Adaptation and Devastation: Markets and Livelihoods
Two long-time specialists on Darfur, Margie Buchanan-Smith and Abduljabbar Fadul, recently published a superb report on trade and livelihoods during the conflict in Darfur. The title makes the key point: there has been both devastation and adaptation. The famous resilience and entrepreneurial spirit of Darfurian traders has been tested to the limit by the war. A number have gone out of business. Others have survived, some have even prospered, for example in the parallel economy.
Marketing in a number of rural areas has collapsed entirely. Some formerly-thriving markets, such as Mellit–which was the hub for the trans-desert trade with Libya–are now a shadow of their former selves. Other markets have grown, such as the major urban markets in Nyala and al Fashir, and in rebel-held areas which are calm and where people can move relatively freely, such as Kulkul in Mellit locality.
The report shows that international food aid has become important to livelihoods in Darfur. Not only has food aid sustained the population of the camps, but it has also kept food prices low in the major urban centers and has kept traders in business. By contrast, other cash crops such as tobacco have suffered major downturns. The livestock trade, which once sustained a large part of Darfur’s population, has contracted significantly. One example which illustrates the difficulties faced by cattle traders is the fact that taxes and levies, which have to be paid at both official and unofficial checkpoints, consume about a third of traders’ outlays when moving between Nyala and al Fashir. Meanwhile, there are significant new commercial sectors, including timber (with the collapse of forest management) and stolen goods, such as vehicles.
What the evidence shows is not a story of collapse so much as a picture of change and contraction. Darfur’s markets have adapted to the devastation.
Notably, in the context of the current controversy over the nature of Darfur’s IDP camps, Buchanan-Smith and Abduljabbar provide an account of how markets function in the larger camps. Because of the importance of markets to the livelihoods of IDPs, and because government officials cannot get access to these camps for the purpose of regulating and taxing the markets, the IDP camps have become ‘tax havens’. On page 21, they write:
This is most extreme in the case of Kalma camp, Darfur’s biggest IDP camp with an estimated population of 92,000. The market in Kalma camp stretches for over a kilometre. Markets in IDP camps are a classic case of the shadow economy where significant trade is happening beyond the control and reach of government. The IDP camp markets appear to be operating under varying regimes. In some of them the camp sheikhs are managing the market. In Zamzam outside Al Fashir and in Tawila and Shangil Tobay camps, the Sudan Liberation Army … controls the market and imposes its own taxes.
In effect, many IDP camps have become tax havens and no longer only simply serve IDPs. Some traders serving the urban population prefer to bring their goods to avoid paying taxes on entering towns. Truck drivers trading in charcoal, for instance, choose to offload in Zamzam market to avoid paying Forestry National Corporation taxes. IDPs from the camp, especially women, then transport the charcoal into Al Fashir by donkey. Whereas there used to be one shop in Zamzam selling charcoal before the conflict there are now more than 25. The case of livestock is particularly interesting… livestock traders are bringing their animals for slaughter in the camps rather than to the towns to avoid taxation…. As a result in both Abu Shouk and Kalma camps the price of meat is markedly lower than in Al Fashir and Nyala towns. Many of the town people thus travel to the camps for cheap supplies. There are also reports that some of the IDP camp markets are being used to market other stolen commodities such as spare parts from stolen vehicles. This is a clear example of the shadow or parallel economy interacting with the war economy.
The report as a whole is full of fascinating and important information about how Darfur’s trading system has fared under the conditions of conflict. Profit margins have been squeezed, some traders have gone bankrupt, and the areas of growth have been associated with the shadow and war economies and relief supplies. In the medium and long-term, Darfur’s markets will undoubtedly be a more important factor than relief programs in the survival and livelihoods of the Darfurian people, and it is crucial that they are studied, understood and supported.