By Paul Elkan
Juba, South Sudan
As Americans celebrate the Fourth of July each year with cookouts, concerts, and fireworks, it is almost easy to forget the holiday’s connection with the nation’s independence and the struggles to achieve it. Surely that was not the case on July 4, 1777. On its first anniversary the United States was still a young republic, with a war yet to be won to solidify the unalienable rights deemed “self-evident” in Thomas Jefferson’s enduring declaration.
Much uncertainty likewise surrounded the new nation of the Republic of South Sudan this July as it celebrated its own first year of independence. The relatively peaceful and orderly independence referendum of 2011 and the subsequent formal separation of South Sudan from its northern neighbor after more than two decades of civil war quickly gave way to renewed ethnic conflict in the South’s Jonglei region, military clashes with the Khartoum government over oil fields in Heglig/Panthou and Abyei along the border, and fighting in the Nuba Mountains.
While disputed petroleum deposits and the land above them drives much of the current north-south conflict, the south’s other natural resources go undervalued. The region still contains vast un-fragmented lands and ecosystems, immense water resources, and intact woodlands and forests, along with unique assemblages of wildlife, including the world’s second largest land mammal migration.
Similar resources help explain why South Sudan’s neighbors Rwanda and Ethiopia were among the world’s 10 fastest growing economies for 2001-2010. In Tanzania, the tourism industry accounts for 20 percent of total exports. South Sudan’s natural resources present a huge opportunity for conservation and ecotourism development to diversify and help catalyze South Sudan’s economy if present challenges can be overcome.
One such challenge is the large number of arms still held by civilian populations. A number of armed groups still roam remote zones. Traditional South Sudanese people live off the land through livestock, agriculture, and fishing. Conflict over these resources escalates faster and with deadlier consequences when weapons are widely available and armed attacks and banditry go without punishment by effective law enforcement.
With funding from USAID, WCS and the Government of South Sudan have been working with local stakeholders since 2008 to sustainably manage natural resources, conserve biodiversity, improve security in remote areas, and reduce natural resource-based conflicts. With the cooperation of community-based organizations, these efforts have helped to improve the livelihoods of local people in key conflict flashpoint areas of the 200,000-sq. kilometer Boma-Jonglei-Equatoria landscape.
The establishment and stewardship of protected areas such as the Boma and Badingalo Parks, as well as a number of important wildlife migration corridors, has led to a dialogue among stakeholders over land and resource management, created infrastructure, monitoring and law enforcement presence in remote and sometimes insecure conflict areas, and improved detection and deterrence of armed groups.
Protected area employment opportunities (including, eventually, ecotourism) are a stabilizing influence in South Sudan, especially for the young farmers and herdsmen who are most susceptible to involvement in tribal unrest. At the same time, conflict over grazing areas or land encroachment can be avoided when communities better understand the location and management needs of local resources through the use of maps.
A government-led land-use planning process has engaged pastoralists in wildlife protection and security monitoring, improving grazing while nurturing the development of land-use/protected area zoning and planning. That process in turn helps to identify priority areas for industries like agriculture, mining, and oil, taking into account conservation and social development concerns. With careful implementation, this process can promote environmentally- and socially-sound extractive industry best practices and greater transparency.
As South Sudan observes its first year of independence, it will be critical for the government and its international partners to build on the recent progress: by expanding conservation programs to help reduce conflicts over natural resources; by improving security in rural areas; by developing ecotourism opportunities; and by conserving the region’s remarkable ecosystems and its magnificent wildlife migrations.
In time, the date of July 9 will represent not challenges unmet or promises to keep. Rather it will denote peace and prosperity achieved through a recognition of the nation’s rich natural assets. Indeed, South Sudan’s road to democracy must inevitably wind its way through the globally important landscapes that make Africa’s newest nation so special and unique. Now that’s something to celebrate.
Dr. Paul Elkan is Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s South Sudan Program.