tenure and usage—has allowed foreign companies to buy up the country’s fertile and largely uncultivated land. “It was like putting the cart before the horse,” he told the UN news agency IRIN. Swaka said land deals were another case of “hit and run” by foreigners wanting to exploit the country’s wealth, and cannot properly be called “investment.”
Texas-based NTD’s 2008 deal to lease up to a million hectares of land to produce biofuels has been described as “South Sudan’s largest land grab.” And other resource interests may be eyeing the lands in question. “Evidence suggests that the companies are using the agro-forestry venture as a means of advancing their oil, gas, and mining interests in South Sudan,” the Oakland Institut report said of NTD’s 49-year lease signed with an allegedly fictitious cooperative in a densely populated area. (The Guardian, Dec. 14; IRIN, Dec. 12; Pambazuka News, Dec. 8 viia AllAfrica)