Creating Food Security in Burundi

In this interview with Cultural Anthropologist Laetitia van Haren, she discusses the situation in Burundi and the need for more attention to be placed on land access and food security in the region.

Name: Laetitia van Haren

Affiliation: International Consultant. Currently holds an advisory position with UNHCR and roving officer for Laos and Cambodia for the French Catholic Delegation for Cooperation, a volunteer sending organization. Recently founded an NGO with another anthropologist and agronomist, “synergies for biological and cultural diversity” in response to the growing destruction of nature and culture.

Location: Versonnex, France

Bio: Laetitia van Haren is a Cultural Anthropologist with lifelong experience in Africa and Asia, especially about isolated and remote communities and their access to national development. She has held senior positions in human rights, children’s rights, humanitarian assistance, and protection of refugees focused NGOs and did numerous consultancies on community development, integrated rural development and environmental issues, as well as research on refugee issues.

Burundian returnee children at a UNHCR transit center in Ruyigi province. (Photo credit: UNHCR)

Could you please provide our readers with a brief summary of the situation in Burundi?

In 2011 Burundi can be called a country in transition; from war to peace, from humanitarian relief to development; from arbitrariness to the rule of law. Burundi has known extreme, often deadly tension between the ruling Tutsi minority and the subservient, mostly smallholder farming Hutu majority since independence in 1962. The country was donned with a democratic government in 2005, with a former Hutu rebel leader for a president and a Tutsi vice president. Though an improvement from the Tutsi led governments since the late nineties, it did not immediately bridge the deep Hutu-Tutsi divide. But the divide is lessening and gradually becoming more political party than ethnicity based, as the political parties are (obligatory) mixed. To everyone’s relief post-election tensions during 2010 did not lead to a flare up of civil war as feared. However, as the opposition party withdrew from the electoral process, the democratic “validity” of the elected president is questionable. Therefore the risk of civil war is still there, though receding according to many observers. Progress towards peaceful democracy is being made, little by little, with set-backs of bouts of localised violence, but moving forward towards stability all the same.

And this is a remarkable achievement, for with a population mostly poor and often hungry; a high birth rate, a high rate of unemployment and an ever fiercer scramble for arable land that yields less and less, survival stress runs high for each and all.  Notwithstanding all these formidable obstacles, UNHCR has been able to assist, over the course of several decades – with the support of the returnees’ families and friends, close to 500,000 refugees to return and reintegrate, and is still assisting with the reintegration of tens of thousands of refugees returned since 1993 from neighbouring countries, especially from Tanzania. But they have to make a living, and there is not enough land to allow everyone to survive on subsistence farming. Reintegration and local settlement assistance are still needed to help tens of thousands of returnees settle down, get a house and grow their own food, but this may provoke tensions with the Burundian population who did not leave their homesteads during the years of violent conflict and who face the same problems. In addition, there are also some 100,000 internally displaced for whom access to land for housing and farming is also a huge challenge. UNHCR, in collaboration with other agencies, also has to protect and assist those. And then we have the Twa, a very small minority ethnic group who used to be hunters and gatherers living in the forest who are also trying to settle down and want a piece of land to build their hut and to farm. And how can I keep quiet about the struggle of the thousands of widowed or abandoned women and single mothers who have to feed themselves and their children, whose constitutional inheritance rights to land are not respected by customary law?

How has the hunger problem impacted Burundi?

I would first like to explain why there is hunger in Burundi before explaining what the impact of hunger is. Hunger in Burundi is caused by a combination of factors: the inheritance of decades of civil conflict, of which we shall speak later. Land is scarce, while the quality of arable land is diminishing through over-use and erosion. Access to land and more especially to arable land of good quality is very unequal. Agricultural practices are archaic. The country has suffered the impact of climate change with more violent extremes and erratic rainfall patterns over the last two decades.  The population grows, though average life spans are short, through high birth rates and return from exile. What is the impact of hunger, mainly in the form of malnutrition and under-nutrition, then?

Apart from its impact on overall health, with higher morbidity and mortality, the socio-economic and political impact is huge through reduced life expectancy and lesser productivity of human labour. According to WFP, 28 percent of the population is food insecure and 60 percent is chronically malnourished. And the problem only grows. Food production has stagnated at pre-1993 levels while the population increases by 3 percent a year.  If Burundi could feed itself, the struggle for access to arable land would not exist, or be far less violent. Why not? Because if agriculture yielded more, less people could grow more. The economy would be more diversified. Half of the population now struggling to get by on survival farming would secure their food by buying it with income gained from other activities. So Burundi still faces the formidable task of inventing a new socio-economic and land-use model that provides food security for most and settles the issue of land ownership and use for decades to come. All our efforts should be geared to bring about that “new Burundi”. The returnee population must be absorbed into Burundi’s development, not remain the object of targeted assistance. Protection and assistance to returnees may contribute to future displacement and violence by acerbating tensions provoked by rivalry and jealousy. The challenge is to make interventions contribute to peace and security by stimulating collective improvement of the food security and resource base for all. Huge efforts have been made to pave the way for the necessary legal reforms in land ownership and tenure, but the actual passing of the bill of land reform still has to occur.

