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Residents abandon homes over fear of clashes with pastoralists in Eastern Equatoria

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OKELLO JAMES

Residents of a community in the Eastern Equatorian region of South Sudan have temporarily abandoned their homes out of fear that conflict will develop between local farmers and pastoralists who have migrated to the area seeking grazing pasture and water for their cattle.

“Women and children have migrated to the top of nearby mountains as the days are now uncertain,” said George Ochang, a youth leader in Tesack, west of Torit. “You see, many pastoralists arrived here in early December with their animals and the community is afraid of what can happen.”

The annual migration of pastoralists across South Sudan has traditionally created tension between cattle herders and local farmers as they battle for access to scarce resources during the dry season.

For more than two decades, pastoralists from the Jonglei region have migrated with their cattle to parts of Eastern Equatoria such as Pageri, Nimule Mugali and Magwi. However, recent trends show herders are increasingly moving into areas west of Torit like Teseck and Iyere, using farmland as grazing fields which heightens tension between farmers and herders.

Thousands of cattle arrived in Tesack and other neighbouriong towns like Iyere only days after local authorities there issued a stern warning for herders to leave. The directive came when residents reported that the presence of the cattle herders posed a security threat – further complicated by the destruction of crops by their cattle.

“Cattle keepers bring their animals to drink water from where we also fetch water for domestic use,” said community member, Susan Mary. “If they continue living here, we will not have clean water to drink because animals also drink from the same water points. This will result in waterborne diseases.”

A patrol of military and civilian peacekeepers serving with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan visited the area to get a better understanding of the challenges faced by the local population. They urged the communities to speak directly to the cattle herders to try and resolve any issues amicably.

“We have seen the difficult situation between you and cattle keepers, and it needs urgent attention by government authorities. We will engage with state authorities to see how best to address this simmering tension, so farmers can start preparing land for cultivation before the rains start,” UNMISS civil affairs officer, Marko Miljevic, told community members.

Local communities and pastoralists in neighbouring Magwi recently signed a memorandum of understanding for the pastoralists to vacate farmlands but the agreement has not been respected.

“With the arrival of the pastoralists in this place, our farming activities have been interrupted. We are also often intimidated by herders during harvest times, especially those of us with farmland situated far from the village,” said Dominic Lokulang, an Iyere community member.

In 2017, President Salva Kiir issued a decree for the removal of cattle occupying farmlands in the Equatorian region. Subsequently, a national dialogue committee formed a subcommittee for the evacuation of cattle from farmlands to coordinate, with the national government, ways to implement the decree so that farming activities will not be hindered.

“I received a message from Iyere this morning that cattle keepers have returned to the farms. My advice is to remain calm even as we work with them for a lasting solution,” said Lodovico Oryem, Torit West Commissioner.