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Permaculture Brings Promise of Peace and Food Security for Two Congolese Communities

In the western province of Mai-Ndombe in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) lie two neighboring villages, Loile and Mpaaha. The villages are home to the indigenous Batwa community, who are hunter-foragers, and the Bantu community, who are local farmers. While culturally distinct with highly disparate values and practices, these communities have never marked their territorial boundaries.

DRC’s local and indigenous communities, like many others, are known for their intimate connections with forests as the source of their homes, livelihoods, medicine and spiritual practices. Their own systems of land rights have enabled the communities to coexist peacefully for generations. Over the past several decades, however, climate change-induced natural hazards and biodiversity loss due to industrial scale deforestation have contributed to tensions between the Batwa and Bantu communities. Moreover, DRC’s declining economy and a daunting battle with Ebola virus have led to rising food insecurity across the country, with significant impacts on these already vulnerable communities. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has now compounded the issue, and today, roughly 21.8 million people are facing acute food insecurity – drastic increase from 2019’s estimate of 15.6 million (FAO).

Mr. Patrick Saidi Hemedi, an expert on Indigenous Peoples’ rights and issues in DRC, believes that permaculture may provide some solutions going forward. Mr. Hemedi participated in BES-Net’s November 2020 Francophone Africa Regional Virtual Trialogue, with over 60 participants from seven countries exchanging expertise and experiences on issues of biodiversity loss, land degradation and food insecurity amongst Indigenous Peoples and local communities.

Mr. Hemedi is the Coordinator of Dynamics of Indigenous Peoples Groups (Dynamique des Groupes des Peuples Autochtones or DGPA), a network of around 45 organizations, including indigenous forest peoples’ groups, which is working to secure the rights of Indigenous Peoples, as well as improve recognition of the role that they play in protecting forests and associated biodiversity. Over the last few years and through the pandemic, Mr. Hemedi has seen how land regeneration can transform conflict into peace between the two communities. Mr. Hemedi shared that he first arrived at the site where the Batwa and Bantu communities intersect in 2012. He remembers finding abandoned fallow fields and evidence of “slash and burn” practices amongst other unsuccessful attempts of the hunter-forager Batwa community to mimic the Bantu farmers’ practices.

“There was a lack of diversity in agricultural products and a dire shortage of food,” recalls Mr. Hemedi.

He realized it was imperative to collaborate with the communities to improve nutrition by diversifying agricultural products and supplementing other foods from livestock.

Restoring forests and fields while respecting the different cultural values and practices of each community can increase yield and product quality while contributing to inter-community sharing by reintegrating a traditional bartering system.

Mr. Hemedi notes, “The absence of a shared vision on a sustainable relationship to the lands and natural resources they contain was leading to greater disputes among communities.” A community-centred regenerative agriculture practice called “permaculture” is offering the communities a way forward. Permaculture is a systems thinking approach to building more sustainable ecosystems that rely on practices such as the reintroduction of native species and building community resilience.

Mr. Hemedi and his team at DGPA began by introducing the principles to the communities. Together, they identified the communities’ agricultural needs and mapped the area for agricultural planning according to the seasonal calendar. They introduced flower beds for rainwater retention, which also facilitated the production of legumes and tubers such as yams and sweet potato. Then they began reforesting with fruit trees while taking advantage of the shade for the cultivation of mushrooms, “a favorite food of the indigenous Batwa peoples”, adds Mr. Hemedi. The fallow areas have been revalorized with fruit trees, and the community now practices permaculture with a good planning policy and use of agricultural land.

It has been nearly a decade since Mr. Hemedi and DGPA have begun working with the Batwas and Bantus. Today, the site shared by the two communities is organized by vast productive fields, lush forests, numerous preserved sacred sites and even boasts a newly established shared local health center. Looking back, Mr. Hemedi states, “Permaculture was a wise choice because the approach fit well with the communities’ philosophy of preserving the forest, which is their nourishing mother.” Mr. Hemedi explained that the organization took measures to ensure both the cultural relevance and sustainability of the project. “DGPA trained community members taking into account their culture and indigenous knowledge so that they are able to implement these activities themselves.” Mr. Hemedi notes, “Surplus of the harvested products are divided; some of the harvest contributes to payments into community granaries, guaranteeing that seeds are available for distribution to other community members. Whereas the rest is intended for sale, ensuring a means to necessities such as food, healthcare and schooling.”

This effort has strengthened collaboration between the Batwas and Bantus, increased agricultural outputs and may very well present a solid solution to help tide these ongoing crises. DGPA’s constant support has now led to issues of Indigenous Peoples’ traditional knowledge and rights being enshrined in a law that was recently passed by the National Assembly. The law presents an incredible milestone in the efforts of advocates like Mr. Hemedi and DGPA. Using nature as a way to break down barriers and unite communities in a shared mission offers useful lessons for countries across the world.

Permaculture has allowed the two communities to become one with their environment again by enhancing their traditional knowledge for improved relationships to their land and each other.

"They have come to depend on each other for better nutrition and to strengthen the economic power of all households," signs off Mr. Hemedi.

Credits:

Feature image: An aerial image of the site in Democratic Republic of Congo’s province of Mai-Ndombe, where DGPA is implementing permaculture practices with two communities (credit: DGPA, Synchronicity Earth, and Chris Scarffe). Image courtesy of Dynamique des Groupes des Peuples Autochtones (DGPA) Image courtesy of Dynamique des Groupes des Peuples Autochtones (DGPA) Image courtesy of Mr. Patrick Hemedi Image courtesy of Dynamique des Groupes des Peuples Autochtones (DGPA) Kudra_Abdulaziz on Pixabay Image courtesy of Dynamique des Groupes des Peuples Autochtones (DGPA) Forest Service, USDA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons