It may certainly seem incongruous to speak about agricultural development, while security operations are struggling to make progress in Central African Republic hinterlands, there is a threat of partitioning, and continuing widespread insecurity. It is, however, necessary to think about it, and quickly, and not pretend to believe that “free” elections or a new “Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration” system (after the errors of the previous ones) will suffice to lastingly pacify the country. There is a need to support agriculture and food chains, as they are the country’s main sources of wealth creation. Let us forget, once and for all, the old refrain of this “country with such rich mineral resources, which should be prosperous”; non-profitable uranium and oil that is uncertain and disputed with Chad do not make a rich country, and this is even less the case for diamonds and gold, which maintain instability more than they benefit communities. An agriculture that is dynamic and supported can do so.
Fruits of the marginalization of farmers
The chaotic situation that has prevailed nationwide in the Central African Republic since December 2012 has inevitably led to a collapse in agricultural production. FAO’s diagnostic has just been released and the organization points to a 36.9% fall in production between 2012 and 2013. One could, of course, be ironical about the accuracy of the figure in a country that does not have a statistical apparatus. But this is not the key point, as more than the recent collapse in the percentage, it is the starting point that gives a significant picture of the state of agriculture in CAR. And what exactly is to be found in the denominator of this calculation made by FAO experts? Farmers have been abandoned and there is no agricultural development, and this happened well before the current political and security crisis and, conversely, partly caused it.
On the agricultural front, it is difficult to classify CAR. It has attempted to retain the model inherited from the colonial period, which is dominated by an orientation based on exports of standard agricultural products (especially cotton and Robusta coffee). This model is no longer viable (has it ever been?), because of the very low level of productivity of the smallholdings that carry it, without support or technical capital. It is also due to the fact that the country is geographically landlocked, which lowers competitiveness and renders the prices of a number of imported products prohibitive. But in fact, it no longer really exists, crippled by the diktats of international financial institutions, the negligence of governments, and the disinterest of donors. As, let us be clear, there has never been much interest in farmers in CAR. They were considered to be hostile to the “mystique of progress”, as a French agronomist wrote during a mission in 1960, and have benefited from very little support, which has also been too short-term and not sufficiently dense to be decisive. This is what was already regretted by another French agronomist, who has remained in posterity, René Dumont, when in 1966 he delivered a Central African Republic version of his “Black Africa is off to a bad start”. It contained the seeds of the current situation: disregard for farmers on the part of the elite, lack of interest in food crops, fragmented actions, isolation – already – of outlying regions, etc.
The years of structural adjustment fatally damaged proactive development efforts, in the name of competitiveness and free markets: suppression of cotton growing in areas considered to be marginal by the World Bank, dismantling of the coffee industry, elimination across the board of support to producers, disappearance of rural schools, etc. Farmers did, of course, try to adapt to this new situation, in particular by diversifying their activities. But many lost all prospects of a future in agriculture, and thus turned towards Bangui, or even more so towards diamond and gold sites, sometimes reactivating mines that had been closed due to a lack of sufficient yields. Others, who are increasing in number, will also turn towards banditry and rebellion. It is undeniable that the impoverishment and marginalization of farmers are major sources of the current instability.
Furthermore, getting certain regions out of their marginality has been a paradox of the recent security crises. This is the case in the Southeast of the country: the Mbomou and Haut-Mbomou regions, which have been forgotten by developers for decades, and have seen the return of agricultural projects, but also of medical treatment, sanitation projects, and schools, following the incursions by the LRA and the subsequent humanitarian influx. In each area affected by a conflict over the past decade, projects to revive agro-pastoral activities have been implemented, but only last the time, which is too brief, of international financing. And elsewhere, in areas that are not directly affected by any rebellions or militia, there is no one. It is sad to observe that it consequently takes plundered villages, displaced persons, and kidnapped children to attract the attention of donors. When the last factions of the LRA have been eradicated, will Haut-Mbomou fall back into its initial marginality?
Invest in agricultural agricultural development
There is no shortage of ideas, as everything needs to be (re)built in terms of agricultural development. Here are some of them. They are not exhaustive and not given in detail, as it would be too long for this post.
First course of action: coordination between agriculture and livestock farming. Many people who arrive in CAR for the first time are surprised to discover the low level of animal traction, and the small number of animals harnessed and carts, apart from in the North regions. Yet we know the many advantages of using animals more effectively: production and transport of fertilizers, increase in yields and the areas developed, and transport of production. But of course, one cannot revive draught-animal farming with six months of financing obtained from an “emergency” donor. Long-term technical and veterinary support is required, and therefore sustainable budgets. But the qualitative leap brought about by animal traction is well worth such expenditure which, incidentally, remains quite moderate.
Second course of action: agroecology. As the initial level is so low, it would be easy to increase agricultural productivity, thanks to a more effective coordination with livestock farming, but also thanks to fertilization practices and the maintenance of agroecosystems that are adapted to the local situation and constraints. In this case, agroecological practices would appear to be excellent candidates, as they do not lead to a costly dependence on imported inputs. This is because they are based on local knowledge and practices and “modernize” them – we used to speak about “improved traditional agriculture”. It is also because they have the advantage of being low-carbon, which means they are very “fundable” as part of the fight against climate change. In addition, these practices must be based on a revival of seed networks, but here again by relying more on local varieties than hypothetical external inputs.
Third course of action: it is well known that a technical leap can only be sustainable if, at the same time, sectors are organized and outlets are secured. Here again, if peace returns, to think that a farmer is able to find his place on national or world food markets without any support is, at best, a sign of a deep misunderstanding of the situation in CAR. This aid must be territorialized. It could be backed to regional development hubs, should this good idea ever be reactivated (it involves fostering local dynamics based on small urban centers, in a sort of decentralization without the central government). Each hub would consequently be backed with multifaceted support activities, such as multifunctional platforms, which were at one stage sought in the Northwest: technical assistance, seeds and plants, credit, marketing, local supplies for food aid, support to collectives, etc. It is also with these hubs that it will be necessary to address the difficult issues of land tenure security and the coordination with pastoral activities, a source of so much tension in recent years. Finally, it is at this level that the various projects and programs will need to be coordinated in order to avoid the contradictions and duplications, which are still too frequent.
We have the opportunity here to operationalize this famous resilience, which has become the new banner for all donors and, consequently, due to the lack of own funds, of all the actors in the field. Resilience for farmers in CAR certainly involves recovering the livelihoods that they had prior to the crisis, but it also involves going beyond this initial level, this famous denominator that I mentioned above, and not a return to marginality. We are told that promoting resilience means bouncing back, but also preventing the onset of shocks, or better preparing for them. Consequently, there is a need to devise and finance long-term actions for farmers in CAR and sustainable support structures. Will this be costly? Perhaps (there has been no costing yet), but how much does the monthly maintenance of 12,000 peacekeepers cost?
For further information:
FAO/WFP, Markets and Food Security Assessment Mission to the Central African Republic, 7 April.
Dumont R. (1966), Le difficile développement agricole de la R.C.A., Annales de l’Institut National Agronomique, tome IV.
economist and lecturer at Lille 1 University