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close this book Measuring drought and drought impacts in Red Sea Province
close this folder 7. Land tenure, agricultural labour, drought and food stress in the Gash, Gash Dai and Tokar agricultural areas. Roy Cole
View the document Summary
View the document Introduction
View the document Production in the Gash and Tokar deltas
View the document The Gash Delta
View the document The Tokar Delta
View the document The schemes and food stress
View the document References
View the document Appendix 7.1: Agricultural districts of the Gash Delta.
View the document Appendix 7.2: Blocks (Muraba'a) of Tokar Delta.

The Gash Delta

The Gash River originates in the Eritrean Plateau fifteen miles south of Asmara. It flows principally from July to September but there may be occasional flows in June. The length of flow of the Gash River from Kassala to the Gash Dai is about 160 kilometres. Average discharge is 560 million cubic meters of water. The highest annual flood was in 1929 when 1069 million cubic meters of water were recorded. The lowest flood years were 1921 and 1963 when the volume of the flood was 140 million cubic meters for each year.

Cultivation of cereals in the Gash Delta has probably been practiced almost as long as people have lived there. Little is known of the area prior to the nineteenth century. Cotton was first grown in the Gash Delta in 1870 by Mumtaz Pasha in the first experiment with cotton in the Sudan. The Gash scheme as it is known today began in 1924 with the cultivation of 9000 feddans. By 1927 over 26000 feddans were under cultivation. The total demarcated area of the Gash today is 720000 feddans although only 400000 feddans of this area are suitable for irrigation cultivation (Morton 1986). Only about one-tenth of the Gash area is used in any year for scheme agriculture. The rest is used for non-scheme cultivation or pasture. A network of seven main canals and thirteen subcanals are used to irrigate 240000 feddans in a three course rotation of 80000 feddans annually. Each of the three courses is fallowed for two years. The following table presents data on irrigated and cultivated land in the Gash during the twenty-six year span from 1963 to 1989.

Tab/e 7.1. Total irrigated area (scheme only), cultivated area, and area under sorghum (durra) in the Gash Delta, 1960 to 1988 (in feddans).

























































































































SOURCE: Gash Board (1989).

Cotton was the principal crop in the Gash until the early 1960s when it was gradually replaced by castor, first introduced in 1959. Prior to 1970, sorghum was sown over onequarter of the cultivated area, however, in 1970, when cotton cultivation was discontinued, the area devoted to sorghum increased to one-half of the annual area sown. The cultivation of cotton was reintroduced in 1976. The area sown to castor and cotton decreased from 1979 to 1984 and both crops were finally abandoned in favour of one hundred percent cultivation of sorghum in 1984. The Gash Board attributes the change in cotton cultivation to the following factors:

1. Declining yields.

2. Decline in international prices.

3. Cotton smuggling across the eastern border into Eritrea

4. Pest problems.

Factors cited by producers in the Gash in 1989 were:

1. Falling international prices.

2. Drought.

3. The high relative labour demands of cotton.

4. The inability to control destruction of cotton crops by livestock.

Castor was abandoned principally because of castor toxicity although decline in international prices was also an important reason. One independent economic study in 1987 found that castor production was a net loss to the producer.

There are 12000 registered tenant farmers on the Gash scheme in 1986, sixty-three percent of whom were Hadendowa Beja (Ausenda 1987). In 1929, seventy percent of the tenants were Hadendowa, according to Paul (1954). In 1988, according to the Gash Board, there were 14000 registered tenants and eighty percent of the tenants were Hadendowa According to Ausenda's 1986 figures, other ethnic groups that participate in the scheme are West Africans (23%), Other Beja (996), and Northerners (5%). Land is allocated on a firstcome first-served basis at an official rent of £16.00 per feddan. It was reported that some land is rented by the tenant to other tenants at rates of between £40.00 and £60.00 per feddan although this could not be substantiated.

According to the Gash Board, the tenancy is from five to fifteen feddans. Ausenda reports that individual tenancies may be as large as 700 feddans. According to Ausenda (1987: 122) each tenant is

...grouped into clusters represented by an 'agricultural sheikh'. All tenants are registered in the Corporation's books with a notation as to the size of tenancies assigned to them. The number of tenants, not the size of their tenancies, is prorated according to the ethnic group to which they belong. Each year, once lands destined to irrigation are flooded, they are allotted to all registered tenants according to a system based on the drawing of lots carried out in each of the six blocks into which the Gash Delta was divided.

The status of the Gash Dai is less clear than that of the Gash proper because it is outside government auspices and data are not regularly collected there. The total area of the Gash Dai is estimated to be 200000 feddans. Most of this area is used for pasture. Land is held in customary tenure arrangements by diwaab, a grouping of Hadendowa lineages. Landowning tribes in the Gash Dai come from the Derudeb, Musmar, Haya and Kassala areas. This year an enormous area was deeply flooded and consequently the planted area is unprecedented in size.

Organisation of labour

Beyond the level of the State, use of the land and its products in the Gash is organized into a two to three layered system.

