Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Less Sexy, but More Deadly?

Crops Cultivated on Shores of Lake Kivu, Gisenyi, Rwanda
by Ariadne Van Zandbergen
(In the foreground are cassava plants; behind are banana trees)
The deadliest killers in central Africa right now may not be M23, the FDLR, or Joseph Kony. Instead they might be little-discussed crop diseases that are destroying the livelihood of potentially millions of subsistence farmers. Among them are mosaic and brown streak disease, which ravage cassava crops, and xanthomonas wilt, colloquially known as Banana Aids, which wipes out bananas and plantains. This report by IRIN makes for grim reading.

It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of these crops to the people of eastern Congo. Some 70 to 80 percent of the region's population are subsistence farmers. While they grow a variety of other crops, including sweet potato, beans and rice, the two most important crops in the region are cassava and bananas. It is fair to say that they are to eastern Congo what potatoes were to Ireland in the 1840s. (Although the two crops are often seen growing side by side, as in the photo above, most farmers rely primarily on one or the other as their main food crop--there is some specialization depending on the altitude and soil.)

The map shows the prevalence of stunting* among
children 5 and younger; it was 46 percent in South Kivu
in 2008, before the recent outbreak of crop diseases.
Remember that these diseases are proliferating in a region already marked by extensive malnutrition. Various estimates made prior to the spread of these diseases placed the incidence of childhood malnutrition at 40 to 50 percent. The impact of an epidemic of crop diseases on people already living on the thinnest margin of survival is hard to imagine.

The IRIN report on the effects of the banana disease on Idjwi Island is troubling for two reasons. First, it suggests that combating the disease requires bureaucratic and organizational skills beyond the capacity of the Congolese state. Second, it portrays a society in the process of unraveling as a result of the strain imposed by hunger and need. The report quotes one inhabitant, “It's all of social life which deconstructs: we are seeing an increase in theft and conflict in communities, and instances of mob justice are increasing and are particularly violent. ... People are helpless. In addition, false rumours are circulating and we need to combat them.”

Anyone who has lived in an African village for any length of time knows that bonds of reciprocity and obligation enable villagers to survive hard times. (That is not to indulge in the myth of Ye Olde Africa: relationships within villages can be as acrimonious and complicated as those in any Sherwood Anderson story.) But if it is true that those bonds have begun to weaken and break, that bodes ill for the region's internal stability and social capital.

This is yet another reason to be worried about the impact of the DF-1502 inspired embargo on Kivu minerals. I suspect that among their responsibilities, the young men who worked as artisanal miners were expected to support their extended families during lean times. Just as American families distribute their retirement savings among several classes of stocks, bonds, and real estate, some Congolese families probably multiplied their survival strategies by sending some of their young men to the mines. (The classic study of how African families arbitrage their risks is Sara Berry's Fathers Work for their Sons.) The loss of mining income in the context of a food production crisis could be catastrophic in a way that either loss on its own would not be. I warned about this possibility earlier; I want to reiterate my concern here and call, once again, for a thorough impact assessment of DF-1502. Idjwi might be the perfect place to start.

*A child's growth is considered stunted if he or she is minus two standard deviations from median height for age of reference population.

No comments:

Post a Comment