An SMS with only capital letters and exclamation marks, and three enthusiastic telephone calls from Kinshasa: the Congolese Parliament has finally voted the agriculture law! If you stop to think about it a moment, it is actually rather strong: only in the second decade of the 21st century a law is voted in Congo that establishes the general principles of the agricultural sector. 70 percent of the population lives from agriculture and as long as we can remember it has always been the sector that contributes most to the GNP, more so than the mining sector. And yet, there was no law on agriculture until now.
Familiy Farming finally acknowledged
This has everything to do with the perception about farmers (m/f) in this country. Those who are not on some payroll and are not traders certainly must be unemployed. Nobody stopped to thought that the current elite could go to school and become who they are now thanks to the resources generated by their parents’ activities on the field. To be a farmer is not a profession. That’s what you do when there’s nothing else you can do. You are a farmer by default. That’s how farming has been looked at all this time. Consequence: due to the neglect of the agricultural sector, every year 640.000 tons of foods have to be imported from abroad in order to feed Kinshasa and its surroundings.
The new law on agriculture changes that. For the first time there is a definition about what is family farming. It means that for the first time it is also acknowledged that family farming is the true cornerstone of the Congolese economy. And that it is a sector with a future.
Yet that was far from clear to everybody. For years there was a discussion about the project of law, and in the beginning it was mainly about what the big guys of Congolese politics understand as agriculture: large-scale mechanized plantations. It has needed much conviction to open the eyes of these people and make them see that true agriculture with the highest employment and feeding most people, is family farming. Now they have gone a bit too far in the opposite logic.
The law now distinguishes between household and family farming. It still eludes me what that was necessary for. In view of the important agro-socio-ecological differences, each province now gets the task to define what it may include exactly for every province. Probably they absolutely want to continue to make a distinction between subsistence farming and market-oriented agriculture, whereas the goal is to switch from subsistence farming towards productive agriculture. It looks like they still don’t fully believe in that.
What does(n't) the law say?
The law brings many positive points with it. There is the introduction of an agricultural cadastre; the composition of national, provincial and territorial advisory boards for agriculture; the obligation for every territorial entity to foresee a budget for the construction and maintenance of roads and other agricultural infrastructure; the constitution of a national fund for agricultural development; the exemption of import duties for all agricultural inputs and of export duties for all agricultural products; the establishment of the necessity of environmental impact studies for larger companies. Strangely enough, some important points were also omitted. The project of law was first approved by the Senate in January, and only today by the national Chamber, which is in fact the opposite way. And we will have known that; indeed the Chamber has changed ruthlessly in the project of law.
For instance, cattle-breeding and fishing have been removed completely. I can understand in the case of fishing, however if you know that the integration of cattle-breeding and arable farming should help to ensure the maintenance of soil fertility, a separate (future) project of law for cattle-breeding is yet another indicator that not family farming but ranching was first in mind. For everything that concerns land conflicts, the Senate had opted for local committees around the right to land with a thorough knowledge of the local context, who could act as mediators before possibly going to court. The Chamber did not think highly of that idea and wanted to give the mediation task to the provincial advisory boards, which are a little more distant. However, thanks to the lobby work of the farmers, the task is being given back to the decentralized territorial entities, even though the former name of local agrarian committee can no longer be used. For the rest, everything is referred through to the new law on the right to land (in preparation).
An Echternach procession
A detailed description of the process that led to the law on agriculture would lead us too far. We have seldom seen such an Echternach procession! In principle, the law could already have been voted in December. However, at that time everything had to be set aside for the revision of the constitution in order to make the president eligible in only one election round. And in April, there was the heated discussion about the elections law that put spokes in the wheels. Then how could it come so far after all? Because the farmers have organized themselves politically!
For the first time in the history of Congo a lobby cell of farmers’ organizations has gathered in Kinshasa in order to follow the entire process minute by minute. Quite a few Members of Parliament wondered what these ‘little peasants’ suddenly did in Parliament. However, they obtained the support of the Minister of Agriculture, who insisted that they should prove their legitimacy and accepted it without any problem. His policy collaborator, Paulin Osit, has supported the cell all the time and the same goes for Malembe Simples of the service NGO Forum des Amis de la Terre. However, the true heroes of the saga are no doubt Paluki Mivimba of the FOPAC federation from North-Kivu, Espérance Nzuzi Muaka of Fopako from Bas-Congo, Rosalie Biuma of the women peasants’ organization Afriki from Kinshasa and Danotien Malonda of Repam. They left their family and farm in order to ensure that the Members of Parliament would continue to work so that the law could be approved in this session, as otherwise everything would have been delayed at least a year, in view of the upcoming elections in November.
In December they already launched the phrase “sans notre loi, pas de voix” (“Without our law, no vote”). Their tenacity was an eye-opener for the honourables, though it was a close call. Last Friday the law would be presented for voting but there were less than 220 of the 500 Members of Parliament present, so the voting quorum was not met. For many indeed, the election campaign has already started. Fortunately, today it was different: 283 persons present provided 282 votes in favour, 1 abstention and not one vote against. Many congratulations to the lobby cell of the farmers’ organizations, who apart from the tough work indoors also were very obviously present in the media. The press conference they still gave last Saturday undoubtedly contributed to reaching the quorum today. The Members of Parliament were astonished by the powerful voice of the farmers.
So has the battle been won and is the future of family farming secured? Far from it! The challenges are still paramount: in the first place, the provincial executive decrees must be elaborated in a well considered way. If that doesn’t happen, the law will remain dead letter and will be to nobody’s use. Apart from that, the same vigilance must be produced for the related laws that are being prepared: the law on cattle-breeding, on the right to land, on seeds etc.. Also and not in the least, work should also be made of a harmonization of the law on agriculture with the laws on mining, forestry, investments, water and energy, as there are plenty contradictions. Finally, they should also work in earnest on the local elections, now foreseen for 2013, because if they will again be hidden under the presidential mat as was the case in 2007, the decentralization will remain half-hearted anyway. And that goes against the spirit of the law on agriculture.
So there is still a lot of work on the farmland for the farmers’ organizations! No wonder therefore that exactly that has been the subject of a planning meeting of the lobby cell this afternoon, im-mediately after the approval of the law on agriculture: out of question to rest on the laurels now! The lobby cell has been at work from early December until mid January and from late March to early May. Without that cell the law would not be there today, so much is clear! However, it is equally clear that the new legislative challenges that concern the farmers remain tree-high, and there is a huge need for a permanent representation of the farmers’ organizations in Kinshasa.
AgriCongo, an alliance of six Belgian NGOs, Vredeseilanden being among them, also understood that. With the help of befriended donors such as IFDC it was possible to collect resources for the lobby cell. The challenge is now to facilitate this permanent representation of the farmers’ organizations in a structural way. That way, the farmers’ organizations would have a permanent leverage in the capital city and make it their capital too.
Ivan Godfroid, collaborator of Vredeseilanden in Congo.