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AGRICULTURE-CHAD: Farmers, Herders Collide In Southern Refugee Camps

David Axe

GORE, Jul 9 2008 (IPS) - Clarisse Larlombaye was nearly ruined when a herd of cows got into her rice field one night. The tiny 900-square-meter plot, outside the U.N.-run Gondje refugee camp in lush southern Chad is the sole source of income for Larlombaye and the two other Central African refugees she shares it with.

Central African refugees with a new plow, Gondje camp, southern Chad Credit: David Axe/IPS

Central African refugees with a new plow, Gondje camp, southern Chad Credit: David Axe/IPS

In recent years, Larlombaye and her co-farmers each have gotten an average of 225 kilogrammes of rice per year from their small plot. Larlombaye said she and her family usually eat two-thirds; the other third she sells for around $.75 per kilo at local markets. But the marauding cows left her with just 70 kilos last year, barely enough to feed her and her family.

Larlombaye's brush with catastrophe is all too common in southern Chad, where 60,000 Central African refugees compete with local residents, and with each other, for land. The growing crisis parallels escalating tensions in eastern Chad between 250,000 Darfuri refugees and local residents over scarce water and firewood.

Ravenous cattle intruding on farmland is not a new problem in Chad. But incidents are becoming more frequent and contentious, especially in and around the southern refugee camps.

Despite the tension, the U.N. has heralded its four southern Chad camp complexes – which house refugees fleeing unrest in northern Central African Republic – as models of agricultural self-sufficiency, especially compared to camps in the east, which still rely heavily on food donations funneled through the U.N. World Food Program.

Southern Chad's relative lushness compared to the arid east is key. "Southern Chad is not a Saharan area. It is a place where you can have agriculture," said Serge Male, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees' representative to Chad.

Male said that in the three years since the southern camps were established, U.N.-administered agriculture programs have reduced external food assistance to a minimum. In a camp complex near the town of Gore, 40 kilometres north of the Central African border, an estimated 4,300 refugee farmers and 1,700 herders feed around 24,000 other refugees.

Many of the farmers and herders even have enough left over to sell food and livestock on the open market, earning as much as $25 for a 100-kilogramme box of peanuts and $150 for a head of cattle, in a country where just $.25 buys a loaf of bread.

In the south, food assistance is reserved for the sick and elderly, single mothers and other "vulnerable populations."

But the Central African refugees' food self-sufficiency is threatened by land shortages… and by poor relations between farmers and herders inside and outside of the camps. Larlombaye's rice plot isn't the only one to be ravaged by herds in the past year. For many farmers in Gore, including non-refugee residents, it's the number-one complaint.

Etienne N'Doubatar, president of a local, non-refugee rice-farming collective, said the animals wander in at night when their herders are asleep. What can N'Doubatar and other farmers do? He shrugged when asked. "Catch and release," he said. With materials and tool shortages of all kinds, it's impractical to build fences.

Herders have their own gripes. They say their herds are hungry. With the number of refugees and animals steadily increasing – Chad accepted another 10,000 Central African refugees this year – herders now have to walk up to 15 kilometres with their animals to find forage. And there are no pens in or around the camps, again due to shortages of tools and materials – and of space.

Worse, according to Ali Moussa, a refugee herder, are the accusations. He says that when there's a dispute over loose animals, it should be settled as if "between friends." But when farmers discover that their crops have been chewed to nubs overnight, they tend to make "false accusations," fingering the closest herders regardless of the evidence.

The U.N. has encouraged mediation. "There are local mechanisms – mixed committees composed of locals and refugees – for reconciling problems with herds," said Boubacar Amadou, an agriculture expert working for UNHCR in Gore. He said the U.N.-sponsored committees have managed to head off major violence over marauding animals.

But the committees can't resolve the underlying causes of the conflict. There's just not enough useful land. Boubacar stressed the "useful" part. Southern Chad does not appear overpopulated, but thick forest makes much of the land impractical for agriculture, including animal husbandry.

One solution is to bring in tractors to help clear more land. But with local farmers going into debt to afford simple animal-drawn plows, which can cost as much as $1,000 locally, no one can afford tractors.

Aid group Africare, which provides agricultural expertise to the local U.N. offices, has tractors it loans out – but there aren't enough to go around. On July 8, rice farmer N'Doubatar secured a tractor's services to turn over an old rice field, but elsewhere in the area, farmers were preparing fields by hand, in some cases waiting in lines ten-deep to use scarce hoes.

Refugee farmer Kondjom Joker's solution is simpler, but ultimately less sustainable. He said that even after a long day of work, he stays up at night, walking his recently-planted 18-hectare field, patrolling for cows.

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