The journey from arms to agriculture

The turbulent history of the Republic of Congo with its troubled transition from centralized planning under a Marxist government to a market economy, together with economic mismanagement, military coups and brutal civil conflict during the 1990s has definitely marked the people of this country.

The Republic of Congo, once one of sub-Saharan Africa’s main oil producers, today has more than 40% of its 3.7 million people living under the poverty line most of whom live in rural areas earn their livelihoods as smallholder farmers and fishers.

The country’s economy relies on subsistence agriculture and livestock. Cassava, rice, vegetables are among the main agricultural products and the population is also engaged in rearing small ruminants.

The civil wars of 1993-1994 and 1997-1999 have had a devastating socio-economic impact on the country. During the civil war all fundamental and foundational infrastructure was destroyed. More than 800,000 people were displaced, the population suffered from severe food insecurity and many young children became soldiers.

Once the civil war came to an end, the United Nations family began its post-conflict effort. In 2000, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), in an effort to reintegrate the displaced people and encourage child soldiers to surrender their arms, launched the seven year «Action Communautaire pour le Rétablissement Post-Conflit» project. This project provided basic social services and helped the population to engage in economic activities.

In 2009, building on the UNDP project, IFAD funded the Rural Development Project in the Likouala, Pool and Sangha Departments (PRODER3).

“The objective of this project is to increase the production, productivity and income of poor rural people in a sustainable manner and encourage the young people to put down their arms”, explains Dominique Kenga, Coordinator of the IFAD-funded Rural Development Project.

The project reaches out to 160 villages and covers 15,750 households. The 62,800 poor rural people benefitting from this project are engaged in in the local cassava-based farming system, fisheries and livestock related activities.

The project is enabling farmers to produce, multiply and disseminate improved, disease-free cassava planting materials and seeds. It is providing training and agricultural extension services to give smallholder farmers full access to inputs and know-how. And it is also financing the rehabilitation of rural roads to better connect the over 600 villages.

“One of our other priorities is to encourage the 3000 young people, living in the Pool department, to put down their arms and start engaging in agricultural related activities”, says Kenga.

“During the civil war, Pool department was very badly hit. Things got really bad back in 1993. During this period, many died and as result families were shattered and many young people ended up on the street”.

“For these young people the only way to survive in the fury of the war was to take up arms”, explains a visibly moved Kenga. “What was devastating was the fact that almost 100% of the 3000 young people living the Pool department had become child soldiers. So after the unrest, we had a huge challenge at hand.”

Using rural radio, Kenga and his colleagues launched a campaign to encourage the youngsters to surrender their arms and to embrace agriculture.

“Convincing a young person who has experienced nothing but violence in his or her life is a Herculean undertaking. And we are dealing with 3000 devastated and shattered souls and bodies”, clarifies Kenga.

“The physical and psychological impact of the violence experienced by the youth is beyond words. Our challenge is not only to convince them to put down their arms and go back to the farms, but more importantly to do so in a peaceful and harmonious manner. The last thing we want is for them to act as aggressor and be disrespectful to their parents and other villagers. We want peace!”

To overcome this immense challenge, Kenga and other PRODER3 colleagues provide every young person who surrenders their arms and takes up agriculture between 25,000 to 50,000 CFA and 1.5 acre of land, along with inputs such as seeds, fertilizer. Mostly, the disarmed and demobilized child soldiers cultivate the land belonging to their family. If they are landless, PRODER3 facilitates a renting arrangement where they pay an annual rent of $50 to work on the land.

“We are going further than agriculture and are encouraging them to also engage in fisheries, raise poultry and rear small-ruminants”, clarifies Kenga.

“Farming in Pool department is very much a manual activity and at best the smallholder farmers can produce approximately 2 tonnes of cassava a year, of which 60% is used for local consumption mainly in the form of foufou – processed cassava.”

The goal of Kenga and PRODER3 staff is to ensure food security and transform farming into a viable business. This is why the farmers are now using part of their income to invest in better inputs.

“Our vision is to have an economy based on modern agriculture, an economy whereby we are not dependent on imports but can ensure food security for all”, says Kenga.

“So far we’ve managed to disarm 20% of the young soldiers. Our goal is to disarm the remaining 2400, build a peaceful society based on respect and trust. A society where everyone can lead a decent life, can put enough food on the table and is engaged in a profitable and dignified economic activity".

“Building a better future starts at home. Now that the leader of these youngsters has disarmed and is part of the government, we hope that we can build a peaceful and better future”, says Kenga with smile.

Only time will tell, but definitely, Kenga and his colleagues are on the right track to build a peaceful and prosperous future for the people of Likouala, Pool and Sangha Departments.