|Salah, Sudanese farmer. Photo: Al Jazeera TV|
Dalla Al Baraka, a Saudi conglomerate with an estimated $5 billion in annual revenue, has acquired two million acres of farmland in eastern Sudan, to produce food for export to the Middle Eastern kingdom. While the investors are hoping to wean Saudi Arabia off imports from South America, such agreements have also caused concern among local Sudanese farmers.
Sporadic protests have occurred in Jazira state where much of best land is being bid on by foreign investors. "The farmers are complaining, because the price they are being offered for their land is not fair," Majdi Selim, a local lawyer and political activist told Agence France Press last year. Their concerns are part of a trend that is accelerating around the world according to multiple reports tracked by farmlandgrab.org, a website run by GRAIN, an international NGO.
Sudan, which was divided into two countries in 2011, is expecting a sharp downturn in its export income because most of its oil deposits became part of the new nation of South Sudan. This has served as an impetus for Khartoum to seek other forms of income. Ali Mahmood Abdel-Rasool, the finance and national economy minister, led a delegation to Saudi Arabia in March to seek foreign investment.
Sheikh Saleh Kamel, the founder of Dalla Al Baraka, told the Sudan Tribune that the two million hectares that he has obtained will be considered a “free trade” zone: that is to say his company would neither have to pay taxes nor follow Sudanese laws. He is not the only outside investor - Essa Abdullah Al Ghurair of Al Ghurair Foods in the United Arab Emirates has just leased 100,000 hectares of farmland in Sudan. And Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the chairman of Libya’s ruling National Transitional Council, says this government is also considering investment in Sudanese land.
Local farmers in Sudan are say they have not been consulted on the plans to lease off the country’s land. “The whole process is not clear to me because part of it is the sale of land, part is rent and part is lending,” Salah of the Al Jazira Land Owners Group told Mohamed Vall of Al Jazeera television in an interview about the subject this past January. “Agricultural land is the basic source of living for most people here, so if all the arable land is given to big companies, what are those people going to live on?” (the word “jazeera” means peninsula, and is a common business title)
Others think the new investors can help. “There is vast area of empty fertile (land) with plenty of water. This land has remained empty for hundreds, if not thousands of years and it will remain (that way) It needs mechanization, it needs capital,” Mamoun, Salah’s cousin, who is also a local farmer, told Al Jazeera TV.
Sudan is not the only country to be targeted for export agriculture. Indeed a new “gold rush” on farmland has begun in the Third World, say studies by GRAIN, a global think tank based in Barcelona, the International Land Coalition (ILC), based in Italy, and Oxfam in the UK. ILC and Oxfam have created a ‘Land Matrix’ of deals which suggest that 71 million hectares have been “grabbed” by international investors. Africa accounts for almost half at 34 million hectares, followed by Asia with some 29 million hectares and South America with about 6 million hectares.
These investments or “landgrabs” have fomented anger and even violence, on occasion. In neighboring Ethiopia, Saudi Star, a similar Saudi Arabian project in Gambella province, the extremely fertile southwestern region of the country, was attacked on April 28 evening. Ten people, most of whom were agricultural experts from Pakistan, were allegedly killed at the 10,000 hectare agricultural rice farm owned by the billionaire Al Amoudi.