Painted marker posts help quell land conflicts in Sudan's Darfur

by Katy Migiro | @katymigiro | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 20 January 2016 17:01 GMT

In this 2011 photo, a farmer, part of the small population still remaining, stands beside goats in Hashaba, a village located 20 km north of Shangil Tobaya, North Darfur. REUTERS/Albert Gonzalez Farran/UNAMID/Handout

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Though mass killings have eased, tensions remain as droughts force Arab herders to compete with non-Arab farmers over land

By Katy Migiro

NAIROBI, Jan 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Before war broke out in Sudan's Darfur region, trust between communities was such that Arab herders stowed their excess luggage with farmers when they migrated southward in the dry season - and a charity is working to rebuild the shattered ties.

Relations between the two turned hostile in 2003 when rebels took up arms against the Arab-led government in Khartoum, accusing it of discrimination. Non-Arab farmers sided with the rebels while herders allied themselves with the government.

Khartoum unleashed militias to crush the rebellion and millions fled to refugee camps as their villages were burned. The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir for genocide.

While the mass killings of a decade ago have eased, tensions remain as the insurgency continues and droughts have forced herders into competition with farmers over land.

"After the war started, they never sat together," said Awadalla Hamid Mohamed, project manager for Practical Action, which has been working to rebuild shattered relations from the bottom up through the Darfur Community Peace and Stability Fund.

Since 2011, the charity has installed 390 posts along almost 200 km (125 miles) of migratory routes in North Darfur to reduce conflicts over land and has set up 20 shared water points.

At first, progress was painfully slow.

"The farmers were complaining... about their villages being burned and their livestock being looted by these (nomadic) groups," Mohamed said, while herders were bitter that farmers had blocked their traditional migratory routes.

"Everyone defended himself."

It took six months of meetings before the communities agreed to mark out a migratory route with colour-coded concrete posts.

"The big thing is how to build consensus," said Mohamed. "How can we find ways of co-existing because there are so many mutual benefits?"

In demarcated areas, 75 to 150 metres wide, red posts indicate herders must stick to the route in an agricultural zone while white ones mean they are free to graze.


The project echoes local self-governing systems of justice which kept the peace in Darfur before colonial rule.

Traditionally, farming tribes like the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa owned land in Darfur and granted access to the nomads.

Land ownership is rarely registered in Sudan. Instead, proof of ownership rests with the collective memory of local communities.

If herders left designated routes, trespassed on farmland and damaged farmers' crops, they were fined by their own leaders who compensated the farmers.

"Tribal conflicts (were) few because of the unwritten constitution and a gentleman's agreement between the local residents and the leaders of the nomadic tribes," Darfur expert El Khidir Daloum told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Customary land laws unravelled as the conflict intensified and spread.

Arab militias from Darfur and neighbouring countries like Chad moved onto land belonging to farmers, Daloum said.

"The role of the state in the current system is about divide and rule," he said. "That is what destroyed the whole issue of land rights."

More needs to be done to disarm the herders and strengthen local institutions, Daloum said.

"It is not only about demarcation of the grazing route," he said. "If you demarcate and I am a nomad and I have a four wheel drive, I have mounted guns... and when I commit a crime, no one brings me to justice, what is the point?"

Sudan plans to hold a referendum in April over whether Darfur will stay divided into five states or reunite as one entity, an idea the government has long resisted for fear of giving Darfuris too much autonomy, analysts say.

In the meantime, the peace committees Practical Action has set up to resolve disputes between communities are an important first step, Mohamed says.

The rains were poor this year and herders are moving southwards through farmers' land in search of pasture for their animals.

"Now they have markets that bring them together and they share the water points together," said Mohamed. "If there is any problem, they will sit together and solve it."

(Reporting by Katy Migiro, editing by Tim Pearce. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, corruption and climate change. Visit

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