Cover Image
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 schemes and food stress

It has been stated that, in general, precolonial society fared better in the face of environmental variation than it does today. More specifically, it has been said that the Gash and Tokar schemes have increased the vulnerability of people to the environment. I would like to address these two points below because I feel that these criticisms are unjustified

Precolonial relations between landowner and labour have been termed a "moral economy" (Watts 1983, Scott 1976) which cares for the vulnerable people during extreme food stress. Doubt has recently been cast on the general applicability of the "moral economy" model (see Bazin 1974, Ortoli 1939, Park 1971, Roberts 1980) and some researchers are now contending that the precolonial, premarket society was structurally incapable of coping with extreme food stress (Torry 1987). Watkins and van de Walle (1985: 10) state that "...most preindustrial economies were particularly vulnerable to crises." The authors suggest that these economies possessed production systems that had the following characteristics:

1. Few, if any, surpluses.

2. A lack of diversification.

3. A lack of systems of insurance and solidarity as have been developed by the modern state.

An almost continual condition of competition in the precolonial period between small, often ethnically different, groups reduced spatial mobility during periods of food crisis such that localized food shortages often became famines. The use of such formerly common droughtcoping strategies as the pledging of children to unaffected groups or individuals for grain has disappeared with economic diversification, increased mobility, and the cessation of intergroup conflict.

According to informants interviewed by Dahl just after the recent drought, Red Sea Province has had eleven periods of famine and loss of human and livestock life that occurred during the last one hundred and ten years (see paper 3 for a different interpretation of drought). The most severe instance of loss of life was during the 1880 to 1890 period when drought in conjunction with political instability and disease ravaged the population of Red Sea Province.

Table 7.6. Periods of food stress In Red Sea Province, 1880 to 1988.






Political instability, drought,


locusts, smallpox, cholera,




Jebel Elba







Decline of war demand and high


prices, high taxes





















D roughs

SOURCE: Dahl (1988).

It is important to note that the closer the period to the present the less important has been human mortality. Why, particularly during a time of general population growth, has this been so? Political stability, increased economic opportunity in the formal and informal sectors, spatial mobility have all contributed to easing the impact of environmental variation. The system of production used by Beja groups in and around Red Sea Province until very recently has been characterized by small surplus accumulation, lack of diversification, and no social insurance mechanisms to cushion extreme food stress. Indeed, one of the principal "mechanisms" for a group to cushion extreme food stress in the past was to transfer it to other groups by raiding or conquest.

The second point regarding food stress that I would like to address concerns the putative negative impacts of the Tokar and Gash schemes on the ability of the individual to respond to environmental variation. It has been stated by Morton (1986) and Ausenda (1987) that cultivation in the Gash Delta reduced pasture area and consequently caused a decline in herd size. Dahl (1988) states that the development of the Gash scheme involved a significant loss of grazing. The implication is that vulnerability to drought increased as a result of the schemes. These contentions are not supported by the facts as:

1. Much of the Gash and Tokar areas was impenetrable thicket prior to the development of the schemes and carrying capacity must have been low.

2. The majority of agricultural products produced today in and around the schemes, in particular stalks and weeds in the farmed areas and grazing in unfarmed areas, is destined to be consumed by livestock. The schemes are, in fact, fodder farms.

3. Water channelling and spreading techniques have increased the flooded area

4. The flooded, pasture producing, area is much greater than the cultivated area

In addition to producing fodder for local and transhumant livestock, the schemes produce fodder for export to predominantly Beja-owned feedlots in Port Sudan and towndwelling small stock owners in Derudeb, Haya, Sinkat, and Suakin. The feedlots in Port Sudan (located east of Daym al-wuhda) house approximately 12000 head of cattle which are used principally for the production of milk for consumption in Port Sudan and secondly as fattening stations for livestock for export. The feedlots, with the exception of some animals taken to local pastures during the winter rainy season on the coast, are entirely supported from outside. The history of the development of the feedlots since they began in the early 1970s is an interesting story of the successful adaptation of traditional activities to modem urban demand. The Gash and Tokar deltas are the breeding areas that produce the milk cows for the feedlots.

The argument that the Gash and Tokar schemes impede the ability of the Beja to cope with drought by making inaccessible traditional dry season pasture (or wet season pasture for that matter) is specious for the same reasons. The schemes have significantly increased grain production, fodder production, and have provided formal and informal sector employment for thousands of people and have, in fact, increased the ability of people to weather environmental variation successfully.

This is not to say that people are not having problems today or in the recent past - on the contrary, people have been impoverished by drought and inflation and there are large numbers of refugees in the province. These people gravitate to areas of opportunity such as the Tokar and Gash Deltas, the towns, and particularly Port Sudan.

A last point concerning vulnerability has to do with the sharing system versus the wage labour system. Sharecropping appears to be a form of risk sharing that works to the labourers' advantage. In good years the labourer is able to accumulate surpluses and in bad years is not liable for any fixed rent. Sen (1981: 5) has the following to say about sharecropping:

A peasant differs from a landless labourer in terms of ownership (since he owns land, which the labourer does not), the landless sharecropper differs from the landless labourer not in their respective ownerships, but in the way they can use the only resource they own, viz. Iabour power. The landless labourer will be employed in exchange for a wage, while the share-cropper will do the cultivation and own a part of the product. This difference can lead not merely to contrasts of the levels of typical remuneration of the two ... but also to sharp differences in exchange entitlements in distress situations. For example, a cyclone reducing the labour requirement for cultivation by destroying a part of the crop in each farm may cause some casual agricultural labourer to be simply fired, leading to a collapse of their exchange entitlements, while others are retained. In contrast, in this case the share-croppers may all operate with a lower labour input and lower entitlement, but no one may become fully jobless and thus incomeless.

Fixed rents appear to have a negative impact on the success of schemes to sedentarise pastoralists (Cole 1982). Variable rents enable the labourer to accumulate surpluses in good years as insurance against the inevitable bad years. In bad years the proportion of rent paid varies according to the harvest; in particularly bad years the sharecroppers are exempted from payment of their rents. This system, as opposed to fixed rent, seems to be well suited to the variable environment in Red Sea Province. For example, variation in flooding in Red Sea Province outside of the Tokar Delta generally varies by 100% from year to year. In the Gash and Tokar Deltas interannual variation is 38% and 62% respectively, much lower than all other watersheds in the Eastern Region.

Perhaps the difference between the Gash and Tokar deltas in terms of reliance on wage labour as opposed to sharecropping is that the Gash flooding is more reliable than that of Khor Baraka and the floods in the Gash Delta are supplemented by an average annual rainfall of 400 mm while in the Tokar Delta the average annual rainfall is 73 mm (see Cole 1989). It is possible that the Gash flow is more amenable to management than the Baraka The greater the environmental variation the greater the security demanded by labourers.

The present deterioration of the Sudanese economy is tragic because a healthy national and regional market economy in the Sudan is the short and longterm key to economic recovery for all Beja agropastoralists, farmers, and labourers in Red Sea Province. A strong and diversified regional and national economy and a strong national transportation infrastructure would promote successful adaptation to environmental variation. Strong economic performance would enable producers to accumulate assets, a diversified economy enables producers to find investments for their surplus, and a well-linked national infrastructure would enable individuals to move from opportunity to opportunity and to minimise risk through mobility. Without economic diversification it is clear that the ability of Beja pastoralists and agropastoralists to respond to drought will be seriously impeded.