20 January 2009, Rome/Bujumbura – Getting agriculture back on its feet is a prime challenge for Burundi, a country struggling to heal the scars of more than a decade of civil war and where most people depend on farming.
In one of the clearest signs that those scars are healing, 450 000 refugees have returned home since 2002. But return is not the whole cure in Burundi, a small, densely-populated country, where a major test to reintegrating returning refugees is access to land.
Things worked out well for Ferruzi Mukurumbuze, a farmer from Rumonge in the south of the country. Upon his return from Tanzania in 2004, Ferruzi got back part of the land he had left behind in 1972, when a massive outbreak of violence forced him and his family into exile.
“Agriculture helps people to live,” he says. “What you have in your pocket when you return from exile doesn’t last long, but when you have a piece of land where you’ve grown something, you can always survive.”
Currently, Ferruzi is planting cassava, using cuttings free of a devastating virus that has caused enormous crop losses throughout the Great Lakes region. He got the cuttings from FAO, involved in a region-wide effort funded by the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid department (ECHO) to root out the virus, leading to the first harvest of healthy cassava in the fall of 2008 that benefited over 1,5 million people.
Agriculture is crucial
Helping Ferruzi, together with almost 25 000 families of returning refugees in 2008, is part of FAO’s undertaking to rehabilitate Burundi’s agriculture. The EU, which has contributed over €12 million since 2001, is one of FAO’s major partners in this effort.
In the capital Bujumbura, Eric Donni of the European Commission’s Delegation explains that rural development is at the heart of the EU’s involvement in Burundi. “It is obvious that agriculture is crucial in a country where 90 percent of the population depends on it,” he says, adding that the EU considers FAO, with its technical expertise, as a natural partner.
With EU support, FAO engages in a wide array of activities, from the dissemination of agricultural know-how to crop diversification and the distribution of seeds and tools, all of them carried out in partnership with local authorities and civil society in order to reinforce Burundi’s slowly healing social structures.
Throughout Burundi, FAO organizes Input Trade Fairs, one of the Organization’s preferred methods to stimulate local food production. Attending farmers receive vouchers with cash values, so that they can choose what to purchase among the seeds, fertilizers, tools and tillage services on offer. The fairs, set up with ECHO funding, also provide a market for local producers of quality seeds and support local agricultural retail businesses.
Overall, some 100 000 vulnerable smallholders were reached in 2008. According to FAO’s Jean-Alexandre Scaglia rehabilitating Burundi’s agriculture holds out great significance: “It helps consolidate Burundi’s peace process,” he says.
Don’t look back
Back in Rumonge, Ferruzi Mukurumbuze says: “Since we have come back, we do not like to remember the reason why we fled. We prefer to look ahead.” He explains that 1972 was a real massacre. “Four of my brothers were stabbed in front of my eyes. It lasted one week. When I fled, there was nobody left alive here.”
In the early nineties, the country seemed to calm down. Ferruzi’s mother decided to return without him being able to join. Unfortunately, things didn’t stay calm. “That is why in 1994 I tried everything to come and fetch her,” he says.
He tells about an operation that sounds like something from a spy novel. They came by boat over Lake Tanganyika. Inside Burundi they had accomplices, who brought his mother and nine other elderly people to shore and to safety.
His mother, now 94, came back to Burundi with Ferruzi in 2004. Of her six remaining children, three have returned and the other three were due to arrive by the end of 2008.