1. The state.

2. The tenant (saahib al-rabt or saahib al-hawaasha).

3. The sharecropper (saahib al-tilt or saahib al-nuus).

4. The wage labourers (al-'ummaal).

The state is the landowner in the Gash Delta and it allots land in five to fifteen feddan parcels to tenants for £16.00 Sudanese per feddan. The state is paid a charge for irrigation and cleaning of the land at the end of the agricultural season.

The tenant, when a sharecropper is present, works under one of two arrangements:

1. When the sharecropper shares the costs of all stages of production he receives fifty percent and is called a saahib al-nuus.

2. When the sharecropper chooses not to share all costs of production he receives thirtythree percent and is called a saahib al-tilt.

Generally, the larger the tenancy or where the tenant is occupied with other activities (for example, his herds), the greater the likelihood of a sharecropper being present to manage the labour. On smaller holdings the tenant can manage the labour himself, providing that there are no other activities to divide his time. The tenant is responsible for the provision of seeds (fifty percent of the seeds if a saahib al-nuus sharecropper is present, one hundred percent if the sharecropper is a saahib al-tilt) and the food of the labourers (including coffee and sugar) for their period of contract in advance. The tenant keeps the sorghum stalks for himself. 1985 was the first year in which sorghum stalks were sent from the Gash to the Port Sudan market. Before 1985 sorghum stalks were just burned in the fields as a step in the cleaning of the field. An explanation advanced for this practice was that the government fined tenants who failed to have their fields clean by a certain date after harvest. It is more likely, however, that market prices for sorghum stalks were not high enough before the drought to encourage people to cut, bundle, transport and sell them.

The sharecropper is responsible for all agricultural activities including planting, weeding, replanting when necessary, harvesting, and the hiring and management of wage labour. Tenants or sharecroppers who need field labour go to the central market of Kassala to the wage labour market and hire those labourers that are needed. Unlike the Tokar Delta, there are no sharing arrangements for labourers; they are simply paid a daily wage. Contrast the arrangement used in Khor Arba'at in Rural Port Sudan in the production of tomatoes. There, the waterpump owner/landowner receives fifty percent of the proceeds from the sale of the tomatoes, the lorry driver to market receives twenty-five percent, the dealer in the market receives ten percent, and the producer-c of the crop fifteen percent. All of the people involved in production in the Arba'at area are generally related to one another. This is usually not the case in the Tokar and Gash Deltas.

There are 7000 to 10000 labourers working in the Gash Delta scheme at any one time (compared to 12000 to 15000 in the Tokar Delta). One fifth, or 1400 to 2000, of these labourers are tenants (Ausenda 1987) and the remainder are migrant labourers. Unlike other areas of Africa, most landlords in the Gash do not establish long-term relations with their wage labourers. Instead, they simply operate according to the laws of supply and demand and hire whoever is available at the lowest possible price.

Labour in the Gash area is organized and accomplished according to negotiated agreement (muqaawala) between the tenant and the labourers. Production is divided into five categories of activity:

1. Planting.

2. Weeding.

3. Cutting and piling sorghum heads.

4. Threshing.

5. Bagging.

By arrangement with the landlord these activities may be grouped. For example, cutting, threshing, and bagging may be negotiated together at a certain wage for one or more persons rather than three different persons. Specific rates depend on supply and demand. The following table illustrates wage rates in the Gash and Gash Dai for several activities.

Table 7.2. Wage rates In the Gash and Gash Dal In Sudanese pounds per feddan, January-February 1989.





Gash Delta

Gash Dai

Land Rent





1/15 harvest






1/5 harvest

* £40.00 to 60.00 on the unofficial market

** Depends on degree of weed infestation

Quinney, in a report on the 1987 agricultural year, found workers to be paid £25.00 to 30.00 for weeding and £10.00 for planting. Ausenda (1987) reported £10.00 per feddan for harvesting during the 1986 agricultural year. If these data are accurate, then wage rates have doubled for weeding, tripled for planting, and, since 1986, increased six times for harvesting. There were rumours circulating in Eastern Region that harvest wage labourers in the Gash had negotiated a deal in which they received fifty percent of the harvest, although, I was not able to substantiate these rumours.

Harvesting, when combined with threshing and bagging as is the norm, is the most labour intensive agricultural activity; eleven days are required to harvest one feddan. Weeding requires 5.75 days per feddan and planting, the least demanding of all activities, only 1.5 days per feddan.

Generally, labourers prefer to work in the Gash Dai because, according to our informants, the remuneration was higher. Workers dislike daily wage labour. They prefer, instead, a sharing arrangement. No empirical evidence exists to prove or disprove the assertion made by labourers that sharing is more profitable to them than daily wage labour. This is a topic for future research.

