KINSHASA, 30 April 2002 -- A convoy of barges has sailed from the port of the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, carrying more than 1,000 tons of medicines, food, salt, sugar, spare parts, construction materials, fuel, clothing, agricultural inputs and fishing material. The destination of the so-called Convoy of Hope which set sail yesterday is Kisangani in the Democratic Republic of Congo's Oriental province, where between six and seven million people are in critical need of food and other necessities.

In the city of Kisangani and the Oriental Province the people have struggled for months in isolation from the rest of the country to make ends meet and grow their own food. As a result of deteriorating roads and closed river traffic, market activities have gradually dwindled, as agricultural produce fails to get through.

It will take the convoy three weeks to complete the 1,700 km journey to Kisangani. It is the result of a collective mobilization of resources by 26 partners: Congolese organizations, UN agencies, international non-governmental organizations, religious organizations and donors including Belgium, the European Union, USA, France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland.

The aim is not only to provide immediate help to the people in the Oriental Province but also to demonstrate the importance of establishing humanitarian/economic corridors, which would allow a resumption of trade between Kinshasa and the eastern and northern parts of the country. With the reopening of the river traffic, hope for a better future can be restored, areas of the country that have been cut off from each other can be reconnected and scattered families can be reunited. On the return voyage to Kinshasa the barges will carry agricultural products.

With its huge natural resources, the Democratic Republic of Congo is considered to be one of the principal potential drivers of African development, together with South Africa and Nigeria. But the socio-economic situation in the country deteriorated sharply throughout the 90s, and subsequent wars and massive population displacements have aggravated the situation. Of more than 50 million inhabitants, some 17 million are estimated to have critical food needs. The decline in agricultural production, the scarcity of hard currency for food imports and the weakened purchasing power of the population at large have all contributed. However, in spite of the shortages in some areas, the agricultural production potential in many parts of the country is still considerable: the problem is that supplies cannot reach traditional markets because of the security situation.

Besides the war and civil conflict, HIV/AIDS has reduced life expectancy and further reduced economic growth. Per capita income is among the lowest in the world and negative economic growth rates of -14.7 percent in 1999 and -5.5 percent in the first half of 2000 illustrate the continuing ongoing decline in living conditions. In Kinshasa, 70 percent of the population cannot afford even US$1 a day for food.

In addition to FAO's involvement in organizing the Convoy of Hope, the Organization is carrying out a range of rehabilitation activities, and recently approved a project to give assistance to 43,000 families along the Congo River by providing fishing gear and agricultural seeds and tools.