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Farmers of Sudan’s El Gezira Agricultural Scheme discuss unionising

November 14 - 2022 EL GEZIRA
The main canal in El Managil is used for water and fishing (File photo: UNEP)
The main canal in El Managil is used for water and fishing (File photo: UNEP)

Discussions have ignited over forming professional associations or unions of farmers and livestock owners for those involved in the El Gezira Agricultural Scheme in order to address economic liberalisation of land ownership, seven years after the Farmers Union was disbanded by the Al Bashir regime in Sudan. 

The views of farmers differ over the declared direction of the trend of working together in associations for those subject to the Scheme, especially regarding representation for the farmers in higher levels of government. 

The Scheme, located between the Blue and White Niles south of Khartoum, used to be one of the world’s largest irrigation projects. 

Discussions come against the background of farmers in the El Gezira and El Managil region stating last month that high production costs and taxes have led to “one of the most disappointing seasons that the area has experienced.” Earlier in September, the El Gezira and El Managil Farmers Alliance announced their categorical rejection of the increased taxes of SDG16,000 per feddan. 

A farmer in El Huda Hussein El Khidir told Radio Dabanga that he rejects the idea of ​​professional associations for agricultural producers. Associations have been formed previously and have offered no positive results, he said. On the contrary, farmers were harmed by unions in 2005, when they were politicised for the sake of the “ruling Islamists.” 

Declaring his categorical rejection of the associations because they contributed to destruction of the infrastructure of the Scheme, he said that a new Farmers' Union would be the best for farmers. 

Farmer Heisam El Sawy also called for a return of the Farmers’ Union. He said that “the experience of a farmers’ union is marred by stigmas because the former leaders of the union were appointed by the regime of ousted President Omar Al Bashir.” He also stressed that the union is what represents and protects the farmers, which can be used as a tool to strengthen their demands and protect their land and produce. 

A farmer in northern El Gezira, Kamal Sari, told Radio Dabanga that in light of the policy of economic liberalisation and the state's removal of its hand from the El Gezira Scheme, farmers’ associations are the best option to represent farmers.  

He said that the Farmers Union is a platform for making demands to the government, which does not benefit the farmers as that is not what is needed. “Associations can advance production, and provide inputs and marketing opportunities,” according to Sari. He added that the associations would be founded on principles of democracy and transparency, therefore providing equal representation of voices.  

Farmer Mohamed Kheir agreed that associations are the best way to represent farmers, noting that former experiences with unions have been “bad” and “did not provide the farmers with anything, only serving its members.” 

A farmer in Saadallah considered that farmers and livestock owners associations could be the closest solution to the problems of the Scheme, and stressed the need for democratic principles in these associations to work, especially in the field of investment and produce exports. 

Land grabbing 

A statement written in August by Fatima Abdelbagi, member of the El Gezira and El Managil Farmers Alliance, notes the “toil” small farmers experience as laws and decrees since the 1970s have undermined “the rights of local communities, small farmers, and pastoralists to land ownership, in favour of the appropriation of large tracts of land for mechanized cultivation by rich investors, local and foreign, and elite groups.” 

“This has reinforced a sense of neglect, marginalization and social oppression, as the expropriated groups have either been forced to work on low and precarious wages, or to migrate to urban centres,” according to the statement. 

Land grabbing has become a global phenomenon, said Abdelbagi. One million acres, including 450,000 acres within the Scheme, have been granted by the Al Bashir regime to China to use for a period 99 years. The Farmers' Alliance has condemned this action by the Sudanese government and China. 

In addition, more than 600,000 acres of land from the Scheme were offered for sale to the United Capital Bank, due to a decision by Scheme managers in January 2012. The sale was halted by a decision of the Civil Administrative Appeals Court on a lawsuit filed by the Land Owners Committee, with the support of the Farmers Alliance. 

Scheme background 

Mostly based on the World Bank’s recommendation, the El Gezira Scheme Act was issued in 2005 and more than 1500 Water Users Associations (WUAs) were established in 2007. According to this act, farm irrigation and management including collection of fees and weed cleaning were now the responsibilities of the WUAs. Through the control of the minor canals and field canals, the reform transferred the responsibility of field irrigation from the government to the farmers. 

President Al Bashir described the Scheme in late 2014 as “a burden on the country’s budget”. In September 2015, the Agriculture Ministry amended the El Gezira Scheme Act, aimed at transferring land ownership to the private sector and foreign investors. That same year the Farmers Union was disbanded by the Al Bashir regime, following protests over the Scheme

In December 2019 the El Gezira and El Managil Farmers Alliance launched a rally to commemorate the founding of Sudan’s Farmers Union in December 1953. The demonstrators also demanded that the extensive irrigation project be revived. 

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