Sources of labourers

Wage labourers originate from the following areas in order of importance:

1. South Tokar, Eritrea.

2. Khor Odi, Langeb, Baraka

3. Derudeb, Haya, Musmar, Sinkat.

4. Kassala

The first group is almost exclusively Beni 'Amer or Habaab, group two is Hadendowa, and group three is a mix of Hadendowa and 'Atman. The last group is composed of West Africans, "Nigerians" or, as they are commonly called, Takaariin and refugees. The West Africans in Kassala, and in the Eastern Sudan in general, are commonly called Fellata. This group is made up of many ethnic groups from western and central Africa. The word Fellata is of Kanuri origin ('Umar Al-Naqar 1972). Paul (1954) states that the original group of Kassala Takaariin (or Tarkarna, Takaariir, Tekruur, singular Tekruuri) made the pilgrimage to Mecca from Timbuktu in modern-day Mali in 1901 and settled in Kassala on their way home. The word "Takaariir" is said to come from the Arabic verb karrir, to repeat. The implication is that the West Africans termed Takaariin were pilgrims who sojourned in Red Sea Province two times, once on the way to Mecca and once on the way back. Another, more likely, explanation for the word is from the words "Tek Rur", a large region along the Senegal River valley. In Arabic this word becomes "Tekruuri". Tek Rur played an important role in the history of West Africa and particularly in its Islamisation and was the source of many pilgrims to Mecca ('Umar Al-Naqar 1972).

The Beni 'Amer group originates from two source areas: the mountains east and south of Kassala and a contiguous area composed of coastal and mountain South Tokar and northern Eritrea The principal source area in Eritrea is Barka Province, Eritrea's northerarnost and largest province.

Wage labour is the principal economic activity of most notably the Beni 'Amer and the West Africans. During the 1986 harvest in the Hadaliya block of the Gash, the Hadendowa accounted for 65%, West Africans for 25%, Eritreans for 10% of the wage labour force (Ausenda 1987). Hadendowa and West Africans are considered the best planters, West Africans are valued by landlords for their speed and thoroughness in weeding, and all groups are equally regarded with respect to harvesting (Ausenda 1986). Colonial officials used the numbers of West African labours on the schemes as an indicator of the relative prosperity of the agricultural year (McLoughlin 1966).

In the early part of this century, the majority of labourers presenting themselves for work in the Gash and Tokar Deltas were Eritrean Beni 'Amer or Habaab. These labourers selected between work in the Gash, Tokar Delta, or Italian construction projects in Eritrea depending on the relative wage rates in each area Interestingly, these Eritrean Beni 'Amer were of servile status (according to Nadel 1945 and Paul 1950) and "clients" (according to Ausenda 1989). They were liberated or released from their relationship with their masters, the Nabtab aristocracy, after the colonial conquest. Their liberation was due to the colonial powers need for a ready source of labour for the Gash and Tokar Deltas, although this point has not been established with certainty from the written historical record. One can infer from the behaviour of the colonial powers in other areas (Cole forthcoming).

The Beni 'Amer floating labour pool situated in South Tokar involved only in harvesting operations (cutters), appears to be less diversified, more proletarianised, and more vulnerable to economic stress than other groups of labourers. These people are of more recent immigration to Red Sea Province; many of them are war refugees. Most wage labour in the Gash and Tokar Deltas are of course poor, however, there is opportunity for surplus accumulation and social mobility for hardworking and enterprising labourers. The record of the more established Beni 'Amer immigrants is evidence for this. In the Gash, some individuals, as a result of hard work, may be allotted tenancies on the scheme. Others, after they build some capital, branch into market gardening of vegetables or watermelon. Many of the Eritrean Beni 'Amer who work in the Gash supplement their income by smuggling grain and sugar out of the Sudan to Eritrea by camel. It is difficult to estimate the volume of this trade because of its clandestine nature, however, the Ministry of Commerce in Khartoum estimated that 100000 tonnes were smuggled from the Gedarif area alone in 1977 (Simpson 1980). The demand for cereals created by war in recent years has probably augmented this figure.

Hadendowa labour migrants originate from the entire Hadendowa area in Red Sea Province. The Gash is but one of several stops on their annual labour itinerary. According to the Gash Board some Hadendowa, like other migrant labourers, work during the early season in the Khashm el-Qirba scheme or even as far south as Gedarif and later move to the Gash (see Bakhit (1988). Hadendowa also work in the Tokar Delta and McLoughlin (1966) suggests that the migrant labourers choose their workplace according to the wages being paid in shares or in cash.

Because of the political instability in Eritrea, and in the highlands in general, it is not uncommon to find highland Christians working in the Gash and in the Kassala area. These people are principally involved in the illegal importation and sale of alcohol from Eritrea If they are involved in agriculture it is generally with the cash crop, watermelon.

Most labourers in the Delta are involved in seasonal migration to other schemes in addition to their work in the Gash Delta. For example, planting and weeding are done earlier in Khashm al-Girba than in the Gash so that labourers begin the agricultural year on these operations in Khashm al-Girba. They proceed to the Gash to plant and weed and, depending on the size of the harvest, either return to Khashm al-Girba or remain in the Gash. If they remain in the Gash for the sorghum harvest they go to Khashm al-Girba for the cotton harvest after the sorghum harvest in the Gash is completed. Khashm al-Girba is a scheme developed in the 1960s for people displaced by the lake created by the Egyptian High Dam at Aswaan. Tenancies are divided between the displaced Nubians and people from the Shukriyya, Bishariin, Hadendowa, and 'Atman groups.