Sudan: Living on handouts, and exporting food

Even as it receives a billion pounds of free food from international donors, Sudan is growing and selling vast quantities of its own crops to other countries, capitalizing on high global food prices at a time when millions of people in its war-stricken region of Darfur barely have enough to eat.

Here in the bone-dry desert, where desiccated donkey carcasses line the road, huge green fields suddenly materialize: beans, wheat, sorghum, melons, peanuts, pumpkins, eggplant. It is all grown here, part of an ambitious government plan for Sudanese self-sufficiency, creating giant mechanized farms that rise out of the sand like mirages.

But how much of this bonanza is getting back to the hungry Sudanese, like the 2.5 million people driven into camps in Darfur? And why is a country that exports so many of its own crops receiving more free food than anywhere else in the world, especially when the Sudanese government is blamed for creating the crisis in the first place?

African countries that rely on donated food usually cannot produce enough on their own. Somalia, Ethiopia, Niger and Zimbabwe are all recent examples of how war, natural disasters or gross mismanagement can cut deep into food production, pushing millions of people to the brink of starvation.

But here in Sudan, there seem to be plenty of calories to go around. The country is already growing wheat for Saudi Arabia, sorghum for camels in the United Arab Emirates and vine-ripened tomatoes for the Jordanian army. Now the government is plowing $5 billion into new agribusiness projects, many of them to produce food for export.

Take sorghum, a staple of the Sudanese diet, typically eaten in flat, spongy bread. Last year, the U.S. government, as part of its response to the emergency in Darfur, shipped in 283,000 tons of sorghum, at high cost, from as far away as Houston. Oddly enough, that is about the same amount that Sudan exported, according to UN officials. This year, Sudanese companies, including many that are linked to the government in Khartoum, are on track to ship out twice that amount, even as the United Nations is being forced to cut rations to Darfur.

Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College in the United States and an outspoken activist who has written frequently on the Darfur crisis, called this anomaly “one of the least reported and most scandalous features of the Khartoum regime’s domestic policies.” It was emblematic, he said, of the Sudanese government’s strategy to manipulate “national wealth and power to further enrich itself and its cronies, while the marginalized regions of the country suffer from terrible poverty.”

Aid groups gave up long ago on the Sudanese government helping the people of Darfur. After all, the nation’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, has been accused of masterminding genocide there. UN officials have said that if they do not bring food into the region, the government surely will not.

That leaves the United Nations and Western aid groups feeding more than 3 million residents of Darfur. But the lifeline is fraying.

Security is deteriorating. Aid trucks are getting hijacked nearly every day and deliveries are being made less and less frequently. The result: less food and soaring malnutrition rates, particularly among children.

On top of this is the broader problem of trying to find affordable grains on the world market when prices are higher than they have been in decades. UN officials in Sudan say that the fact that they have to import some of the same commodities that Sudan not only produces but exports is a source of constant frustration.

“Sudan could be self-sufficient,” said Kenro Oshidari, the director of the UN World Food Program in Sudan. “It does have the potential to be the breadbasket of Africa.”

Sudanese officials say that is precisely their goal, and they deny that Sudanese agribusiness is being built at the expense of their own people. They reject accusations that they are neglecting far-flung areas like Darfur, much less waging a war of hunger and deprivation against them.

Instead, Sudanese officials say they are simply trying to build up their economy. They say they know what it is like to be vilified, having been squeezed by U.S. sanctions for more than a decade. And it could get worse, with Bashir facing genocide charges at the International Criminal Court in connection with the massacres in Darfur.

“Sanctions are never far from our mind,” said Al-Amin Dafa Allah, chairman of the National Assembly’s agricultural committee. “We’re trying to minimize our reliance on the outside.”

In fact, part of the reason relief agencies bring their own food into Sudan stems from the U.S. policy of giving crops, not money, as foreign aid.

Many European countries, by contrast, just give the World Food Program cash, which can be used to buy food locally. Last year, the program bought 117,000 tons of Sudanese sorghum. UN officials said they would like to buy more, but Sudanese suppliers could make more money with exports.

“We don’t get discounts,” said Emilia Casella, a spokeswoman for the World Food Program.

Sudanese officials say they want to sell more crops to the United Nations, but lost in this discussion about buying and selling food is whether the Sudanese government should be donating food to its own needy people.

For now, Sudanese officials seem more interested in doing business with their new partners in the Middle East. Sudan is the largest country in Africa, nearly 2.5 million square kilometers, or a million square miles. It has 84 million hectares, about 210 million acres, of arable land, with less than a quarter being cultivated. The Sudanese government is striking deals left and right with Arab countries just across the Red Sea: the Arab countries bring the money, the soil scientists and the $200,000 tractors. Sudan supplies the land.

“Our country is small and dry and mountainous,” said Man Shuqwara, the Jordanian director of a Jordanian-run farm in northern Sudan that grows wheat, beans, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, oranges and bananas. “By logic we would come to Sudan.”

That same logic is attracting big money from Saudi Arabia. About an hour’s drive north of the Jordanian farm, near the town of Ed Damer, is a huge new $200 million project to grow wheat in what now looks like a 15-kilometer-wide sandbox. Some of the wheat will stay in Sudan; some will be shipped to Saudi Arabia. A fleet of new John Deere tractors is already lined up for harvest time. A worker on the farm whispered that the tractors had been sneaked into Sudan through Saudi Arabia because of the American trade sanctions.

Sudan’s overall economic strategy is to diversify from oil, which it began exporting in 1999, and to focus more closely on the traditional engine of the country’s economy – agriculture. More than 80 percent of the work force is engaged in raising animals or farming of one sort or another.

“Our sesame oil is the best in the world,” said Al-Amin, the agriculture committee chairman. “And it’s organic!”

The dark side to all this development is displacement. The conflict in Darfur is largely about grazing rights and watering holes – and the government’s brutal counterinsurgency policies in response to an armed rebellion.

And development in Sudan often means uprooting other rural subsistence farmers for large-scale commercial projects, said Alex de Waal, a Sudan scholar at the Social Science Research Council in New York.

“Smallholder food production goes down, commercial food production goes up, and food relief serves as a subsidy to this transformation, keeping the displaced alive,” he said.

The Sudanese government is blamed for running many of the displaced people in Darfur off their farms, making them reliant on handouts. Still, the government has been slow to feed them.

The last time the government gave the World Food Program any food for Darfur was in 2006. It was 22,000 tons of Sudanese-grown sorghum, a fraction of what the people needed, UN officials said, and some of the grain was rancid and infested with weevils
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