Acacia oasis to restore soil and grow maize and cassava in DRC
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From above, on the other side of the Kwango River, an island of light pierces the night. A bright and incongruous yellow patch in the middle of the savannah that surrounds the Batéké Plateau, about 220 km from Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Where electricity cable is not normally laid to supply villages. Those lights and hundreds of kilometers of specially laid power lines are all that remain of Bukanga Lonzo: an 80,000-hectare, half-a-billion-dollar agribusiness megaproject launched with drum and trumpets in 2014 and cut short by an explosion three years later. a deafening financial scandal that revealed the evaporation of tens of millions of dollars.
Bukanga Lonzo was supposed to be part of the “Modern Revolution” launched by then President Joseph Kabila (2001-2019) in what the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) described as “Congo Agricultural Paradox”. Namely, the country with the second largest agricultural potential in the world (after Brazil), with 80 million hectares of arable land, theoretically capable of producing enough crops to feed the entire African continent.
In fact, “A total of 11 million hectares are under cultivation, and the river, rail or road infrastructure necessary to transport agricultural products is in disrepair, unusable or non-existent. The country spends $2 billion a year on food imports, but one-third of the population suffers from food insecurity.Jean de Dieu, a professor of agronomy at the University of Kinshasa, laments Minengu.
Pressure on forests
“Bukanga Lonzo Describes This Shipwreck”Benjamin Tentala, nicknamed “Taty”, explains. “We don’t grow corn with airplanes”mocks this farmer, referring to the thousands of liters of fertilizer spread in the hope of growing corn on infertile land. “Here on the plateau there is 20 cm of soil, just good for grass, 50 m of sand below”, he explains. Geologically speaking, the Batéké Plateau is actually a type of giant dune fossilized fifty million years ago associated with the Kalahari Desert. “The only result of all this fertilizer spilling is that it polluted the aquifer and killed all the fish in the river.”“Taty” adds.
When Bukanga Lonzo was launched, the farmer on the opposite hill was involved in a completely different adventure: the Ntsio agroforestry project, conceived ten years ago by German foundation agronomist Hanns Seidel and financed by the European Union. While Bukanga Lonzo is a mirage, Ntsio has become a reality that can be modeled on two levels: agricultural and associative.
The specificity of the place can be seen with the naked eye. As you drive along National Road 1 to Kinshasa, you discover a desolate landscape of forestless hills. Ntsio is an oasis of 6000 green hectares. “4-5 million acacia trees were planted, 1200 per hectare”, explains Pierre Clinquart, agronomist of the foundation’s Congo branch.
“The main source of deforestation, remembers is the felling of trees for farming and making charcoal. » As the DRC says, this “article” meets the energy needs of 90% of the population, given that most homes are not connected to electricity or gas. “Kinshasa consumes 5 million tons of wood per year, which will be obtained from the exploitation of approximately 60,000 hectares of natural suburban forests.”Evaluates the Center for International Cooperation in Agricultural Research for Development (CIRAD). “With rapid urban population growth – Kinshasa’s population has doubled in a generation – pressure on natural forests is increasing” French organization adds.
“Helping with natural recovery”
At Ntsio, we found a small-scale solution given the vastness of the Congo (2.3 million square kilometers). based on a virtuous circle centered on the acacia. “It’s an assisted natural recovery system”, explains Pierre Clinquart. Specifically, the first acacia from a nursery was planted eight years ago. After maturity, the trees are cut at ground level, in a part of the plantation, at the beginning of the rainy season. Fire is set on leaves and branches scattered in the forest. The heat causes the acacia seeds to germinate naturally and produce new trees without the need to replant them. “The fertility of the soil enriched with nitrogen released during burning increases two to three times”, observes the agronomist. Then the farmers plant corn or cassava while they wait six to seven years for the acacia trees to grow. In subsequent years, they let the plot rest, alternately move on to the next one, and so on.
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“The system has proven itself”, rejoices “Taty”. He lived “before Ntsio”: a difficult life that continued for other farmers in the region. “Farmers grow monocultures that quickly deplete sandy soils. Then they move every three to four years and are condemned to nomadic farming. Mowing in Ntsio improves the quality of the soil, we sit down, and our income increases.”, farmer details. This year, they will even grow significantly thanks to complementary activities such as acacia honey harvesting and charcoal production from responsible firewood management.
This autumn, for the first time, farmers were allowed to set up makala stoves. As we smoke them, we see large earthen mounds in the middle of the fields, covered with five or six cubic meters of firewood, slowly consumed over several days. Stars in the eyes, farmer Martin Malembe “Hopefully we’ll make $10 a bag of articles”. He plans to produce sixty products in this trial year.
“In Ntsio, the beginnings were difficult, when the acacias were still in their nursery, we only had cassava. We had to be patient, but eight years later, things are going well, and it’s getting better with the money from the sale of the article. It will change our lives.”Simo Bissuka, the biennial president of Dwale, one of the four associations that run the plantation, confirms. “These funds will be primarily directed to children’s education”, adds Pierre Mabala, a colleague from the Muthio association. The father of eight children, the two eldest are already students in Kinshasa. “one is pedagogy, the other is mechanics”. Younger siblings can do it too.
“Carbon credit potential”
Ntsio is home to about 260 agricultural households, each holding a 17-hectare farm with a total area of 6,000 hectares. Everything is managed by four landholding associations and each group has a total of 50-70 families. This architecture was conceived, managed and built ten years ago by the Hanns Seidel Foundation. European funding (9 million euros in the first five years) enabled the construction of infrastructure (housing, technical buildings, water supply, etc.).
But this year, November was a turning point. Ntsio now flies solo. Thus, the Dwale association brought its members together to review past and future activities. “We slowly learned to manage the community by ourselves, we became high-quality farmers. We do not intend to spoil all this, the departure of the foundation will not change anything.” Way-Way Wens, president of the Mudiankulu association, says.
And the adventure may not end there. “Other revenues are also possible because we have carbon credit potentialsays Kifou Chansard, the plantation’s Congolese agronomist. But we shouldn’t plant trees with the wrong goal because Westerners are paying us carbon credits, adds the engineer. At Ntsio we fight against poverty, land and food insecurity. Agroforestry saves people. »