How has conflict led to food insecurity?

Decades of violent conflict have led to serious food shortages. In the periods of extreme violence, the rural population couldn’t go to their fields because of fear of violent attacks. People fled their homes and farms, leaving their crops unattended, or un-harvested; there was no investment for innovation and improvement in agriculture, neither from the individual farmers nor from the government: all these factors together created stagnation and decline in agriculture. Normal marketing and distribution channels also broke down, so that whatever was produced couldn’t be taken to market but was eaten by the farmers.

Fortunately huge violence and mass displacements, such as the ones that occurred between 1972 and 2000, seem a thing of the past. The bouts of violence are more localized and much shorter now, and peace begins to prevail. However, the recovery from this pattern of deadly cycles takes a long time and bringing agricultural production and distribution into an upward trend requires a complete overhaul of the farming system as well. At present, the agricultural production has decreased and stagnates while the population has increased and keeps increasing. This is a very alarming fact, even if Bujumbura looks like a booming city and the country’s roads are being tarred, improving mobility of food, goods, services and people.

What crops are grown for economic (not subsistence) purposes? Is there a large agricultural industry established? Is land plentiful or at a premium? 

The economy of Burundi is mainly based on subsistence agriculture. There is no large agricultural industry to speak of. Maize, cassava, bananas, sorghum and beans are the principal food crops, while coffee is the main agricultural export product. While land is also heavily grazed by livestock, hillside farming in highly erosive soils and frequent heavy rains have combined to create some of the worst soil erosion problems in the world. To give some idea of the extent of ecological damage and extreme population pressure of sloping land: there are no bird species endemic to Burundi at all.

Land is in extremely short supply and the legal land reform that should transform a customary land tenure system into a modern law-based landownership system is not benefiting those who need it most. Persons well placed near the top in the government grab the best land whenever they can. Land at a premium is the big challenge for Burundi as a whole and for the returnees in particular. The projects for land reform exist—land arbitration and allocation commissions and committees have been formed—but the passing of the bill allowing these institutions to become fully functional has yet to occur.

What sorts of barriers prevent returnees from growing their own food?

The main barrier is – you will consider me a bore by now- access to land. Even if they owned land before they fled, the land tenure and ownership system is not so clear-cut that they can just reclaim their own land upon return after decades of exile. Others who stayed put or moved inside the country and were also pressed for land, have in their absence started to use it. So there is a legal challenge to gain access to land and also the practical challenge that there is not enough land anyway for the kind of small holder farming that the population knows how to subsist on traditionally. Helping the returnees to gain access to land is one of the key challenges for UNHCR. This can be obtaining title deeds, claiming back land that already belonged to them, or getting land on a sharecroppers or other rental basis, or defend land and property inheritance rights of women. An interesting experiment that has shown its worth in several places is the creation of villages for landless returnees. But there again problems arise as the formal allocation of land and the issuance of title deeds confirming this allocation is kept in suspense. It will in any case never be possible for all or even most of the returnees to obtain a plot big enough for subsistence farming—this solution needs to be complemented with other forms of socio-economically sustainable livelihood opportunities.

Alternative livelihoods would help some of the tens of thousands of the returnees who have lived for decades in Tanzania, in a very different situation: those who were born or grew up in a camp in Tanzania, and have lost or never acquired the know-how of farming, or they have farmed in Tanzania but never in Burundi. They ignore the Burundi socio-economic context: how to get help, hire labor or traction and implements for the peaks in farm cycles, and lack knowledge of the soil composition, irrigation, in short the technical aspects of farming that are of local importance.

In what ways is Burundi culture encouraging or resistant to farming for a profit? Why do you think most people only farm for self-sufficiency?

The vast majority of the population keeps trying to subsist through smallholder farming because they don’t know any other way and there are no other options available—in the minimally diversified economy, unemployment is widespread, especially affecting the younger generation. Why? Because there is a high birth rate, so the population is relatively young, and the family farm gets cut up in ever smaller plots. If cash crop farming were to develop, I believe that we mustn’t only look at more people growing export crops such as coffee or raising livestock, but also, or even in the first place, at farmers specializing and growing crops-including vegetal material for other uses, for the internal market. Thus a peasantry emerges that farms for the urban population and the rural economy itself also diversifies, for if some farmers begin to grow cash crops, others must earn money in other ways to afford buying what the for-profit farmers grow. The growing web of tarred or all weather roads is also a powerful trigger to produce more than just for the family and to take it to the market. But as we have noted that the agricultural production stagnates, the underlying problem of low productivity must be solved first by improving both the soils and the farming methods.

