Written by Eric Postel, Assistant Administrator, Bureau for Economic Growth, Agriculture and Trade and Raja Jandhyala, Deputy Assistant Administrator, Bureau for Africa

South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, faces many challenges, including land use policy. A continuing focus of USAID’s work in South Sudan is land tenure reform, an important strategy for improving economic growth and food security and for reducing conflict.

Drafting the policy involved extensive research, formal consultation workshops with citizens, and training and capacity building of government officials. In February 2011, the Republic of South Sudan (RSS) received its draft Land Policy, which is now under final review. Once approved, the RSS will define, test, and implement the laws and regulations, and institutions needed to guide the administration and management of land and property rights.

The draft Land Policy calls for a number of actions to ensure equality of land rights for women and men.  While it recognizes the continuing value of customary tenure arrangements, it takes the important step of providing women and men with equal rights to customary allocations. This is especially relevant now because nearly half of the families that have returned to South Sudan are headed by women.

USAID will also take a lead role in helping develop land use planning and land administration and management systems in three counties of South Sudan. This effort can then be replicated in the remaining seven states of South Sudan.

A comprehensive approach to land tenure and property rights (LTPR) is critical because it addresses, and seeks to resolve, different expectations about land use at all governance levels, from the national government down to communities.

Historically, people in rural South Sudan accessed land through traditional means – the customary systems mentioned above. Families were entitled to land by virtue of their membership in a particular community, which could be based on clan, tribe, or other ties. This approach has certain benefits – land is available free of charge and acts as a security net for community members. However, customary systems tend to limit the land rights of unmarried women and widows by making women’s rights subsidiary to men’s rights. The new Land Policy changes this approach.

Planning and administering land use is a significant challenge for RSS, state, and local governments and traditional authorities.  The draft Land Policy helps address some of these challenges by defining who has authority to make decisions about the use of land, and ensuring that the institutions, roles, and responsibilities of various levels of government are clarified.

When such important issues are left unaddressed, they undermine private-sector development and long-term economic growth. Experience from other African countries shows that ill-defined land policies and institutions can quickly lead to illegitimate  land grabbing, exploitation of land in ways that do not benefit communities, and the re-emergence of conflict.

On the other hand, an effective LTPR process can address numerous challenges. It helps prevent land grabbing by influential individuals or companies and facilitates equitable access to land for agricultural production. It can also encourage farmers to make long-term investments in capital and other inputs and it may encourage environmentally sustainable practices.  Critical for South Sudan, it can facilitate the return of internally displaced persons and refugees to their homes of origin or to new areas of permanent, secure settlement.

Because the security or insecurity of land tenure has such a wide array of impacts it is especially important to focus attention on improving land policies.  Secure land tenure is fundamental to increasing peace and security, agriculture productivity, economic growth, and women’s empowerment.  All of these issues are critical for South Sudan’s future success. The new Land Policy (if approved), and its careful implementation, can serve as a strong foundation for independence and sustainable growth for the world’s newest nation.