Demystifying State and Property Rights on Land
In the Sudanese context of prolonged conflict, mobility of pastoral groups into the transitional areas such as South Kordofan and Blue Nile and the drive for compensation for the dispossession of lands where petroleum is found, rural land is being gradually and consistently transformed from communal use to private possession. The lack of a land tenure system and the absence of cadastral registration exacerbate the problem. The movement towards privatization of land has been one of a slow pace towards commoditization in spite of the prevailing customary norms and traditional practices.
Competition over access to shrinking land and natural resources has increasingly become the prime mover of disputes and conflicts in the transitional areas. Land is set to become a scarce commodity due to a combination of rapid population increase and the demands made on land access by oil exploration and commercial farming. Issues such as desertification, land degradation, loss of biological diversity and deforestation will have negative impact on sustained income generation and on Sudan’s future prospects.
It follows logically that a review of government policies on land and natural resources is of prime importance to consolidate peace.
A comprehensive mapping of land and natural resources in the transitional areas is necessary. At present there is no community asset mapping in the targeted areas. The fluid situation of mechanisms and statutory legislation, and sometimes contradictory customary practices among ethnic and tribal groups, on natural resources management allow for serious gaps and deficiencies which raised the danger of the re-emergence of disputes that might become violent conflicts.
One result of the war is that the national economy has been left in shambles. Primary production sectors, the agricultural and agro-pastoral economy of the transitional areas, have been destroyed. In addition, a sub-culture of violence, animosity, mistrust and intolerance has been precipitated. A corollary to this tribalist attitude is the fuelling of social inequality and ideologies of exclusion and discrimination which undermines the authority and legitimacy of the national state. All of these symptoms have been reflected in conflicts over land and natural resources.
Land is a natural right. Access to water points, grazing rights, forest products and wild life are associated with tribally guaranteed and protected rights. As an economic asset, in the rural economy and society, land is not only a factor of production but also a social relation of production mainly because rights of access to it are predetermined by membership in a family, lineage, clan and a prevailing tribal structure. Customary norms and practices preserved access to land in the following manner:
1. Membership in a tribal group is the basic provision for acquiring usufruct rights;
2. There is no formal land registration
3. Long absence from ones land, or non-cultivation for prolonged periods, does not negate eligibility to ancestral land. It may give other relatives, who enjoy ancestral rights, chance to cultivate the land during the absence of the acknowledged "owner".
4. Land remains within the family, lineage, and cannot be sold. The individual cannot be said to have sole title to it.
5. The village headman, chief of tribal section, and/or paramount chief have the power to allocate land to newcomers on the basis of commonly known terms of usufruct.
6. Any or all the aforementioned local community leaders may, at the relevant level, adjudicate a dispute over land.
7. Pastoralists are recognized in the transitional areas as "neighbors" entitled to grazing rights, forest resources and wildlife resources without rights of claim to "ownership" of land. This is a major issue of contention between pastoralists, Nuba, Dinka Ngok as well as tribes of Funj origins. This has multiple implications for social relations related to land.
According to the survey undertaken by the author in the transitional areas in 2006, on which this essay is based, livelihoods in South Kordofan and Blue Nile remain overwhelmingly based on agricultural production. Agriculture contributes 63% of annual income of village communities resident in the rural areas. The income structure is comprised of 38.3% from cropping activities and forest products, 9% from livestock raising; and 11.4 % from wage work in agriculture-related activities. Three main forms of land use are practiced, namely: cultivated land under traditional rain-fed farming, forest and woodland, as well as nomadic and transhumant grazing and livestock raising. As traditional farming depends mainly on family household labor and hand tools, the average area farmed by nuclear households is usually small, about 3-5 feddans (about 3-5 acres). Agriculture has structural linkages to other economic activities, particularly local private business and retail trading, which generate a further 21% of total income. Six out of the ten most important sources of annual income depend on agriculture, namely: field crops, forest products, wage work in the village community, fruits and vegetables, and the sale of livestock and poultry. Only three sources of income (out of sixteen) are not immediately anchored in the local agro-based economy, namely: salaries and pensions (the largest at 10%), remittances from relatives, and gifts and donations from relief agencies (6%).
In line with development thinking in the 1970s, agencies such as the World Bank and USAID encouraged Sudan to undertake ambitious programs to transform the agricultural sector, including through large-scale investments in irrigated areas and the introduction of extensive tractorization in rainfed areas, including South Kordofan and the Blue Nile. It is now common place to say that those initiatives failed mainly due to the negative impact on the environment and the deceleration of agricultural production levels that had been anticipated. From the perspective of the Sudan government such programs required a radical transformation of existing patterns of tenure and resource use. It passed the necessary land laws that provide the state with ownership of all unregistered land.
In line with this history and statutory land law, the Sudan government claims that "land belongs to the state", as opposed to the SPLM position which says, "land belongs to the local community." This fundamental tension remains unresolved in the administration and legal and constitutional status of South Kordofan and Blue Nile. If peace is to prevail, this issue must be resolved to the satisfaction of the residents of the transitional areas in the near future.
Resolution of the land issue requires the participation of all stakeholders at the various levels of government and society. One set of stakeholders includes the governors of South Kordofan and Blue Nile during the transitional period and officials in State governments. A second group consists of individuals with large-scale agricultural investments and the organizations that represent their interests (including the General Farmers’ Union and the Federation of Private Agricultural Companies). A third category encompasses the Federation of Pastoralists and pastoral tribal leaders. A final set is rural peasant settled cultivators. These different stakeholder groups have contrasting attitudes to land tenure. The politically dominant groups are unwilling to recognize full rights of access of others to land "ownership." Local people have low levels of identification with the state and little trust in it and its institutions, but historically there have been harmonious relations between settled groups and transhumant pastoralists.
The former groups (in government and organized commercial interests) have the highest organizational capabilities and therefore shape public policies and programs to their advantage. Local people, both settled and pastoralist, especially the poorest, are unable to shape policies. It will be a complicated technical task and political challenge to translate the SPLM commitment to the principle that land belongs to the community into a reality. Building participatory constituencies that can ensure their representation in making land policy requires time, resources and political commitment.