When Kahuzi-Biega National Park was created in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1970, indigenous people, called Batwa, and other local communities were expelled from the forest. Since then, they have struggled to survive in small land allotments around the edges of the park. This poses a huge obstacle for these communities, since they now have little access to a forest that had supplied them with food and shelter for countless generations.
Recognizing that the survival of the area’s great ape populations depends on the socioeconomic success of their human counterparts, the Canadian Ape Alliance joined with Zerofootprint (Canada) to develop the Batwa Agricultural Program. Launched last year, the initiative is providing 82 Batwa families with the means to grow crops for themselves and attain a measure of self-sufficiency.
Farming is not a traditional activity for the Batwa. As hunter-gatherers, they sometimes resorted to poaching within the protected area after they were expelled from the park. Through this program, they are learning to plant, tend and harvest crops for the first time. Another aspect that is new in this program is that men and women together are working in the fields. In order to take part in this groundbreaking agricultural project, a family’s parents both had to agree to participate. Men would cultivate the land and women would hoe and plant seeds. Both participate in harvesting.
On two separate sites, 40 hectares of land are being leased from the National Institute for Agricultural Research and Studies (INERA). Each family was given half a hectare to cultivate, 40 kg of bean seeds and 15 kg of corn seeds, as well as a hoe and a machete. The seeds were purchased from the agricultural cooperative CCPA (Centre Coopératif de Production Agricole) through its CBO (Community Based Organization).
The land was cleared in the summer of 2010 and crops were planted in fall during the first rains. Due to the favourable climate, two crops per year can be harvested from the land. Last year, Canadian Ape Alliance president Dr. Kerry Bowman visited the area to monitor the projects and to meet with local conservation and development policymakers.
“It’s truly inspiring to see how quickly the community adapted to what for them is a brand new way to live and subsist,” says Dr. Bowman. “Everyone is working hard to make this initiative a sustainable success. It’s a win-win for both humans and apes.”
Our thanks to Xavier Fux and Melanie Hogan from Green Beat for assisting the pygmies of Boyungule in setting up a water catchment system, a small seedling nursery and a vegetable garden. Green Beat engages in permaculture projects in developing countries and has provided valuable expertise to the Batwa community in DRC.