Sue Lautze: South Sudan needs ‘meaningful peace’

Sue Lautze at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's headquarters in Rome, Italy. [Alessia Pierdomenico/FAO].

Sue Lautze at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's headquarters in Rome, Italy. [Alessia Pierdomenico/FAO].

All sides of the conflict in South Sudan have at times become very “fixed, dark and negative” as outbreaks of violence continue. The country needs lasting peace so that it can see the benefits of its agricultural potential, according to the FAO’s representative in South Sudan.

Sue Lautze is the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s representative in South Sudan. Her humanitarian work has spanned 25 years, including posts with the government of Ethiopia, other UN agencies and donor governments. She spoke to EURACTIV’s Marc Hall.

How long have you been the FAO’s representative in South Sudan?

I’ve been there just under two years, coming and going from greater Sudan for the better part of a couple of decades, though. It’s a country I keep going back to.

Why South Sudan?

The potential for agriculture there is just stunning. It’s both a source of permanent inspiration and perpetual frustration, because all of the resources of the Nile river and the floods bring so much fertility to the land. They have maybe 30 million different kinds of livestock. The potential for innovating, a lot of the climate-smart agriculture and conservation agriculture, the really amazing technologies that were developed while Sudan was at war with itself, you can bring them all into South Sudan.

You could see that you could, but we’re so far away from being able to transform the agriculture there. That’s why I went back, to try to help the country emerge from this legacy of underdevelopment, conflict, marginalisation and into a pathway of what is so very cool about agriculture these days: save and grow technologies, preserving the environment while increasing your production, all these things that the FAO is pushing elsewhere. The fact that we’re not there right now is frustrating.

All of these technologies then that were being developed elsewhere – Sudan, as it was called then, didn’t have access to them…

… Because of the war. It started in the mid ’50s, then had a ten-year hiatus from basically 1972-73 onwards. In that ten year period they experienced agricultural developed of the 1970s. And then they went back to having a 30-year war. So many of my counterparts, the only development they know is the development of the 1970s. They don’t know the developments of 2014 in agriculture.

So using 1970s technologies and techniques?

Absolutely, it can be almost surreal sometimes when they ask you for “model farms”, all these things that we know weren’t very effective for agricultural development. But that’s what they know to be development, and then they fight this war and they come out and they want “development”, of course. Well you say, actually, development is, kind of, about no tillage, not massive tillage. That was all before December 15.

Yes, I was going to ask, what is the situation like now (since civil war broke out on 15 December 2013)?

The situation now is heartbreaking. South Sudan had its best year agriculturally ever last year. Production of the crops was 25% over the five-year average, and that was the result of a lot of effort, effort by us, but effort by the government, by other partners. Good rains, and relative peace throughout the country. That all combined.

Was that following independence?

Yes, this was after independence. But you could begin to feel a little bit of that hope of what agriculture could do in the country. Still huge deficits, though. A 400,000 metric tonne deficit in cereals alone, but much better than they had done previously. So we hadn’t turned the corner yet, but you could begin to see the corner coming. Then December 15 rolls around, and in an amazingly short period of time, it completely transformed the whole country.

There’s not a part of the country that you could say is not affected by the conflict. There are parts that are directly affected by the violence, but I’ve yet to meet anyone anywhere in the country that hasn’t been affected by it. Markets have been destroyed, populations. At this point, over 1.4 million people have been displaced. This is a population of only maybe 11.5 (million). Three hundred or so thousand are refugees now, and 1.1 million are internally displaced, and many of them have been displaced repeatedly. You run to one area, (but) then the fighting comes.

Now the flood waters are coming up, so having dealt with the conflict hazard, they’re now having to deal with the hazard of flood waters. There’s about 450,000 people that are living in the flood zones now, so they’re going to get on the move again. A lot of work now is about survival, about helping them to survive.

Yes, usually the FAO does resilience-type work, giving people the capacity to produce their own food, for instance. But this sounds more like an emergency situation…

But even in emergencies in South Sudan, people produce their own foods. Most of what people obtain for their food is coming from their own efforts, so even with WFP’s robust food assistance, you can’t survive on that really. So people in South Sudan, typically, have always had fairly diversified livelihood strategies for coping with crisis, and some of that’s from the natural environment, the wild foods. Some of it is from the markets.

That’s what’s been so disturbing about the market damage. Wage labour has collapsed, a lot of the commodity flows have been interrupted. A lot of the physical markets have been destroyed. And then people do some farming. They have some livestock. They go out and do some fishing. They do some hunting. And all of those mechanisms are important. But what’s at the heart of all of those mechanisms is the idea of mobility, that you can move to fishing grounds and move your livestock to pastures and to the water area, so you can move to the market. And this particular crisis has been rather amazing on its impacts on mobility. People are trapped where they are. They can’t get to where they need to be. We think that maybe a third of the national herd is displaced. Livestock are not where they belong right now.

So people are finding that they can’t move to the place where usually they would have got their food from, because of the risk of eruptions of conflict there?

