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DR CONGO: Small-scale Farmers Say They Just Need Land

KINSHASA, Dec 22 2009 (IPS) - The more than 800 small-scale farmers belonging to co-operatives around the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) capital, Kinshasa, could produce enough rice and vegetables for the capital’s estimated eight million inhabitants, according to the country’s agriculture ministry.

However the farmers say they cannot effectively work the land without any long-term prospects or stability. The land is being steadily being taken away from them and sold off for new construction, especially in Mimoza, Maluku, Mpasa, Bandalungwa, N’Sele and Kingabwa, which are rural areas around the capital.

The situation is especially sad for Françoise Makulu, a vegetable farmer. “For over five years, I produced more than 200 kilos of vegetables each season on just 100 square metres of land, at the nursery across the road from the Kinshasa Higher Institute of Commerce,” she said.

“But a year ago, the nursery was sold to Lebanese traders who, in a matter of weeks, have put up four buildings there,” she tells IPS.

“My annual harvest allowed me to meet all the food needs of my family, to pay rent for the house we live in and to pay all my children’s school fees,” says Makulu.

To survive, she now sells fish bought from wholesalers at the market in Selembao, a Kinshasa district.

Yet according to Norbert Bashengezi, the minister of agriculture, fisheries and livestock, “the government is ready to help these small-scale farmers produce more crops at a cheaper price, especially as over 80 percent of them are women.”

According to the minister, women are “the first to recognise the need to feed children and pay school fees, even as men abandon their work in the fields, indulging in reading the paper and watching television.”

The minister’s statements are little comfort to Laurentine Vakoko, another former vegetable producer, who lost her field along Kasa Vubu Avenue which goes to Bandalungwa. “How can a government which claims to help small-scale farmers and agriculturists take from them what is so essential to their work?” she asks IPS.

For her part, Génie Kamanda, who has been farming rice in N’Sele for over five years, has this to say, “Taking land from small-scale farmers who are playing their part in the fight against hunger simply leads to greater food insecurity in our country. The only assistance we now expect from government is a guarantee around the stable use of land.”

She however says she benefitted from the hoes, spades, seeds and fertilisers which government distributed free to farmers around the capital in May 2009.

Speaking to IPS, Minister Bashengezi says, “Investors in agriculture must understand that through its program to fight food insecurity, the government want to assure them of the stability of land use. This is because since January 2009, it has already invested over US$500 million to help some of them with material implements and other inputs.”

John Mbaka is scornful. “Another statement, and much like any other! The minister would be reassuring our colleagues who’ve lost their fields if he told us that there is – or will be – coordinated policy between his department and the person responsible for land management.”

Mbaka is a member of the agricultural cooperative of vegetable producers in Kinshasa’s Changu district.

Pascal Mavungu, a Congolese agronomist, wants to see the debate extended to other roleplayers in agriculture. For him, “the search for a solution to forced removal from cultivated land should not be limited to exchanges between government and small-scale farmers. Civil society must find its place and play its role, without which an already-powerful government could not be influenced by a group of vulnerable farmers.”

But, as Bashengezi angrily tells an audience of journalists and farmers, “how does one rely on a civil society that is wasting 60 percent of its finance on self-serving meetings or on associations which have no address? Which collects inputs from the department (of agriculture) and resells them 10 metres away from the warehouses?”

“It is true that the Congolese civil society is disorganised and has many weaknesses,” says Fernandez Murhola, president of the Civil Society of Kinshasa. He however feels that “it is impossible to generalise on the shortcomings of certain organisations in the whole structure .

Murhola further tells IPS, “It is also true that agricultural associations are not yet sufficiently well-structured. This is because agriculture is not yet a topic of great debate in our country. But other associations in various sectors of society, which have been in existence for years, have nevertheless managed to help refocus government efforts through the concerted actions of lobbying and advocacy. ”

*The second of two articles on obstacles facing small-scale farmers in DRC.

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