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Under pressure

Getting more out of Burundi’s fragmented smallholdings

Photo: ©FAO/Giulio Napolitano
Given that land means survival, a dispute can be the end of the world.

22 June 2011, Kibezi - Population growth is a major challenge facing Burundi as it moves away from civil strife. FAO is assisting farmers to produce more on less land and find ways to make their small agribusinesses profitable.

In the courtyard of her house in Kibezi, Marie-Rose Manirambona is preparing lunch, a plate of beans, rice and cassava leaves. She will just serve her three smallest children, she says. The other five eat once a day, in the evening.

Originally from the nearby town of Kiremba in northern Burundi, Manirambona has lived in this settlement for internally-displaced people ever since she lost her husband to ‘the crisis', as she calls the civil war that broke out in 1993.

She remarried Jean Vyasimanga, himself a widower. Manirambona is his fourth wife. Jean has a lot of trouble with his property in Kiremba, she says. The four hectares he owns are far too small to share among his many children. Moreover part of it is claimed by a former employee.

The president of the Court in the provincial capital of Ngozi, Prime Barasukana, says: "Given that land means survival here, a dispute can be the end of the world". Out of 13 cases to be heard today, ten relate to ‘itongo': land. The underlying causes, Barasukana says, are population growth and displacement due to the ‘crisis'.

Down the hill

Not far from Kibezi, in the wetland of Nyamuswanga, FAO-expert Aloys Nizigiyimana describes the dynamics of land fragmentation in northern Burundi. With population density reaching peaks of 500 persons per square kilometer, the average landholding of a family of five is now less than 0.3 hectare, yielding just three months of food per year.

And it is not only land hunger that drives people down the hills, where they traditionally farm. The climate too has changed. Droughts now alternate with torrential rains. Wetlands offer the advantage of a stable water supply. But, Nizigiyimana warns, any cultivation there should make certain that this precious resource is properly managed.

In Nyamuswanga's wetlands, FAO is working with 1,500 farmers to rehabilitate 100 hectares for rice production. Rice is one of the high-yielding crops that FAO uses, along with potatoes, soy and maize, to intensify agricultural production and help small farmers increase their yields.

According to Nizigiyimana, one harvest from Nyamuswanga would provide the 1,500 farmers and their families with enough rice for one month.

Self-reliance

Another way to boost agricultural outputs is by working together, says Marie-Claire Barakamfitiye of BADEC (Bureau d'Appui au Développement et à l'Entraide Communautaire), a local FAO partner. Joining forces helps farmers to generate income, she says. Another important benefit, she adds, is that it fosters strengthened relations — a powerful instrument for avoiding conflict.

Moreover, a farmers' association has a strong bargaining position, for example when negotiating access to land, such as wetlands, which are usually owned by the state. The association from Kibezi to which Marie-Rose Manirambona belongs was granted seven hectares by the town of Kiremba.

That is a very long way from the days when the settlement of Kibezi was built, soon after the war broke out, BADEC's Barakamfitiye recalls. She was there when the displaced arrived, living in tents until the UN's refugee agency built houses, where many still live today.

She herself continued working with IDPs, first in overcoming the worst of the crisis, then witnessing their move from dependency to self-reliance thanks to the restarting of agricultural activities. "My pride is to see someone coming out of vulnerability," she says.

By the end of the afternoon Marie-Rose Manirambona starts preparing for dinner. Her husband Jean has arrived and is busy getting all his children together for a family-picture. Twenty are present when it is finally taken. Still, says Jean, eight are missing.