Participants at interstate conference on seasonal cattle migration recommit to peace

unmiss marial bai south sudan conflict cattle wau warrap peacekeeping

In Wau, farmers and herders from Western Bahr El Ghazal and Warrap respectively, agree to uphold the terms of the Marial Bai Agreement, which sets down guidelines to avoid conflict during seasonal cattle migration. Photo by Roseline Nzelle Nkwelle/UNMISS

31 Jan 2024

Participants at interstate conference on seasonal cattle migration recommit to peace

Roseline Nzelle Nkwelle

WESTERN BAHR EL GHAZAL:  Every year in South Sudan, seasonal cattle migration takes place during January to April—the dry season.

In these months, animal herders from Warrap state begin moving large hordes of cattle towards their neighbouring state, Western Bahr El Ghazal, to make sure their livestock can graze on green pastures.

To the uninitiated, this may seem fairly routine. But this annual occurrence has been the source of fierce conflict between semi nomadic herders and settled farming communities, often triggered by the fact that animals do not differentiate between grazing lands and food crops.

The toll of such clashes, over the years, has been heavy on communities, characterized as it is by death, displacement, and loss of property.

To prevent such cyclical violence and promote peaceful resolution of migration-related disputes, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS); the UN Development Programme (UNDP); and the International Organization for Migration, joined hands to host a mini conference, bringing together all constituents to settle outstanding issues.

These conferences are, like the migration they focus on, a yearly feature, and this particular gathering took place ahead of time, given the early onset of dry weather.

“We are here today because we all want to be on the same page when talking about the protection of our wealth and resources,” stated Arkangelo Anyar Anyar, Western Bahr El Ghazal’s Acting Governor.

“In South Sudan, cattle are synonymous to wealth for herders just as crops are wealth to farmers. Conflict arises when one person thinks their wealth is more important than that of the other,” he added, eloquently summing up the problem, as he opened the two-day discussions among pastoralists from Warrap state and farmers from Western Bahr El Ghazal’s Jur River county.

The top agenda item: a review of the Marial Bai Agreement signed in 2016 when disputes resulting from cattle movement lead to violent clashes, loss of life and the displaced thousands. Since then, this Agreement has regulated seasonal cattle movement between communities from both states.

“The Marial Bai Agreement has provisions which punish cattle herders whose animals destroy crops and farmers who harm cattle,” revealed William Deng Kor, Warrap state’s Minister of Local Government and Law Enforcement.

“These stringent provisions have been an effective deterrent for violators. Critically, the Agreement strengthens collegiate relationships between the people of Warrap and Western Bahr El Ghazal,” he emphasized.

These laudable provisions notwithstanding, seasonal cattle migration has not been void of unpleasant situations. The conference therefore is an opportunity for both communities to speak up on issues impeding peaceful coexistence.

“Sometimes cattle arrive early and we have not harvested all our crops. This constitutes a huge loss for farmers,” informed Joseph Madut, administrator for Udici, one of the host communities to cattle herders. 

“Farmers also do not receive compensation for their crops in time,” he continued. “The other challenge is the dispute over scarce water points and that farming communities are forced to share their only source of water with animals, which creates tensions.

In agreement were women who remain the most affected by this situation.

“This conference is very important to us as women because we depend solely on our crops,” said Angelina Anthony Uku. “Today we have received valuable information about the Marial Bai Agreement, especially how to get compensation when our crops are destroyed. We women are calling for this Agreement to be enacted into law to enhance our access to swift justice,” she added passionately.

A key takeaway from these candid conversations: The inter-dependency of animal husbandry and farming, and the need for peaceful coexistence and unity as both sectors remain major contributors to South Sudan’s economy.

“We are deeply regretful that our animals destroy croplands at times,” said Martin Kuac Muoter, a traditional leader from Warrap.

“But we must remember that farming communities do benefit from cattle movements because they get an abundant supply of manure for their farms. However, we believe that we must unite with our farmer friends in Western Bahr El Ghazal to remove contentious issues and allow this season to be a productive and peaceful one for both sides,” he averred.

Some 50 participants held meaningful and fruitful deliberations, reaffirming their willingness to abide by the tenets of the Marial Bai Agreement plus spread its key messages to those in their communities who could not be present.

For Sam Muhumure, Head of the UNMISS Field Office in Wau, the outcome was gratifying.

“Since 2021, each cattle migration season has been better than the previous one, thanks to the willingness of communities to uphold the Marial Bai Agreement. As the UN family, we support this process and ensure that the message reach all involved communities, so that seasonal migration can continue peacefully.”

This particular conference was funded by the UN Peacekeeping mission, while similar outreach in smaller administrative divisions will be facilitated by UNDP and IOM.