In 2014, Virginia native Jeremiah Heaton told his daughter Emily that she would one day be a princess. A man of his word, he immediately began researching how he might make this possible, and soon discovered there was one place left on Earth that was still unclaimed by any nation: Bir Tawil, an 800-square-mile stretch of inhospitable desert between Egypt and Sudan. He soon made a trip there, and on Emily’s 7th birthday, planted a homemade flag, proclaiming himself the king of the new Kingdom of North Sudan and, in the process, making his daughter’s dream come true.
Naturally, the media ate it up, and it wasn’t long before Disney bought the movie rights to the story (an act that inspired a fresh round of media coverage, only this time it brought with it accusations of colonialism).
Since then, the project has taken on a less whimsical hue. Heaton — who has run for Congress twice, once as an independent and once as a Democrat — is determined that his gesture be more than symbolic, and insists that plans are in place to turn the area into a real, functioning country. Inspired by his daughter’s suggestion that they should use the land to plant a garden and grow food for everyone in the world going hungry, the 39-year-old Heaton now plans to use the area as a hub for agricultural research and development, including the use of renewable energy and vertical farming.
This plan, naturally, is not without its problems. Heaton estimates that North Sudan — currently nothing more than unforgiving rock and sand — is still around a year away from having the infrastructure to support such a community, and even then, it would be basic: Concrete structures to house labs and dormitories for up to 350 people, with nothing in the way of hospitals or creature comforts. Still, with all the planned construction so far paid for by a mix of crowd funding and investment, Heaton is hopeful that eventually, it will resemble something between a corporate campus and a four-star resort. (For the time being, however, he will remain on his Virginia farm.)
Despite the fact that North Sudan has yet to be recognized by the international community, Heaton’s hope is that his kingdom will one day inspire a global sea change in the way people view their personal freedoms — digital, economic and personal. We spoke to him on the third anniversary of the founding of his country to see what the experience has taught him.
I didn’t need permission from anyone to found my own country. People don’t really understand the concept of terra nullius: If a volcanic island were to pop up in the middle of international waters, you could occupy that island, and it’d be a self-sufficient community with its own government and legal structure. That’s what exists with Bir Tawil: I don’t have to have permission from Egypt or Sudan because those countries have made clear that the land doesn’t belong to them. Nor is there a population that exists there. So just like that island, the act of effecting governmental control isn’t being contested by anyone, because we’re on solid legal ground.
There are four elements of international law that you have to follow to create a new country. The first is you have to have clearly defined borders, which we do. The second is that you have to have the intention, announcement and creation of a government, which we’ve done. The third is that you have to have effective control, which we do by virtues of the laws that govern the region — and of course, the fact we have no population, so there’s no need for border control. The fourth is that you want to have trade relationships with other countries. To that effect, we’re building a 1 gigawatt solar farm, and we intend to sell that power and to be an economic benefit to Egypt and Sudan.
The precedent has already been set with respect to me keeping my U.S. citizenship: Grace Kelly was the princess of Monaco, and even though she was royalty and part of the governmental structure, she still retained her U.S. citizenship. My situation is the exact same.
Our individual rights have been eroded by nearly every government. We can pick the color of our vehicles, but in terms of true liberty, we don’t have the rights we once did. That’s unfortunate. For example, we used to have privacy with relation to communication, but now our governments don’t mind kicking down our digital door and rifling through our files for whatever the reason of the day is. Respecting those boundaries is something that I, as the leader of the Kingdom of North Sudan, will strictly enforce.
I’ve made it very clear that we’re also about digital freedom. Look at what we’re doing here in the U.S.: We just locked up someone for releasing classified information. Once we’ve got infrastructure in place and people realize that this [nation] is legitimate, people will look toward North Sudan as being the repository for free speech. It’ll be a place where a journalist can exchange information with another journalist and know that that information exchange will occur in an environment that’s encrypted and free from spying eyes. We want people that have a boot on their neck to have a voice to share their experiences without fear of being hunted down for conveying the truth.
Being a country that doesn’t practice any type of religion is appealing, too. Dubai is a great place to do business, but the religious components there make it hard for some businesses to operate. What we’re going for is to be a central economic hub where people can come in and do business in a free-trade-zone-type environment and where government regulation is nominal and taxation is practically nonexistent.
I want to be the Elon Musk of agricultural development. We’ve got a lot of great scientists in the world, but they spend half their time begging for money for their research. I want to do what Elon Musk has done and bring scientists into [non-governmental] facilities. I want to take the revenue stream of the kingdom and tell the scientists, here are 10 laboratories, spend 110 percent of your effort on the science instead of looking for money.
Now, Elon Musk has the appeal of having sexy cars and sexy rockets, while I want to focus on something most people consider fairly unsexy — growing food. But for me, it’s pretty damn sexy to think that we can harness the power of science to provide enough food for all the people in the world.
We’re on the cusp of a change in how we grow food here on Earth. We’re getting away from growing food in an open environment, where you have to contend with pests, rainstorms, floods and all these other things. If you look at the advancement that’s been made with regards to vertical farming, the diversification of the food products that are grown within these facilities is something that holds immense interest to me — it’s the driving force behind what we’re doing with the country.
It is, honest to goodness, the next wave of science in terms of agriculture. I have a farm here in southwest Virginia, where I’ve grown various crops. And I can tell you, when you’re fighting with Mother Nature, it’s both expensive and aggravating. But if you can grow food in a controlled environment 365 days a year and not have to worry about pesticides and herbicides, and then only use 1 percent of the water that would normally be required for the crop… There’s a huge amount of gain that can be had there.
Maybe 10 to 15 percent of people choose to be negative about what we’re doing. I think in this day in age, that’s about par for the course. You could have a gold bar factory in a town and give everyone gold bars, and you’d have someone complain about how heavy they are. That’s just the nature of people today, I guess.
Let’s break that down further: I didn’t represent the USA — I don’t represent any government. The land was unoccupied — and is still unoccupied — from any type of native population that exists there, so I’m not taking land from anyone. I haven’t exported resources. I haven’t subjugated anyone. Therefore, I don’t fit the definition of colonialist in any way.
I’ve had a lot of people who want to live in the kingdom. It’s the fire in people that know something isn’t right where they live. It goes back to a time where liberty really was a thing, and freedom really was a thing — it wasn’t just some construct we used to justify something like, “We’re going to bring freedom to Iraq and Afghanistan.”
The term “freedom” has been corrupted as a slogan or banner to justify X, Y or Z.
If your heart and will is strong, you can overcome people who think great things can’t be accomplished. The media has been skeptical of the possibility of this becoming a reality, but the progress that we’ve been making — our trade relationship talks between Egypt and Sudan are still ongoing — has really been striking. I couldn’t have imagined that three years ago we would be where we are today. It’s just through hard work and determination, and overcoming the fact that someone says you can’t do something.