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close this bookDisasters and Development (Department of Humanitarian Affairs/United Nations Disaster Relief Office - United Nations Development Programme , 1994, 55 p.)
close this folderPART 2 - Understanding and exploiting disaster/development linkages
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentThe impact of disasters on development programs
View the documentLoss of resources
View the documentShifting resources
View the documentImpact on investment climate
View the documentImpact on the non-formal sector
View the documentCASE STUDY
View the documentDevelopment programs can increase vulnerability
View the documentCASE STUDY
View the documentDevelopment programs can decrease vulnerability
View the documentCASE STUDY
View the documentDisasters as opportunities for development initiatives
View the documentCASE STUDY
View the documentSUMMARY


Agricultural Development as an Agent of Disaster in Northern Sudan*

* This case study adapted from: Mark Duffield, “From Emergency to Social Security in Sudan - Part 1: The Problem,” in Disasters, Vol. 14, No. 3, 1990

Although they are conceived with the intention of helping boost a nation’s economy, agricultural development schemes can make small farmers more vulnerable to drought and famine. Such was the case in northern Sudan prior to the 1984/85 famine, in which the ability of 4.5 million people to gain access to the resources they needed was severely disrupted and in some cases completely taken away.

Before the introduction of large scale mechanized farming, northern Sudan’s small farmers practiced cultivation and herding techniques that helped preserve the fertility and regenerative power of the land. Though they were subsistence farmers, the social order involved an intricate web of interdependence and reciprocal support, in which people helped each other through hard times by sharing their resources.

Starting in the mid 1970s, however, the rapid expansion of the mechanized agricultural sector disrupted the social order of the rural farmers and made conservation farming techniques impossible. People were displaced from the land they had used for cultivation and grazing. Social networks were torn apart as the new market-based economy gained influence. Traditional political leaders lost a great deal of their power, and the extended families became fragmented, thus disrupting the tradition of redistributing wealth.

At the end of the 1970s, roughly 1.6 million hectares (4 million acres) were being used for mechanized farming, with the landholding of each farm averaging 400 hectares (1000 acres). By 1982, this number had risen to 2.5 million hectares (6 million acres). By contrast, the land used for traditional cultivation remained constant throughout that time at 3.6 million hectares (9 million acres).

While the amount of traditional farmland remained constant, the population did not. More and more people relied on the land for their livelihood. The mechanized farms’ concentration on cash crops raised for export left the poor increasingly dependent on the market for their food needs and more vulnerable to fluctuations in prices and job availability. In addition, the mechanized farms often cut through traditional range-lands, migratory routes, and sources of water.

The result was an emergence of a new class of poor people. This class was the product of a fragile market economy. In order to produce enough food, rural farmers had to intensify their farming techniques. They were no longer able to rotate crops, maintain weeding regimes, and leave pasture lands fallow necessary for regeneration. These changes hastened soil degradation, deforestation, and water source depletion.

Drought is not an infrequent occurrence in northern Sudan, yet not every drought becomes a famine. For a famine to occur, the population must be vulnerable and unable to employ the preventive measures necessary to minimize the effects of drought. When the rains failed in the early 1980s, these new poor were already vulnerable to price increases, crop failure, loss of livestock, and lack of employment opportunities.

The mechanized farms responded to the drought by cutting back their planting, thus leading to a sharp decline in the amount of work available. By the end of 1983, an estimated 1 million people in northern Sudan had already been affected by the drought (Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance of the Agency for International Development statistic).

The social and economic consequences of agricultural development have proved disastrous for the rural poor farmers, undermining their ability to insure themselves against drought and environmental degradation, and at the same time preventing them from attaining economic viability.