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The battle for Burundi

From the September 2015 issue.

Burundi's coffee farmers are largely protected from the escalating conflict in the country's capital – but for how long?

Civil unrest is simmering on the streets of Bujumbura, the capital of the East-African nation of Burundi. 

On 5 May, Burundi’s constitutional court ruled to legally uphold President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term.

Those who oppose the decision argue that a presidential third term violates the 2006 accords that ended a 13-year civil war between Burundi’s 14 per cent Tutsi and 85 per cent Hutu population.

On 23 May, the leader of the opposition party Zedi Feruzi was murdered. Thousands of people took to the streets to protest what Nkurunziza officially declared as a “despicable assassination”.

A week after Nkurunziza’s re-election in July, the President’s head of security, Adolphe Nshimirimana, was killed when rebels bombed his car.

The unresolved ethnic tension, inflamed by the attack, has caused international concern for the young nation.

Just over 100 kilometres from Bujumbura, in the coffee growing region of Busiga, farmer and International Women Coffee Alliance (IWCA) member Pauline Ntaconkurikira is largely removed from the tension in the capital.

“The farmers don’t know what’s happening in Bujumbura because private media, the radio, has been blocked,” says Isabelle Sinamenye, Founder and President of the IWCA. “We might experience delays in shipping from Bujumbura, but they are planning to mill more coffee in the dry mills upcountry, so coffee production will continue.”

As a female smallholder coffee farmer in one of Africa’s poorest countries, Ntaconkurikira is facing more immediate challenges.

“Often the banks are not confident to give the farmers credit, as they have no guarantee for repayment,” says Sinamenye. “With just a small amount of land and the challenge of cyclical production, it can be very hard for farmers.”

A recent World Bank report found that about 67 per cent of Burundians live in poverty, with rural poverty twice as high than in urban areas.

The United Nations (UN) estimates multidimensional poverty is closer to 81 per cent, ranking Burundi’s Human Development Index at 180 out of 187 listed countries.

More than a third of Burundi’s GDP is generated through agriculture, which employs more than 90 per cent of the workforce. Almost half of Burundi’s inhabitants depend on coffee. Harvested between April and July, Burundi’s annual coffee production is more than 6 million kilograms.

Despite efforts from InterCafe, the country’s official association for producers and regulators, the impact of war has prevented Burundi from matching its peak output of the mid-1990s.

In its June 2015 report, Strategies for urbanisation and economic competitiveness in Burundi, the World Bank found that conflict has caused Burundi to lag behind in facilitating services such as agricultural transport and storage. The report found that in addition to the destruction of agricultural services since fighting broke out between the Tutsi and Hutu in 1993, lack of access to fertilisers and land disputes have slowed production.

“Since colonial times the people living in the regions with a potential to grow coffee have been obliged to do so,” says Sinamenye. “But this long history has been marred by a lack of education. This, coupled with insufficient fertiliser and pesticides, present some of the biggest challengers to Burundi coffee farmers.”

Following the outbreak of civil war in 1993, thousands of Burundians fled the country to escape the ethnic conflict, which claimed some 300,000 lives.

In 2004 when the UN took over peacekeeping operations from African Union troops, refugees began returning in large numbers. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that between 2000 and 2011 more than half a million Burundians returned to the properties they had fled. Many of the farmers came back to their homes to find new occupants had moved in.

The National Commission for Lands and Other Goods (CNTB) was established in 2006 to mediate land disputes. According to its 2014 annual report, CNTB has resolved more than 15,000 cases among more than 25,000 registered disputes.

For more than 9,000 Burundi farmers, the dispute cases remain unresolved.

Sinamenye says the land ownership problem is exaggerated for female coffee farmers.

“Many women don’t have any decision making power on how to manage the farm,” says Sinamenye. “Because women are not owners of land, men say that the coffee is their property.”

Despite revised land laws in 2011, women’s land ownership is not yet officially recognised in Burundi.

The World Bank has loaned the Burundi government US$4.2 million to help finance shade grown coffee cultivation, address the sources of pollution in coffee washing stations, and help educate farmers on sustainable practices, although it appears that women coffee farmers have been overlooked.

In its March 2015 results report, the World Bank found the Burundi Government’s overall implementation progress to be moderately unsatisfactory.

In fact, since 2013 the Burundi Government has missed most of its progress targets. The report also found that of the project’s 792 direct beneficiaries, none were women.

In an address to the 11th African Fine Coffee Conference and Exhibition in Burundi last year, ICO Executive Director Roberio Oliveira Silva said it was clear that the production of certified coffee in Burundi would enhance its marketability, facilitate improvements in quality, and increase price premiums for farmers.

“However, for smallholder farmers to switch to the production of certified coffee, they need institutional advice and assistance, typically from cooperatives, other producer bodies or government services which have the capacity to provide it,” Silva told the crowds.

Since establishing the Burundi Chapter of the IWCA in 2011, Sinamenye has been leading the fight to return profit to farmers like Pauline Ntaconkurikira. An important part of the IWCA’s work is teaching farmers about organic and fair trade certification.

“Pauline was a coffee collector before she became a member of the IWCA,” says Sinamenye. “Through our training she learnt the difference between cherries for the specialty coffee we wanted to produce and the coffee she was collecting before.”

Sinamenye says the empowered Ntaconkurikira then passed these lessons on to her community.

“She gathered other women and men in her area around our project to produce good coffee to sell at better prices,” says Sinamenye. “She explained to everyone who wanted to participate that they had to bring only red ripe cherries in IWCA Burundi project. They did and for three years they have been rewarded with bonuses, and with goats.”

The June 2015 World Bank urbanisation report found that to overcome development challenges, Burundi will need to strengthen property rights, reduce obstacles for land registration and find effective ways to resolve land disputes.

In January 2015, prior to the outbreak of conflict in Bujumbura, it predicted economic growth to accelerate slightly on 2014. With a newly re-elected Nkurunziza, and newly formed factions in government, the international spotlight has been shone on Burundi. With the threat of another civil war looming, it remains to be seen if the country can avoid future turmoil.

In the countryside, women like Sinamenye and Ntaconkurikira will continue to fight their own battles.

“Farmers like Pauline have learnt that good coffee gets the best price and they are motivated to continue producing good coffee,” said Sinamenye. “They will connect with more buyers – I am confident they are learning.” GCR

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