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Sudan Fighting Hits Farmers, Delays Crucial Planting

FILE - Sudanese farmers prepare their land for agriculture on the banks of the river Nile in Khartoum Nov. 11, 2009.

CAIRO — A war between military factions in Sudan is putting at risk the production of staple crops this year, farmers in several states say, threatening to drive the African nation deeper into hunger and poverty.

Reuters spoke to more than a dozen people including farmers, experts and aid workers who reported delays in planting crops such as sorghum and millet, partly due to a lack of credit from banks and the high prices of key inputs such as fertilizers, seeds and fuel.

Four of the farmers Reuters spoke to said they may not be able to plant at all before heavy rains expected this month, the traditional window for planting.

The worsening conditions for farmers suggests a looming hunger crisis could be even worse than the United Nations and aid workers have forecast. In May, the U.N. said it estimated that the number of people going hungry in Sudan would rise to 19.1 million by August from 16.2 million prior to the conflict, which started in April.

Shortages of key staples — exacerbated by looting of warehouses in cities like the capital Khartoum — would further worsen a hunger crisis that has been steadily building in recent years.

It could also cripple livelihoods and deprive Sudan of foreign currency needed to import basic commodities, as cash crops such as sesame and peanuts accounted for $1.6 billion in export revenues in 2022, according to central bank figures.

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), nearly 65% of Sudan's population of 49 million is engaged in the agricultural sector.

While U.N. experts say it's too early to officially declare a famine in Sudan, four farmers told Reuters they believe the situation is already heading in that direction.

"Peanuts should have been sowed. People should have started to grow sorghum. Until now, our preparation is zero," said Abdelraouf Omer, a farmer and union leader in Al Gezira state, a key agricultural region in central Sudan that hasn't seen fighting. "We think we're threatened with a famine."

FAO said last week it had started emergency distribution of sorghum, millet, groundnut and sesame seeds, and hoped to navigate "complex security and logistical challenges" to deliver enough to cover the needs of 13-19 million people.

The U.N. World Food Program said it would continue to analyze the situation over the next six months and after the planting and harvest season.

Omer said he feared it might now be too late to plant, a view echoed by three other farmers. Although fighting had not directly affected their farms, a central problem was a lack of financing and unfulfilled promises for credit or in-kind support from banks, Omer added.

As fighting between Sudan's army and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a large paramilitary faction, that broke out on April 15 tore through the capital Khartoum, banks were looted and had to limit operations.

Though most agricultural areas of Sudan are relatively calm, supply chains centered on the capital have been widely disrupted. Some warehouses for inputs such as fertilizers, seeds and pesticides have been plundered, according to eyewitnesses.

In El Gezira, farmers have been struggling financially for years as Sudan has sunk deeper into an economic crisis. They now face challenges paying back loans in order to get new funding, said farming cooperative leader Mohamed Balla, adding that just a small proportion of land had been prepared for planting.

In parts of the western regions of the country — where aid groups say food stocks are running low — North Kordofan-based farmer Mahdi Ahmed and another farmer, Mohamed Abdallah from North Darfur, said farmers were robbed by gangs that included soldiers from the RSF as they tried to reach their fields.

"They say 'Thank God for your safe return. Drop your stuff here and go'," said Abdallah. "People are reliant on their farming. They eat what they grow."

The RSF did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Food supplies

Delays have also been reported in bigger, irrigated commercial farms that produce exports as well as sorghum and millet, said Adam Yao, Sudan spokesman for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

"Any disruption ... will have huge impact on the economy of the country but also on the livelihood of Sudanese people," he said.

Food and commodity imports have been impeded by the war and financial collapse, according to three industry sources.

Humanitarian access has been limited by fighting, looting and bureaucratic restrictions. Aid agencies have accused both sides of hampering relief, including the delivery of food. Both sides have said publicly that they have facilitated aid, and accuse the other side of impeding it.

In Gezira State, which has received more than 169,000 displaced people from Khartoum, shortages of some food items have been reported and the World Food Program is providing support for the first time.

Aid agency Islamic Relief reports that some farmers have resorted to eating sorghum and millet seed stocks, depleting the amount available for planting, with the situation worsening particularly in Darfur, Kordofan, White Nile and Sennar.

Those who have remained in Khartoum state face shortages and rising prices as cash dries up, and looting, store closures and supply-chain problems impact supplies.

Two residents told Reuters all the bakeries in their neighborhoods had closed.

Emad Adil of the Omdurman Emergency Room, a volunteer group, said that the price of a loaf had jumped more than 130% to 70 Sudanese pounds ($0.12), while Razan Bahaa, who lives in Bahri, said it had quadrupled to 200 pounds ($0.33) there.