FAO Media Brief

The crisis in the Great Lakes region and eastern Zaire

The affected communities and populations

  • Armed conflict in Rwanda, Burundi and eastern Zaire has led to extensive suffering among local and refugee populations in the Great Lakes region. The majority of whom are of rural origin.
  • The local population (excluding refugees) in Rwanda, Burundi and Kivus (North and South) is estimated at 18 million persons (6.1 million in Rwanda, 5.9 million in Burundi and approximately 6 million persons resident in Kivu).

  • A total of nearly 2 million refugees coming from one or more neighbouring countries are living in the five bordering countries of the Great Lakes region (Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Zaire).
  • Since mid-November the situation in Rwanda has changed dramatically with the return of large numbers of refugees from Zaire. The scale of this population movement has surprised both the Rwandese authorities and the international humanitarian community. Prior to this, however, conditions in Rwanda had stabilized sufficiently to allow the government, in collaboration with the international donor community, to begin considering how to restore the agricultural sector.
  • Prior to the present crisis, camps in the Zairean border area had housed about 1.2 million refugees. Since the exodus began and as of 19 November, more than 300 000 refugees have returned to Rwanda from Northern Kivu. An additional 150 000 refugees seemed likely to return from Southern Kivu. In Burundi only 30 000 refugees had returned, and more than 10 000 persons from the southern provinces had fled to Tanzania because of fighting in the region.
  • The five countries in the Great Lakes region are linked by a web of political, economic, social and cultural relationships. These linkages and interdependency all point to the need for a regional approach to the delivery of humanitarian assistance in Burundi, Rwanda, western Tanzania, southwestern Uganda and South and North Kivu in Zaire. Considerable financial support and technical assistance is required to cope with their humanitarian, environmental, economic and social problems.


Crop and food supply situation

FAO's assessment of the crop and food supply situation is as follows:

Zaire - Kivu Region

  • Insecurity and closure of roads hamper food aid deliveries.
  • Substantial stocks of food aid are available in the region, but the food supply situation is extremely precarious.
  • Returnees to Rwanda have reported that large numbers of people are dying because of hunger and diseases.
  • Elsewhere in Zaire the food supply situation is stable.


  • Planting for the the first crop season of 1997 is under way, but work has been delayed in some provinces by a dry spell in the second half of October.
  • Prospects are poor as a result of local shortages and high prices for seeds, fertilizers and pesticides.
  • Food prices (mainly of beans and bananas) have increased sharply since July.


  • Planting for the first crop season of 1997 is under way.
  • Despite the availability of large quantities of seeds, the area planted is expected to be reduced because many people are still outside the country.
  • The food supply situation remains stable.


FAO's response and strategy

  • FAO emergency assistance to the Great Lakes region started in 1994 in Rwanda, immediately following the outbreak of the crisis and FAO has kept the international community informed on the deterioration of the food situation throughout the crisis. FAO/WFP Special Reports for Rwanda and Burundi have given estimates of the food aid requirements.
  • FAO, with the financial support of numerous countries and organizations, has established a programme of technical cooperation permitting rapid interventions and enabling FAO to put its expertise at the service of the government, of international humanitarian organizations and NGOs.
  • Contributions from donors (Sweden, Italy, France, Finland, United Kingdom, Austria, the World Bank and the Netherlands) amounting to about US$11.7 million have enabled the procurement of agricultural inputs (seed, tools and fertilizer).
  • With the worsening of the situation, the FAO Representatives and Emergency Coordinators in the Great Lakes region, as well as the FAO Representative in Kenya, have been instructed to support to the maximum the Regional Humanitarian Coordination of the United Nations Department of Humanitarian Affairs (DHA) in its efforts to assist returnees. The FAO Representatives in the region have also been instructed to contact and cooperate fully with other major humanitarian assistance agencies such as UNHCR, UNICEF and WFP.


