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August 17, 2008

The Khartoum regime is capitalising on high global food prices...while the people of Darfur barely have enough to eat.

By Jeffrey Gettleman (NYTimes, Aug. 16, 2008)
Even as it receives desperately needed food aid from international donors, Sudan is growing and selling vast quantities of its own crops to other countries. The Khartoum regime is capitalising on high global food prices at a time when millions of people in its war-riddled region of Darfur barely have enough to eat.

In the bone-dry desert, where desiccated donkey carcasses line the road, huge green fields suddenly materialise. Beans. Wheat. Sorghum. Melons. Peanuts. Pumpkins. Aubergines. They are all grown here, part of an ambitious government plan for Sudanese self-sufficiency, creating giant mechanised farms that rise out of the sand.

But how much of the bonanza is getting back to the hungry Sudanese, like the 2.5 million driven into camps in Darfur? And why is a country that exports so many of its own crops receiving more free food than anywhere else in the world, especially when the Sudanese government is blamed for creating the crisis in the first place?

African countries that rely on donated food usually cannot produce enough on their own. Somalia, Ethiopia, Niger and Zimbabwe are all recent examples of how war, natural disasters or gross mismanagement can cut deep into food production, pushing millions of people to the brink of starvation.

But in Sudan, there seem to be plenty of calories to go around. The country is already growing wheat for Saudi Arabia, sorghum for camels in the United Arab Emirates and vine-ripened tomatoes for the Jordanian army. Now the government is ploughing £2.5bn into new agribusiness projects, many of them to produce food for export.

Take sorghum, a staple of the Sudanese diet, typically eaten in flat, spongy bread. Last year, the US government, as part of its response to the emergency in Darfur, shipped in 283,000 tons of sorghum, at high cost, from as far away as Houston. Oddly enough, that is about the same amount that Sudan exported, according to UN officials. This year, Sudanese companies, including many that are linked to the government in Khartoum, are on track to ship out twice that amount, even as the United Nations is being forced to cut rations to Darfur.

Aid groups gave up long ago on the Sudanese government helping the people of Darfur. The nation's president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, has been accused of masterminding genocide in Darfur. UN officials have said that if they do not bring food into the region, the government surely will not.

That leaves the United Nations and western aid groups feeding more than three million residents of Darfur. But the lifeline is fraying. Security is deteriorating. Aid trucks are getting hijacked nearly every day and deliveries are being made less frequently. The result: less food and soaring malnutrition rates, particularly among children.

"Sudan could be self-sufficient," said Kenro Oshidari, the director of the UN World Food Programme in Sudan. "It does have the potential to be the breadbasket of Africa.

The last time the government gave the World Food Programme any food for Darfur was in 2006. It was 22,000 tons of Sudanese-grown sorghum. It was a fraction of what the people needed, UN officials said, and some of the grain was rancid and infested with weevils.
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