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DRC food sovereignty summit yields support for agroecology, local land rights

Member of the Akilimali women association in her farming plot in Yanonge, DRC. Image by Axel Fassio/CIFOR-ICRAF via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Member of the Akilimali women association in her farming plot in Yanonge, DRC. Image by Axel Fassio/CIFOR-ICRAF via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

  • The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (ASFA) recently held a meeting in Kinshasa to argue for the reorienting of food production around agroecology in the Congo Basin.
  • Civil society groups, donors, government representatives and small-scale farmers gathered to exchange views on challenges and solutions to food security.
  • Across Africa, agricultural policy is geared toward greater reliance on large-scale farms and mechanization, commercial seeds, pesticides and synthetic fertilizer.
  • A declaration issued at the close of the summit instead called for investment in agroecological methods, as well as recognition of and protection for Indigenous and local peoples’ land rights.

“The last 20 years have taken their toll on our forests, with increased deforestation and the sale of our land by government decision-makers cutting us off from our main means of subsistence,” said Polydor Musafiri, an Indigenous Murega from the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Musafiri’s community’s struggle for subsistence illustrates challenges that he and other advocates of agroecological farming face in Central Africa. He was one of more than 200 people from across Africa who gathered in Kinshasa from August 29 to 31st to call on governments and development partners to give greater support to agroecology.

Musafiri lives near Bukavu, where he and the others in his village grow amaranth, maize, tomatoes, and other crops as well as rely on food they gather from the area’s forests. “In our culture, we eat caterpillars, which are rich in protein and help to fight malnutrition,” he told Mongabay. “These caterpillars [Bunaeopsis aurantiaca] are found in large trees such as milanga and musela [Uapaca guineensis]. But these trees have almost disappeared.”

Musafiri spoke to Mongabay at a forum organized by the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) in the Congolese capital to make the case for reorienting food production systems and agricultural policy in the Congo Basin. The meeting brought together small-scale farmers, fishers and pastoralists, donors and other civil society groups from across Africa.

The alliance argues for greater support for small-scale farmers and Indigenous people; for reliance on diverse, farmer-saved and -bred seed; and for the blending of Indigenous knowledge and scientific research to build food systems that rely on nature to create healthy communities.

Turning marshes to farmland in South Kivu. Image by Kaukab Jhumra Smith/USAID via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).
Internal displacement due to armed conflict in eastern Congo has put pressure on local markets, making food more expensive. Image by Kaukab Jhumra Smith/USAID via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

In May, the World Food Program estimated that 6.7 million people in the DRC provinces of Ituri and North and South Kivu alone faced a food emergency this year. This crisis is largely the result of armed conflict in the region, which has forced many to flee their fields. Musafiri is not a direct victim of these conflicts, but the massive displacement of people has put pressure on local markets, making food more expensive.

Musafiri is doing what he can to reinforce his family’s diet by regaining access to traditional foods: “With a few volunteers, we decided to replant musela trees. We go deep into the forest, collect seeds and try to replant them in the small forests around the village so that there are caterpillars again. And we do it naturally, without chemicals, just with cow dung and seeds from the forest.”

Musafiri belongs to a pan-African organization called Young Indigenous Leaders for Nature and Climate (YILNAC), which aims to popularize Indigenous practices in agriculture and biodiversity. “We are involved in the restoration, protection and rational management of biodiversity, because for us Indigenous peoples, trees and plants give the true meaning of our identity,” he told Mongabay.

This work is in line with the principles of agroecology as advocated by AFSA. Musafiri would like to do even more, he said. “But our biggest concern is the lack of resources. We lack the necessary funds to improve our actions. We need financial support, technical supervision and reinforcement, technical resources …”

A declaration issued at the end of the Kinshasa conference called on governments to strengthen policy on conservation, climate change and sustainable development as well as better implementation of these policies. The declaration also urged recognition and protection of Indigenous and local peoples’ land rights, support for women’s active participation in resource management and conservation, and investment in agroecological training and infrastructure supporting market access for and trade in sustainably produced goods.

Participants also called on donors and development partners to set up readily accessible funding mechanisms that local communities can draw on and provide technical assistance and technology to support agroecological practices. They also wanted greater resources to support research into agroecology, biodiversity and climate adaptation in the Congo Basin.

A pilot farm in Yangambi, DRC. Image by Axel Fassio/CIFOR-ICRAF via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
A pilot farm in Yangambi, DRC: the Congolese government’s agriculture policy favors wider use of commercial seeds, pesticides and synthetic fertilizer — a “Green Revolution” approach. Image by Axel Fassio/CIFOR-ICRAF via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Yodit Kebede attended the Kinshasa forum on behalf of the Agroecology Fund, which offers grants supporting farming practices that restore soil and water, mitigate climate change and promote the rights and well-being of small farmers. It also aims to encourage larger donors to finance this kind of project.

She said she was encouraged by the size and focus of the forum. She also noted how important questions of land rights were for many participants. “I was surprised to see how often land-grabbing came up in presentations. The difference between customary laws and state laws, access to land for Indigenous peoples and local populations. … There’s a real lack of clarity on those issues. I was aware of this problem because it exists all over Africa, but I didn’t realize its extent here. So I think we’re going to try to finance local projects in this area too,” she told Mongabay.

Government representatives were somewhat less responsive to the forum’s message. Speaking at the opening of the conference, Benjamin Toirambe Bamoninga, the general secretary for DRC’s environment ministry, pushed back against the boundaries of agroecology set out by AFSA, a sign that his government doesn’t see it as a sufficient foundation for food security.

Toirambe acknowledged the potential of agroforestry and using natural fertilizers in place of synthetic ones but questioned AFSA’s championing of small-scale farming.

“Do we have to do this agriculture the traditional way? Science shows us that mechanized agriculture and the use of organic fertilizers will lead to sustainable agriculture and sustainable production,” he said.

“There have been debates with the senator, with His Excellency [Minister of Agriculture Jose Mpanda Kabangu, with people from civil society who give me bad looks. … According to them, only small spaces are needed. … No! Unless we redefine other policies based on the population. We have so much space [for agriculture] in the DRC.”

On the question of greater support for agroecology from the government, Toirambe’s counterpart at the Ministry of Agriculture was apologetic. “The state gives what little it can. But it’s not enough,” José Ilanga Lofonga, told Mongabay in an interview. “This year, small producers received something like 27 million Congolese francs [$11,000]. That’s not much.”

Lofonga said this money was paid to NGOs. An agriculture ministry source showed Mongabay documents suggesting only 16 NGOs received grants, though the organizations’ names were not shown, so verifying the funds reached farmers practicing sustainable agriculture is impossible.

In common with many other African countries, the DRC’s agricultural policy is geared toward increasing food production with large-scale farms reliant on mechanization and commercial seeds, pesticides and synthetic fertilizer — a “Green Revolution” approach credited with boosting production of staple crops in places like India. AFSA and other critics say this approach is mistaken.

“One of the challenges we face is that governments still think in terms of the Green Revolution narrative that you can’t produce food without agribusiness, which says you need chemicals to produce food,” said Million Belay, AFSA general coordinator. “If we don’t solve the food systems issue, we can’t solve the conservation issue because people will destroy the forest in search of food.”

Banner image:
A member of the Akilimali women’s association in her farming plot in Yanonge, DRC. Image by Axel Fassio/CIFOR-ICRAF via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: Food systems expert and author Anna Lappé discusses why the idea that agroecology is a “low yield” practice is a myth and how the adoption of its methods around the globe is key to a sustainable future, listen here:

Related reading:

Agroecology can feed Africa and tackle climate change — with enough funding


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