South Sudan recently celebrated its first birthday as a new nation, but many of its citizens reside far from their homes, struggling to carve out a living in displacement camps. Here, we talk with agricultural consultant Robin Denney, who worked with the Episcopal Church of Sudan from 2008-2011 to help community leaders and displaced farmers – some of them micro-entrepreneurs – make the most of the limited resources around them. Please check back next week for Part 2 of our conversation.
Sudan has a long history of violence. There's the civil war, of course, which led to South Sudan declaring its independence. There's also tribal violence and the presence of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). How much displacement did you see during your time in South Sudan?
I saw a lot of it because I travelled to 25 of the 26 dioceses when I was in South Sudan. In most dioceses, there was a displacement camp that we visited. The bishops would always take us there. Most of the displacement that I saw was due to the LRA activities in Western Equatoria. And the amount of people they displaced was really amazing – 400,000 since 2008.
Can you explain how displacement happens in the case of the LRA?
The LRA is a terrorist organization. They don't just exist for their own profit or some political goal; they are trying to terrorize and displace as many people as possible. So all of their attacks are designed to cause maximum impact. They attack before harvest and drive people off of their farms so they can't harvest. They burn the stores of food so that after people flee from their houses they can't go back and get their food. They [either] take it for themselves or destroy it. In [the southwestern town of] Ezo, the farmers who had managed to plant something before they fled tried to go back to harvest those crops. The LRA knew it was harvest time, so they were lurking in the area. And all they had to do was kill one person who had gone to collect their crops and then everyone knew that it was not safe – and that they had to abandon their crops. (In the photo: A boy plays in an Ezo UN Refugee camp for displaced Congolese people fleeing the LRA.)
So in Ezo, the people were displaced relatively close to their original homes. Is this the case with other communities?
There's basically a few different kinds of displacement. One is localized – you're still pretty close to where you came from. You don't have any money or means to be able to travel any further than that. And to travel would be dangerous, so you stay together in groups.
There's also displacement camps. They are usually further away from the actual insecurity. For example, some people traveled as far as Yambio, where a large amount of land has been set aside for displaced people resettlement. But it wasn't really a camp, because they weren't being provided for. The people were having to provide for themselves. But because they were localized in one place, then organizations and the church were trying to find support.
Another kind of displacement was in Maridi, which is farther east. The LRA would attack out and then retreat back to the border, where they had more security. But it was only a few times that they attacked as far as Maridi. So many people who fled the LRA went as far as that. In those places, the displaced people settled between the houses of the people who lived there. So basically, the local people opened up their land and allowed the displaced people to settle among them. The people who actually lived there lost some of their farmland because the displaced were staying on it.
And some went even further south than Maridi?
Once we got as far as Lainya, there were lots of people displaced there. The LRA hadn't attacked that far away, but people were trying to flee outside the area of attack to find a secure place. The camps were much more settled because they had travelled so far and it wasn't likely they were going to be able to travel back anytime soon. And they were more interested in really settling. There were whole communities that looked more like small towns. They were trying to settle and farm, and over time they built more permanent huts.
So how did your seminars and talks help the church, community leaders and farmers deal with the stresses that displacement puts on farming?
The nature of displacement means that really there wasn't quite enough space. The further you got away from the insecurity, the more land was available. But because you have thousands of people [on the move at one time] – 3,000 to 10,000 – when you move that many people into an area, there can't be enough land. Part of what we were doing was teaching techniques that could be utilized without expending more money – techniques that just basically require spending more energy and time that would increase your yield. For example, by planting in lines, we can increase yield by 30 percent. I don't have hard numbers on mulching but I imagine that mulching increases yield significantly as well. Depending on what the land was before and after, you could double your yield just by adjusting the way that you farm.
That's fascinating. Are there any other principles that you like to highlight at your seminars?
Those were the two methods that make the biggest impact. The other thing would be increasing the nutritional value of the plants you are farming. So with the moringa tree, for example, you can process the leaves into a protein powder that has many vitamins. If you just add that to your rations, even if you don't have quite enough food, that fills in what's lacking. [The tree] is quite prevalent in East Africa. We could do a whole other conversation just on moringa trees.
Check back next week for Part 2 of our conversation.