BUNIA, 4 Apr 2005 (IRIN) - Once renowned for its food production, Djugu, a territory in Ituri, is rapidly degenerating into a food-deficit zone, according to local agriculture experts and UN agencies.
On the surface, Ituri - a district in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) twice the size of Rwanda - is as green and fertile as ever. The rainy season has just begun and huge rain clouds that build up early in the afternoon are followed by heavy downpours, thunder and lightning.
Normally, the arrival of the rains is greeted with joyous activity in and around villages - farmers and their families prepare plots, sow maize, and plant cassava, sweet potatoes and other vegetables.
But this year, many villages - or what is left of them - are deserted. Plots are overgrown with weeds and elephant grass, and an eerie silence hangs over the landscape, where busy people should be going about their daily work.
Recent violence, involving the Hema and Lendu ethnic groups, has resulted in the displacement of 20,000 farming families from Djugu, north of Ituri's main town of Bunia.
Fields unattended in Djugu Territory: 20,000 Hema farmer families live in camps, nobody is attending their fields and planting because of insecurity.
Agricultural production has plummeted, with serious consequences for the long-term food security of hundreds of thousands of people.
Agricultural NGOs and the UN World Food Programme (WFP) are calculating how much more food aid needs to be shipped into Ituri to prevent theoretically wealthy farmers from starving in the coming months.
"In the first three months of 2005, we distributed as much food aid as was planned for half a year. In a few months we will have run out of supplies and there will be a big problem towards the end of the year," Rudi Sterz, project coordinator at German Agro Action (AAA), told IRIN in March.
"There was no way we could have planned for such a development," he added.
AAA is the largest NGO in Ituri, as well as the major food-distributor in the district. It receives its supplies from WFP and the European Union.
Those who benefit from its food aid include internally displaced persons (IDPs); returning families, who had fled the six-year conflict; host families of returnees; and families with malnourished children.
Violence and the need for more food aid
Since the tempo of fighting between Lendu and Hema militias increased in December 2004, the number of people fleeing to IDP camps has dramatically increased in Djugu Territory. More than 88,000 Hema fled the attacks of Lendu militias and are now cramped into five camps.
Estimates of food-aid requirements, made when the long-running conflict was in a lull at the end of 2004, are proving woefully short.
"We planned a rehabilitation programme targeting returnees, and did not expect many IDPs - now we are facing a deficit," Francois Djissu, head of the WFP office in Bunia, told IRIN.
During 2005, WFP had planned to distribute 760 mt of food aid per month. According to Djissu, WFP Kinshasa has now decided that this amount will have to be almost doubled to 1,400 mt, starting in April.
"WFP is currently making loans and local purchases from Uganda," Djissu said.
However, increasing food aid for IDPs will only solve part of the mounting problem of deteriorating food-security in Ituri.
Djugu used to be the breadbasket for much of Ituri, supplying Bunia and the trading centres along Lake Albert.
Now, only groves of eucalyptus and mango trees indicate where human settlements once stood. Of the Hema villages that once dotted the landscape, little is left standing.
During their attacks, Lendu militias burnt down homes, looted food and animals, and even destroyed crops that were growing in the fields.
"Their aim was to chase the people away and keep them in the camps," Louis-Marie Bouaka of the UN Mission in the DRC, known as MONUC, told IRIN in Bunia.
This has had far-reaching consequences not only for IDPs, but also for the general population.
Food scarcity spreads to urban areas
"The militias made sure that when the IDPs return they have nothing left to eat, so they will not go back to their villages and start anew," said Aime Boyemba, an agricultural expert of AAA, based on eyewitness accounts.
"Now that many farmers live in the camps and cannot plant, the production crunch will also hit towns like Bunia," Boyemba said, predicting that the situation would become worse in the next six months.
"Affected will be many more than the 20,000 families in the camps. The urban poor are likely to be hurt particularly badly."
Prices in Bunia's market have already risen sharply; 100 kg of beans, which used to cost US $30 before ethnic violence erupted again in mid-December, now costs $80 dollars.
"Prices will go up even higher," Boyemba said.
