Rwandan refugees' return home puts heavy strain on limited food resources

Most Rwandan refugees have returned to their homeland. Now they face a new challenge - reviving agriculture in a once productive, fertile land ravaged by civil strife that claimed more than 1 million lives.

An FAO/WFP Crop and Food Supply Assessment Mission visited Rwanda in June to assess crop prospects for the second 1997 season. The mission also evaluated the country's food supply and food security situation and estimated import requirements, including food aid, for the second half of 1997. Between June 1996 and June 1997, almost all of the nearly 2 million refugees who had fled to neighbouring countries to escape civil strife returned to Rwanda. This massive influx, together with the natural population growth rate, pushed the country's population up from 6.3 million in June 1996 to 7.9 million in June 1997. In a single year, the number of mouths to feed increased by 1.6 million, a full 25 percent.

The increased numbers are putting a heavy strain on Rwanda's limited food resources. Despite some gains in crop production levels, overall production remains significantly below pre-crisis levels.Total crop production in 1997 is expected to exceed 1996 levels by 7 percent. But production remains 18 percent below the 1990 pre-crisis levels, according to the recently released Special Report on the FAO/WFP Mission to Rwanda. The estimated food balance for the second half of 1997 suggests a deficit of 19 000 tonnes of cereals, 86 000 tonnes of pulses (mainly beans), 221 000 tonnes of roots and tubers and 508 000 tonnes of bananas.

The sharp reduction in the production of pulses - the main source of protein in the Rwandan diet - is the most serious cause for concern. Production of beans and other pulses has fallen 17 percent over the past year and a dramatic 37 percent from 1990 levels. The food situation is most precarious in the prefectures of Kibuye, Gikongoro, Butare, southern Kigali and certain communes in Gitarama. People in these areas will continue to require both food aid and supplies of seed, tools and other agricultural inputs.

During the first half of 1997, 110 000 tonnes of emergency food aid was distributed in Rwanda. This amounted to an increase of almost 150 percent over the second half of 1996, in response to the sharply increased food needs following the massive return of refugees, and poor harvests, notably of pulses, in the first half of 1997. A large part of the food has been distributed as food-for-work through emergency programmes that have put people to work rehabilitating the agricultural sector, rebuilding the social infrastructure and constructing homes.

At the beginning of the second half of the year, most food aid recipients should have reached a degree of food self-sufficiency through their own production or other sources of income, according to the report. Food aid requirements have therefore been estimated at 76 000 tonnes, more than 30 percent less than requirements in the first half of 1997, "although close nutritional and food security surveillance of the vulnerable population is called for", warns the Mission.

The report also addresses issues affecting rehabilitation of the agricultural sector over the medium to long term. The extent of cultivated land remains below pre-crisis levels and expansion has been constrained by a variety of factors, including:

  • the arrival and settlement of a large number of refugees late in the cropping season;
  • land disputes between returnees and current farm occupants;
  • lack of labour and inputs, notably simple agricultural tools and planting material.

An emergency programme prepared by the Mission and costed at US$16 million aims to help 420 000 farm households resume their farming activities by distributing close to 10 000 tonnes of seed material and 1.4 million hoes.

Rehabilitating the coffee and tea subsectors holds particular immediate importance for the Rwandan economy. International assistance will be crucial. Coffee production has fallen to about one-half of pre-crisis levels. Coffee quality has also dropped sharply, and inadequate maintenance of plantations will make recovery of this subsector slow. In the tea subsector, a beginning has been made with the rehabilitation of tea processing factories. It is estimated that 1 500 to 2 000 jobs are created for every tea factory rehabilitated.

24 July 1997

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