What do you think about Huber Chauvet, the U.N. FAO’s Representative in Burundi’s belief that achieving food security can be done by “moving away from subsistence farming to more economically viable forms of agriculture”?

I am not an agricultural expert but a cultural anthropologist, but what I see and read and the way I understand what is happening I would fully agree with Mr Chauvet. Yet I would qualify this and say, yes, Burundi must move away from subsistence farming, my answer to the previous question fully underwrites this idea. At the same time I believe that the transition would be terrible if we don’t encourage all kinds of “urban” farming so that people can supplement the staple foods that would be grown by cash croppers with home-grown vegetables, fruits, and protein from poultry and small-stock. The objective is that overall food security comes from more specialized larger-scale farming with a much larger proportion of the population buying a larger proportion of their food requirements. At the same time, for better nutritional variety and to make up for very low incomes in a transitional situation that may take decades, most families should be encouraged to grow vegetables and fruits for their own consumption or for some cash income. This can be done in bags, so that the land issue does not come into play and the intensive horticulture can be based on composting.  Surfing on the Internet will yield lots of interesting, realistic ideas. True, only a minority of Burundians have, at present, access to the Internet, but NGOs can step in here to facilitate such access and take a leadership role in helping select practices that can work in Burundi. An Argentine NGO is exporting radically new horticultural methods to Haiti that are ecologically sound, truly sustainable and help people attain much better food security and a better nutritional status through more variety. Vegetable and animal husbandry is also a source of happiness and relaxation for many people of a wide age and ability range, and accessible to virtually all at very low or no costs. A person in a wheel chair can still grow all the vegetables the family needs in sturdy bags that he or she can tend to while being seated. The non-farming families in rural areas should also be encouraged to keep some poultry, fish, and small stock to supplement a diet with items they could not afford to buy with their low pay.

Microfinancing has shown to be very helpful in encouraging entrepreneurship. Is there a similar type of small, low-interest rate loan system that can be established to provide refugees with funds to start a non-farm business?

Yes, this is precisely what UNHCR has done in the past to help returnees reintegrate and what it is trying to establish now, learning the lessons from the past, and for which it is seeking an experienced partner. Again the challenge is to create a system that unites the local population of returnees, newcomers and those who stayed put throughout the upheavals. The loan system should encourage joint enterprise and avoid all semblance of favoring the returnees over the local population. I can imagine joint enterprises whereby local resident landowning associates grow cash crops that the returnee landless associates process and trade in. Cash cropping would also provide paid work for landless persons based in the rural areas.

What do you think it would take to provide food security for current and future returnees?

I believe we have gone through this question in bits and pieces through the previous questions. Solutions will differ from case to case. Among the tens of thousands of refugees there are thousands who should be assisted administratively and legally to recover their arable land, or part of it. Although some returnees may be able to rent a house, most will need a plot of land to build their house or hut on, and some land for small scale farming to complement their pay from renting out their labor or the profit from their small business. But it will be impossible and also not advisable to squeeze them all back into outmoded subsistence agriculture. A well wrought micro-credit or low interest loan system that favors integration through joint enterprise between landowning local population and business owning returnees could greatly contribute to bring that new economic model about in Burundi. I would like to warn against the pitfalls of micro-credit, whereby families in fact get deeper and deeper into debt, because often the small enterprises created almost immediately begin to outcompete each other for the small demand and purchasing power. That is why such a low interest loan system for productive enterprise should be introduced very, very carefully by a very experienced organization that can assess the absorptive capacity of the Burundian local micro-economies. The absorptive capacity will only slowly and gradually increase and gain the strength of a national economy of scale.

What message would you like to send to the world about what can be done to improve the situation in Burundi?

Please let all of the international and national decision makers keep working together to bring forth a truly realistic and easy-to-use legal land use and landownership system in Burundi. Let all the agronomists and environmentalists join hands to improve the productivity of Burundi agriculture, while all economists and livelihood specialists should help Burundi diversify its economy without turning it into a vassal of international capitalism, which would perhaps cause a short-lived, spectacular economic boom, but soon lead to irreparable damage in the country’s human and natural resource base. Peace, stability and food security will need a legal system for land use and land ownership that is realistic, fair and applicable—a pillar for modernizing agriculture and transforming the economy. It should remain rural based, but fewer farmers should produce more for the domestic market. I am convinced that it can be done. But unless we accept ongoing extreme suffering for the masses while getting there, population growth must be slowed down. Burundi, though deeply catholic, should accept to control population growth and encourage couples to plan their families by making available, reliable and safe contraception for all. But that will not be enough. The Catholic Church should endorse the use of contraception for family planning and a basic trust should take root that peace will last, or couples will be afraid to go to hell and communities will continue to seek survival through numbers.

If all players are determined, both the domestic and the international community, Burundi can become a democratic country that provides a dignified and decent life for all its citizens, including returnees and refugees. Forced internal and external displacement would then come to a halt while modern socio-economic mobility, both within the country and in the wider region, would increase.

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