By Steve Fake
Though much of the attention on land grabs in Africa has focused on Asian and Middle Eastern buyers, the Oakland Institute has been revealing that U.S.-based institutions are active as well. This is particularly true of South Sudan, where “US investors are intimately involved” in land dealing.
Earlier this summer the Oakland Institute discovered that one of the largest land deals in the new South Sudan was made by a Texas-based firm. It was even more underhanded than might be expected. The deal would have granted the company a 49-year lease on the 600,000 hectares – an area larger in size than the state of Rhode Island – and full resource exploitation rights, for a mere $25,000. The communities residing on the land in question weren’t even aware of the deal being made on their homeland. While only starry-eyed naïfs would expect that the people living on the land affected would receive more than cursory consultations, even the cynic might anticipate that the communities would at least be informed of “the unfair and exploitive land investment deal of the Texas-based Nile Trading & Development, Inc. (NTD).” Such expectations would be misplaced. The Dallas company secretly bargained the land rights with three local elites: a chief, a judge, and a government official (surely they must walk into a bar in the service of some joke). The lessor in the deal is a “fictitious cooperative” of “a group of influential natives from Mukaya Payam and the neighboring payams (districts)…The influential natives leased out the land behind the backs of the entire community.”
The Dallas-based company (how many sinister, Wild West capitalist ventures in Africa originate out of Texas?) that sought to perform an end-run around local residents has links to Howard Eugene Douglas, an official in the Reagan Administration (who did a stint working under the odious Alexander Haig). The company is part of a cluster of firms and individuals in Texas concentrated on exploiting the resources of South Sudan.
The NTD’s land speculation deal would have, at a minimum, “significantly affect[ed] patterns of land access and use for tens, or even hundreds of thousands of people.”
Happily however, once the community of Mukaya Payam, in southern South Sudan, learned of the deal, they protested and quickly emerged victorious. The President of the Republic of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, quickly acceded to their demands.
Anuradha Mittal, of the Oakland Institute, commented, “This is a rare example of a community viewed by investors as near-squatters and essentially dispensable who are getting their voices heard by the highest officials in government. It is an important democratic action in South Sudan.”
The nixed deal is part of a larger trend. As The Times (UK) reported on the eve of South Sudan’s formal independence, investors “have already bought up nearly a tenth of the new nation in a series of huge land deals that researchers say cheat the nacent (sic) nation of its birthright” (Tristan McConnell, “The Secret Sale of South Sudan,” The Times, July 2, 2011).
Another deal detailed by The Times involves New York-based Jarch Management, which is developing an even larger tract of land in an area of northern South Sudan with potential oil reserves. There are fears that the "development" will entail displacing residents. The Norwegian People's Aid director for Sudan commented, "It is all done secretly. The people don't know what's going on."
No less a publication than the Financial Times characterized the deal as having “a decidedly 19th-century flavour to it.” In a piece suggestively entitled “Rhodes Redux,” the publication noted of the deal in 2009, “It is the largest private land deal in Africa yet -- involving the lease of a huge tract of remote territory bordering the Nile. … the deal depends as much on control exerted… the warlord whose son's company claims rights to some of the land, as it does on legal title.”
The head of Jarch is Philippe Heilberg, former Wall Street banker “backed by former CIA and state department officials” who apparently tired of commodity trading to become "one of Africa's biggest private landowners," namely in Sudan. The land lease was granted by a notorious, atrocity-happy, local Nuer warlord -- who had allied with Khartoum and the SPLM by turns in the North-South civil war -- to Jarch and its partner firm, managed by the son of the warlord. An aid worker commented on the deal, "The community knew nothing, it was done secretly between Philippe Heilberg and [the warlord]'s family."
Jarch is comprised of quite a rogue’s gallery. The Times notes that, "High-profile appointees to Jarch's management have included former US ambassadors and spies. Its Advisory Board is a who's who of Sudan's warlords, many of whom led insurgencies against the South." Former State Department, Pentagon, and White House officials, as well as the famous Joe Wilson, fill out the roster.
As for Heilberg himself, in an interview with Rolling Stone he commented, "This is Africa. The whole place is like one big mafia. I'm like a mafia head." Unsurprisingly, Jarch now tells reporters that "Mr Heilberg no longer does interviews." Such honest braggadocio is best kept away from the public. We might get upset.