SUDAN: Darfurians find ways round trading challenges

Friday, July 11, 2008
The Western Sudanese region of Darfur was once an important contributor to the global economy. Cattle, gum arabic, tobacco and manufactured goods made their way into the markets of Khartoum, the Gulf States, and even Europe and North America.

Since the Darfur conflict erupted 2003, many of these links have been broken. Nyala, in South Darfur, is no longer the second-most important manufacturing centre of Sudan. Few Darfuri cattle make the trip to Omdurman market, near Khartoum. And the Darfuri gum arabic trade, which once made Sudan the world’s leading exporter of the valuable commodity, is now defunct.

However, in the high-risk conditions of the region, where insecurity and banditry have largely destroyed the economy, there are remarkable signs of adaptability.

“Trade is the lifeblood of Darfur,” says Margie Buchanan-Smith, co-author with Abduljabbar Abdulla Fadul of a new report Adaptation and Devastation: The Impact of the Conflict on Trade and Markets in Darfur.

“They have always had to be very adaptable, whether it’s to changing climate or changing rainfall; whether it’s to changing policy regimes before the conflict,” she told IRIN by telephone. “That adaptability has really been put to the test in the last few years.”

Many traders were forced out of business early in the conflict as a result of insecurity and displacement, and those who remained solvent were taxed additionally by the state to make up for a loss of revenue, according to the study. A "shadow economy" - outside the control of the government - developed in IDP camps. In the case of Zamzam camp, near El Fasher in North Darfur, rebels have even imposed their own taxes. Traders have also had to pay protection payments to ensure safe delivery of goods in and around Darfur.

The increase in prices and this “crippling policy environment” led Darfur’s once-important trade in chewing tobacco, groundnuts, livestock, and gum arabic to either shrink or collapse, Buchanan-Smith said.

But some trades have persisted, according to the study. A trade in oranges continues, albeit reduced, as dealers negotiate through frontlines, moving from rebel-controlled areas of production to government-controlled urban markets.

Grain traders have been kept afloat by a new trade in World Food Programme (WFP) relief grain.

"Cereal traders in Nyala estimated that relief grain in the market is three times the amount of locally produced cereals....Much of it is traded outside the official market...hidden in houses. It is sold by IDPs... as an income transfer as well as meeting consumption needs,” the report said.

New sectors, such as a timber trade and property market, have opened up in response to urbanisation and the influx of international humanitarian actors.

Buchanan-Smith said more attention needed to be paid to the study of Darfur’s markets to better focus livelihoods programmes as well as to minimise the environmental impact of the humanitarian intervention.

“There are a number of things that the humanitarian community can do," she said. "The first is to be much more awake to the impact of what they do on the market.

“If you allow the market infrastructure to collapse, then it is going to make recovery much more difficult, when the time comes, when there is a peaceful solution,” she continued.

Alex de Waal, a Darfur analyst, summed up the salience of the study: "Darfur’s markets will undoubtedly be a more important factor than relief programmes in the survival and livelihoods of the Darfurian people,” he wrote in a 2 July blog entry, “and it is crucial that they are studied, understood and supported."