- The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) will make the case for reorienting food production systems and agricultural policy at a meeting in Kinshasa from Aug. 29-31.
- Food security across the Congo Basin is threatened by impoverished soils, climate change, and displacement due to armed conflict, forum attendees say.
- Governments in the region back improved seeds and synthetic fertilizer for small-scale farmers as well as large-scale agriculture projects to boost yields and revenue.
- AFSA argues these strategies cause more harm than good to both farmers and forests, and calls for a turn to agroecological methods instead.
A pan-African coalition of farmers, fishers and others meeting this week in the Democratic Republic of Congo will make the case for reorienting food production systems and agricultural policy across the Congo Basin. With millions of Central Africa’s people facing food insecurity, and current forms of agriculture taking a growing toll on biodiversity in the ecologically vital rainforests of the region, the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa argues that a turn to agroecology is needed.
AFSA brings together small-scale farmers, fishers and pastoralists, consumers, and other civil society groups from across Africa united to promote agroecology. It describes agroecology as “a people-centered system of sustainable agriculture, combining indigenous knowledge with cutting edge science, making the best use of nature to create healthy communities, and empowering a social movement that resists the corporatization of agriculture.”
More than 200 decision-makers, donors, members of civil society and representatives of Indigenous peoples are expected in the DRC capital, Kinshasa, for the forum titled “Reconciling food production with biodiversity conservation and climate emergency in the Congo Basin.”
Josué Aruna, executive director of a network of NGOs called the Congo Basin Conservation Society (CBCS), is part of the team organizing the forum. He says AFSA chose to host the summit in the DRC because the country is home to the largest part of the Congo Basin. “The entire Congo Basin is bearing the brunt of climate change. It affects us all in the same way. So we need to react together, and have common policies. We need to move together towards agroecology, and the DRC can be a leader in this field.”
Crisis levels of food insecurity
According to the U.N.’s World Food Programme, more than 25.8 million people in the DRC face crisis or emergency levels of food insecurity. A large part of this is due to the displacement of people by armed conflict, particularly in the northeast of the country.
“I’m a member of an Indigenous population and I grew up in Walikale, near Goma,” says Blair Byamungu Kabonge. “Because of the violence, we can’t grow crops in the fields. We’re attacked. As a result, there is malnutrition.”
Kabonge has since become a community facilitator with the National Alliance for the Support and Promotion of Indigenous and Community Heritage Areas and Territories in the DRC, known by its French acronym, ANAPAC. The group works with the Bambuti-Babuluko Indigenous community, which has remained in a relatively stable area of Walikale, in North Kivu province.
“For over 20 years we have been welcoming refugees from Rwanda and other conflicts in the region [the provinces of North and South Kivu],” Kabonge says. “We’ve helped them adapt to the traditions of the Bambuti-Babuluko. To hunt where they hunt, use their traditional methods, and grow yams and bananas with them, using their ancestral methods. Here, they don’t use chemicals, so the forest is protected, but it’s not like that everywhere. Here, there’s security, so the Indigenous people can farm.”
In other parts of the DRC, farmers are facing poor harvests caused by impoverished soil and climate change.
“Here, the staple food is maize,” says Alexis Mbumb Kazemb, a farmer in Kipopo, in the southeastern province of Haut-Katanga. “We used to plant maize in November, around 15 November, but not anymore. Over the last 10 years or so, the rainy season has been arriving later and later, and we now have to start sowing in mid-December.”
Kazemb, the DRC coordinator for the association Farmers Without Borders, has seen the impacts of declining harvests firsthand. “When there isn’t enough food, sometimes the parents don’t eat, so the children can have a little. Sometimes you don’t feed one of the children so the others can have something. ”
Kazemb’s association has turned to buying commercial seeds adapted to the changing growing season in an attempt to compensate for the losses.
“We used to supply farmers with local seeds, but now we bring in hybrid seeds from Zambia. They produce more,” Kazemb says. “Same goes for fertilizer. The fertilizer we buy from there helps the harvest. But it’s expensive. We can only do it because we get funding from the provincial government.”
New agriculture for new challenges
According to Prasanna Boddupalli, a researcher at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), hybrid seeds are the best way to boost farmers’ harvests in the face of worsening conditions. “In Africa, agriculture is rain-fed, so farmers have to depend on rainfall for their maize crops to grow well. Climate change is disrupting rainfall, which is why we are working on varieties that compensate for these disruptions.”
CIMMYT is part of CGIAR, a global family of research centers established by the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the U.N. Development Programme, which conduct agricultural research and provide training for farmers.
Hybrid seeds, bred for drought resistance, for instance, or to reach maturity faster, are a key part of CGIAR’s strategy. While farmers have traditionally saved some of their harvest to plant the next season (and to exchange with neighbors seeking new varieties), hybrid seeds typically can’t be saved, meaning farmers have to buy new seed every year.
Summit organizer Aruna is against this. “We must encourage local and agroecological practices. We no longer want chemical fertilizers to enter our countries. All this degrades our soils and makes us dependent on imports. We need to promote our indigenous seeds, our real local wealth and sustainable cultivation.”
CIMMYT’s Boddupalli says a compromise can be found.
“Hybrid seeds are perfectly compatible with agroecology. They are just an aid to compensate for the effects of climate change and the lack of efficiency of natural seeds. But they can also be used by smallholders in combination with other crops,” he tells Mongabay. “But hybrid seeds are not the solution to making a country self-sufficient. We also need to improve agricultural policies and agronomic research to know what to plant and where.
“If improved seeds are a Ferrari,,” Boddupalli adds, “agronomy is the good road to allow you to drive it properly.”
In the DRC and other countries across Central Africa, governments’ agricultural policies back expanding the use of hybrid seeds, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to increase small-scale farmers’ yields and strengthen their resilience against changing conditions. This leaves farmers like Kazemb on their own if they prefer to adopt agroecological methods.
Across the region, there’s also strong government support for the expansion of large-scale cultivation of commodity crops like rubber and palm oil. Large-scale projects readily attract foreign investment from companies like SIAT, Olam and Socfin, as well as funding from the likes of the World Bank, promising efficiency, jobs for local people, and export revenue for governments. But conservation groups and local people are sharply critical of the impact of these monoculture plantations on biodiversity and access to land and water.
In Cameroon, one of many large plantations is a partnership between the government and an influential local businessman. This joint venture, Camvert SA, says it has created 8,000 direct jobs, built schools and reached agreements with local communities to protect the environment. Greenpeace describes the plantation as an environmental and social disaster that has led to the destruction of 60,000 hectares (148,000 acres) of forest in the Campo and Niete areas in the south of the country.
Cameroon is in the process of reserving a further 400,000 hectares (988,000 acres) for large-scale agricultural projects. Gabon is host to large oil palm plantations belonging to SIAT. The DRC’s Ministry of Agriculture has invited Serbian experts to explore growing wheat and maize; another notice says Amatheon Agri Holding NV, a German agrifood group, plans to set up large-scale plantations for spices, cacao, soy and more.
AFSA views these developments, as well as promoting expanded use of synthetic fertilizer and pesticides by small-scale farmers, as mistaken.
“Agroecology is the only viable path to a sustainable food system,” Aruna tells Mongabay. “We need to move away from large-scale farming and excessive imports, in favor of small-scale farmers who produce without damaging our biodiversity.
“We hope that at the end of this meeting, there will be strategic guidelines for starting our transition to agroecology,” he adds. “We hope that politicians and donors will be able to support us in this direction.”
Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: Food systems expert Anna Lappé discusses how the notion that agroecology is a “low yield” practice is a myth, listen here:
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