South Sudan looking into US land deal

Reuters | January 27, 2009

By Skye Wheeler

JUBA, Sudan, (Reuters) - South Sudan's administration is looking into a 4,000 sq km land investment by a U.S. businessman because of questions over who owns the plot, a senior official said on Tuesday.

Philippe Heilberg, chairman and CEO of New York-based investment firm Jarch Capital, told Reuters earlier this month he had leased the land in a deal involving the son of a senior army officer in semi-autonomous south Sudan.

The agreement put a spotlight on a surge in foreign interest in African agricultural land after commodity prices surged last year, but also raised questions over land rights on a continent where these are often not set down clearly.

The chairman of south Sudan's Land Commission, Robert Lado, said he was looking into the case to see whether all necessary agreements had been secured.

"We really need to look at (the contract) and if need be revisit it," he told Reuters, adding that authorities in south Sudan's capital Juba had not been consulted about the deal and he had first heard about it through media reports.

Lado said he needed more information before discussing what action, if any, might be taken.

He said he would ask officials in South Sudan's Unity state to send details of the case for examination by the Ministry of Legal Affairs and the Land Commission, the state body responsible for land policy and settling disputes.

South Sudan's administration was set up under a 2005 peace deal to end over two decades of war with the north.

Under the land deal, Jarch Capital's related company Jarch Management agreed to lease about 400,000 hectares and buy a 70 percent interest in South Sudanese company LEAC for Agriculture and Investment Co Ltd.

Jarch Management said it was buying the stake from Gabriel Matip. He is the son of General Paulino Matip Nhial, deputy commander of the Sudan People's Liberation Army, the army of the government of south Sudan.

"Our land is communal in southern Sudan. An individual can only sell it when there is consensus among members of that community," Lado said.

"Even if he is leasing this land on behalf of his family, there are other members of the family. Even if on behalf of his clan there are other members of the clan."

South Sudan's government passed a new land law on Monday designed to clarify the ownership of vast tracts of south Sudanese territory and encourage new investors.

Under the new legislation, any leases of more than 250 feddans (about 105 hectares) of tribal land have to be approved by two new local government bodies.

Lado said it was unclear whether the new regulations would affect land deals like Heilberg's that had already been signed.

"We are looking into that ...we could have a provisional order to have this law retrospectively effective."

(Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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