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AGRICULTURE-CONGO: All Hands On Deck to Repair Rural Roads

Arsène Severin

NGOUHA II, Congo, Dec 22 2009 (IPS) - Two kilometres from the village of Ngouha II, a party of villagers are busy repairing an old bridge made of logs, and filling in a massive pothole.

“If we don’t do it ourselves, no one will help us, and our agricultural produce will spoil. That’s why the whole village is mobilised to carry stones, wood and earth. It’s an effective solution,” says the village chief, Pierre Ngoro. The chief has organised a day of work to fix the road and allow vehicles to to reach the weekly farmers’ market.

Singing, the peasants work throughout the day to fill the hole and repair the old bridge, constructed by a logging company here at Kolila, two kilometres from the village, a decade or more ago. Faced with the deterioration of rural roads, small farmers have to take the initiative or see their harvest rot in the fields or in storage in the villages.

“There, it’s done! The last time, we had to transport squash, peanuts, taro root, fruit and vegetables, and cassava – all of it on our heads to this point, as the bridge was broken,” says Pierre Mavinda, a farmer.

A few dozen kilometres away, in Ndiba, a village not far from the railway station at Bouansa, also in the southwest region, young men have taken a similar initiative to repair a rural road, following multiple complaints by farmers who are watching their crops rot in the fields. Armed with shovels, hoes and picks, they fill potholes and gullies, especially bad where the road crosses the river Loua; the bridge there has been gone for several years.

Jean Louamba, a major producer of fufu, cassava flour, potatoes and maize at Ndiba, has struggled to get his produce to the station. “All vehicles refuse to come because the road is very bad. My only hope is what these kids are building here,” he says.

“Beyond the food that the farmers are giving us, we’re asking for five dollars from each vehicle that enters the village. It’s our job, we have to get paid, no?” asked Arman Mpandzou, one of the youth, laughing.

But in other areas, the transport situation is worse. Gilbert Koumba, a banana grower near the Les Saras rail station, is facing ruin. “I’ve been here a week waiting for the train to take my bananas to Pointe-Noire. The train is the only means of transport. I’m afraid of losing everything here,” he laments, squatting in front of this stock of rip bananas.

At Kibangou, the bridge over the Niari river, built under the colonial administration in the 1950s, was broken by a logging truck, cutting off the agricultural region of Divenié from the market provided by the 100,000 people in the area’s major town, Dolisie.

“Regardless of what we’re willing to do, I can’t see how we can rebuild the bridge,” sighs the local member of parliament, Serge Victor Ignoumba Maliga.

In Congo, in place of the government, it is routine for members of parliament to support construction of roads for their constituents. The MPs spend money from their salaries to pay locals to carry out public works, or to rent heavy equipment to fix a road; this expense is not repaid.

Nor is it enough.

“The isolation is the rule rather than the exception in Congo. There are no roads leading to the major agricultural centres. The complaints everywhere are the same,” declares Irène Mboukou-Kimbatsa, who is in charge of evaluation and follow-up of the Agricultural Development and Rural Roads Rehabilitation Project.

Half of the 40 million dollars of funding for the ADRRRP comes from an arm of the World Bank, the International Development Agency (IDA), with the government in Brazzaville putting up the rest.

The project aims to build some 1,321 kilometres of rural roads across the country over the next four years: “It’s nothing compared to what’s needed,” comments Mboukou-Kimbatsa.

“The government is not indifferent (to this issue),” says Jean Isben Moukouba, coordinator of multilateral cooperation at Congo’s ministry of agriculture and livestock, “because if there are no roads, there will be no agriculture and we will die of hunger in the big cities.

“Even if the government doesn’t buy the produce, private business will be interested in this production once there are roads. But with the current state of the roads, I can’t see who will risk destroying their vehicles.”

Elsewhere, the Rural Development Project (known by its French acronym PRODER) financed by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) plans to build 400 kilometres of roads.

“Of the 400 km to be built, we have already completed planning for half of them and the call for tenders to begin work has already been issued. The selection of roads for repairs was made taking into account all the major areas,” explains Paul Bizibandoki, responsible for PRODER Sud.

“The plan is not to construct kilometres of contiguous roads. The IFAD strategy is to fix the bottlenecks, such as bridges, culverts, potholes… but where things are okay, we will leave it. The priority for IFAD is to allow farmers to get to market,” says Dominique Kenga, responsible for PRODER 3.

However, the roadwork has not yet begun on all sites, despite the eagerly awaiting farmers. “In 2009, we imagined we’d have already built 123 kilometres of roads. But the assessment, procurement and financing made us late,” says Mboukou-Kimbatsa.

“At whatever pace, fixing the roads is essential for us. In the past, many roads were built in rural areas, but farmers were not involved in their maintenance. And when it rains, it’s no longer practical,” observed the agriculture ministry’s Moukouba.

If the independent initiative of farmers and local elected officials can be combined effectively with these two ambitious rural road construction projects, smallholders in Congo’s southern regions could soon be on the road to greater prosperity.

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