FAO's present strategy involves action in five different but complementary areas:

1) Coordinating assistance and technical advice. FAO is setting up a special agricultural relief and recovery coordinating unit for Rwanda, Burundi and Zaire as well as a unit to coordinate action within the Great Lakes region as a whole. These units will help these countries to manage agricultural relief projects, to move from an emergency phase to one of recovery and rehabilitation and to establish systems for the collection and management of essential information. These activities will bring together all those government institutions, donors and NGOs engaged in the food and agriculture sector.

2) Monitoring the crop and food supply situation. Joint FAO/WFP crop and food supply assessment missions are planned in Rwanda, Burundi and the Kivu Region in Zaire during 1997 to assess production of the first and second crop seasons at January and June 1997 and to estimate the food aid requirements.

3) Assessing the situation and potential with respect to the supply of agricultural inputs, rehabilitation needs and activities to speed the transition from emergency relief to recovery and development.

4) Rebuilding local capacities for assessing requirements, formulating policies, revitalizing institutions and the local economy and carrying out emergency actions.

5) Implementing emergency agricultural relief programmes either directly or in cooperation with NGOs and other humanitarian partners.


  • FAO will provide its support in close collaboration with other UN agencies and programmes particularly UNHCR, which has been designated as the lead UN agency for the coordination of humanitarian activities, and DHA.


Resource mobilization

  • FAO's humanitarian assistance will focus mainly on people returning to Rwanda and Burundi, providing them with basic agricultural inputs such as seeds and hand hoes, but the Organization also plans to provide similar assistance to vulnerable local populations in Burundi, Rwanda and eastern Zaire.
  • FAO provisionally estimates that US$4.9 million is needed immediately to meet the most urgent needs of returning refugees and local affected rural populations in Rwanda, Burundi and in eastern Zaire. This estimate is based on providing help to a population of 2.3 million persons (469 000 farming families) in eastern Zaire, Rwanda and Burundi. This figure will need to be updated once the number of returnees and the needs of the local population in eastern Zaire have been more precisely assessed.


Immediate action by FAO

  • A regional emergency coordinator is being appointed under a US$400 000 project funded by FAO's own Technical Cooperation Programme (TCP). The regional coordinator will supervise the activities of two emergency coordinators based in Burundi and eastern Zaire and in close consultation with FAO representatives ensure the overall effectiveness of FAO's actions in the region.
  • An FAO mission is in Rwanda in order to devise a rehabilitation and development plan for agriculture in the region. As soon as conditions permit, similar missions will be sent to both eastern Zaire and Burundi to build upon the work of this pioneer effort.


FAO has already started rebuilding agriculture in the country, for example, by supporting seed production and providing basic hand tools (US$400 000) and by strengthening national support to farmers, for example, through the resumption of extension services (US$330 000), radio broadcasts on agriculture (US$208 000), developing marshland for agriculture (US$275 000) and encouraging reforestation (US$273 000). FAO is also cooperating with major donors such as the World Bank in the preparation of investment programmes. A joint FAO/World Bank mission to identify an agricultural sector strategy and investment programme is expected to complete its field work by the end of November.


FAO has obtained the agreement of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) to lift partially sanctions to permit the supply of fertilizer and seed to Burundi on humanitarian grounds. One immediate result is that 4 000 tonnes of fertilizer purchased by the Government of Burundi and 610 kg of vegetable seed donated by FAO are being delivered to Bujumbura.

Following a request for assistance from the Government of Burundi, a project for the urgent supply of bean and vegetable seed (US$400 000) is ready for signature.

A team of FAO experts (an economist, an agronomist, a forestry specialist and a livestock specialist) is working as part of a UNDP-funded project to assist reconstruction in Burundi.


A total of 6 300 kg of vegetable seed belonging to FAO (donation in kind) are in Dar Es Salaam ready to be delivered to eastern Zaire for the benefit of the local population once conditions allow.

Widespread deforestation, destruction of research and extension infrastructures, loss of seed and farm equipment and destruction of livestock have been reported. (The national herd of cattle is estimated to have declined from 300 000 to about 15 000 head.) FAO made an assessment of the most immediate needs to rebuild agriculture in August 1996. The report included five project profiles requiring a total investment of US$1.8 million.