With salaries for government workers reaching just $10 a month, hunger in towns like Bunia might become a reality for many.
What worries Boyemba is the future of agricultural production in Ituri in general.
AAA distributes seeds and agricultural tools to farmers who lost their assets during the six-year conflict in eastern DRC. The goal is to make them able to feed themselves and produce for people living in towns.
The German NGO had planned to make Djugu a major distribution area for the first time - 13,000 families were due to benefit.
However, the plan had to be changed due to security concerns. The NGO's trucks were looted on several occasions, and militias intimidated staff.
We have to divert the seed programme to other locations which are secure and also in need," Boyemba said.
He concluded, "People in the greatest danger have the least assistance in terms of agriculture".
Sterz has computed that the diversion of the NGO's seed programme will create a production shortfall in Djugu of 1,600 mt this season.
Reconstruction of vital transport routes in Ituri has been delayed due to conflict. This bridge, south of Bunia, was rebuilt by German Agro Action.
"Road-building projects, designed to improve market access for producers and facilitate supply to urban centres, have also been affected by the conflict.
Reconstruction of the main road between the towns of Solenyama and Blukwa, an important connecting route between Djugu and Bunia, has been delayed by three months because the project area lies exactly in the middle of the conflict zone.
Now the road's completion is in jeopardy. The European Communities Humanitarian Office (ECHO), which is financing the upgrading of the vital supply route, is unable to continue funding projects after their set completion dates.
Pives Scotto from ECHO told IRIN, "We now need post-emergency donors who come to Ituri for the support of infrastructure projects."
If supply routes suffer, so does food security in cities, as well as farmers' income in rural areas.
Future agricultural production under threat
After six years of war, farmers and development agencies have growing difficulty not only producing and selling agricultural products, but also simply finding seeds and planting materials.
"Planting material for manioc, which is a major staple in Ituri, has almost disappeared," said Michael Dzaringa, a technician at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), based in Bunia.
FAO has had to import manioc from Kisangani, more than 500 km to the west, to local farming cooperatives.
Because of the lack of security, the project has already had to be reduced from the planned 10 ha to six - a drop in an ocean of fertile land which now lies idle.
Most farmers also have neither money nor access to purchase maize seeds, and they now plant fourth and fifth generation hybrid seeds that are practically sterile, and produce almost no yield.
"If farmers have no means to plant, they also cannot produce seeds for the next planting season," Dzaringa said.
This adversely affects future food security.
According to Djissu, WFP will have to feed IDPs in the region at least until October - provided that the security situation improves by then, and farmers can go back to tilling their fields with the support of the humanitarian community.
Should security fail to improve, the IDP camps might become a long-term feature, as would food aid.
"The call is now with the UN peacekeeping troops and the DRC government," Djissu said. "They need to establish stability and security so that the farmers can go back to work."
Trouble in Tche
An aerial view of the IDP camp in Tche, Ituri District.
Tche Camp, 62 km north of Bunia, was set up at the end of January and is a cramped home to 4,000 Hema families, almost all of them traditional farmers.
Like the IDPs in Djugu's other four camps, they are desperate. They have lost relatives, wives and children, and all the means of production, which have kept them alive for generations.
"Our biggest concern is protection from the Lendu. Many are afraid to leave the camp to plant in their fields - the Lendus might attack and kill us," Lonema Lano from Tche village, close to the camp, told IRIN.
Lano lost four family members during an attack by the Lendu.
A Pakistani MONUC contingent is guarding Tche Camp, and has secured a radius of several kilometres around it. Maj Irfan Hashmi, who is commanding the security force, told IRIN, "They are safe to plant within this area."
However, not all 4,000 families in the camp have land nearby. Some come from Niabamba village, 30 km to the east. Fearing conflict with traditional Hema landowners, they do not venture out to plant. "Give us hoes, seeds and machetes," said one elder in a meeting with Marco Donati, a humanitarian affairs officer at MONUC.
"FAO will give you hoes and seeds, but no machetes," Donati said.
In Ituri's battered food basket, machetes are not only tools to clear fields - they are also used to kill farmers and their families.