Yes, definitely. Even in the areas that you don’t think of as being so affected by the conflict, the nature of the violence around cattle has changed, like in the Lakes state, in the centre of the country. We’re seeing that getting a lot more violent. But we’re also seeing a lot of livestock being killed in the raids, and that’s new as a dynamic. And we have to try and imagine what that’s about. Why would you kill the cows? Why would you put an RPG into a cow? It’s sending messages. There’s this vitriolic deepening of an ethnic construction of the “other”, to be quite academic. I’ve never seen that in South Sudan before.

You talk to people on one side and you talk to people on the other and it’s becoming very fixed and very dark and negative. And you think how are they going to get over that, and come back together as one community and one country? And they have to.

Is this an ethnic conflict?

It’s a political crisis that has become ethnic. That’s the most satisfying way of describing a really complex situation. But it started off as tensions from within the SPLA, the army, that erupted violently, and then the conflict became very ethnic, very fast. And you read the human rights reporting to get a full detail of how that manifests itself. People are running to their so-called home areas, and you find that there’s more of a homogenisation of the communities, when South Sudan is made up of hundreds of different social groups. There are a couple of larger groups.

Is the violence between two groups, in particular, or are people from the hundreds of groups that you mentioned joining together?

You can’t say that it’s between two very clear groups, because there’s people on both sides. It’s most-clearly manifested in a conflict between the SPLA and the SPLA in opposition, which is called the SPLA-IO. The SPLA was, of course, led by the president of the country, and the opposition was led by the former vice-president.

They’re from two different ethnic groups but you wouldn’t be able to cut the country in two and say the president’s people are over here and the vice-president’s people are over there. But the targeting, when it does happen, has been along ethnic lines, for example, in some of the cities. It’s been done by both sides. So that makes it very complicated for us, and everyone else.

We’ve had problems with access, from the beginning. There’s lots of high-level declarations and high-level committees and things to try to work through it. But at the end of the day, it’s the guy with the gun on the road who is able to commandeer your truck or stop your truck. Or the official at some airport is able to say “No, you don’t get on your plane, or the airplane doesn’t come”. You lose a lot of time.

South Sudan also has a horrendous problem with infrastructure. There’s only one paved road, and that connects Juba to Uganda. You can get down it in a few hours. Meanwhile, this massive country is connected by mud roads, right now, because we’re in the rainy season. And we can lose up to 60% of those roads because every year the rains come and the floods happen and the country turns into the world’s largest swamp. We have to deliver emergency livelihood kits and other UN agencies and NGOs humanitarian assistance.

Is the EU there?

The EU has been there from the beginning. ECHO – they did not leave. A lot of people left the country. We stayed. ECHO (Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection) was there. They were moving around robustly, and they were one of the few donors who did. They definitely got a lot of respect for it from all of us. The EU development actors took a little bit longer, understandably. They had to come back and reassess is it worth the risk. I had to say that Ludovico [Gammarelli] and Roman [Majcher], the two ECHO guys, were great. I’d go out into the field and I’d bump into them.

In February, already, the FAO was warning of the risks if farmers failed to meet the planting season. Now it’s already June, towards the end of the planting season, so what is the situation like? Did farmers manage to make the season?

Some of the farmers did. We’re quite happy with the farming season in Equatoria, the green belt, which is the southern part of the country, which wasn’t so directly affected by the conflict, except it was, certainly, subject to a lot of population displacement, a lot of troop movement, and also a lot of livestock displacement. A lot of the livestock came down out of Jonglei, and came through Equatoria, but it didn’t seem to affect the planting season very much.

We also had the benefits of a good season last year, which meant that there some locally available seeds.

How important is it to have early intervention, when there is the risk that thinks could get worse? The IPC (Integrated Food Security Phase Classification) says that famine is not forecast for the coming months but there is the possibility of famine being declared (at some point) in 2014…

Early intervention – we’re past that window. The crisis started in December. It’s June. What’s most important now is actually meaningful peace. The fact is, though, that we don’t have it yet. There are still conflicts in localised areas, in some pretty key areas: Rank, up in the North, is one of the main transit points for commercial supplies; the Nasir transit point from Ethiopia. We need real peace in order for worst-case scenarios not to be repeated. The more that fails to be realised, or the slower that is realised, the more difficult it is to imagine they’re going to get out of this without things getting worse.

So peace is the only way that you can resume work and people can begin resuming their livelihoods…

People have got to get home. They’re probably going to go home and find their communities completely destroyed. But they have to get home, and start getting back on their feet, back to a position where they can get back to their livelihoods and we can continue helping them in ways that are both short-term, to help them survive, and back into some sort of productive system in the longer term, so that they can build up their resilience against the inevitable range of threats that come at you when you live in rural South Sudan.

You have floods, you have pests, diseases. It’s a very tough environment, and they’re normally pretty darn amazing at managing. But there’s only so much that the South Sudanese can take.

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