Ten cacao farmers, nine of whom are women, have crossed warring ethnic lines to plant their fields together. They aim to become self-sufficient — and support lasting peace — in a region that has been plagued by violence for decades.
ITURI, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — Sounds of laughter fill the lush greenery of the cacao fields.
Once called the “bloodiest corner of Congo” by Human Rights Watch because of violent clashes between the Hema and Lendu ethnic groups, today a group of mostly female cacao farmers from both groups are pooling their resources and using cacao to broker lasting local peace.
The cooperative, Tuendelee Mbele, which means “let’s move forward” in Swahili, was created to foster mutual opportunities for prosperity, says Sara Kyakimwa, a member of the group.
“We are supporting one another and banding together irrespective of ethnic origin. Our sole concern is to think up ways to become self-reliant,” she says.
Members of the cooperative, made up of nine women and one man, pooled their money to rent a tract of land to grow cacao trees. Investing in a shared plot of land is symbolic, Kyakimwa says.
“The fact that we’ve managed to engage in joint ownership of property is a clear indication that reconciliation has taken deeper roots in our community,” Kyakimwa says, adding that land disputes have been a primary reason for conflict for decades.
Violence between the Hema and Lendu ethnic groups has been going on since the early 1970s, locals say.
Conflict escalated between 2002 and 2003 when at least 5,000 people were killed in the Ituri province, according to a 2003 Human Rights Watch report called “Ituri: Covered in Blood.” Torture, execution-style killings, rape, mutilation and even cannibalism were common tactics on both sides, according to the report. Violence has continued in the years since. Most peacekeeping operations fail.
In total, the United Nations estimates that more than 50,000 people have died here since 1999. Another 500,000 have been forced to flee their homes. Today, the Patriotic Resistance Front of Ituri, a Lendu militia group, remains active in the area.
The majority female cacao cooperative works to oppose that bloody history.
“It’s said that if you educate a woman, you educate a nation,” says Joséphine Kungugu, a cooperative member. “We will never tire of fighting for peace.”
The cooperative works in Komanda, a town in the Ituri province, deep in the northeastern corner of DRC. In November 2016, the farmers rented a 15-acre tract of land from Eugene Okaume, a village leader. They planted 1,500 cacao trees, donated by ESCO Ltd., a cacao export company that provides technical support to farmers, including agronomists, and then buys their cacao beans to sell in Europe and the United States.
Dieudonné Kambale, a local agronomist, says the village has made a good choice in investing in cacao as a money-making crop.
“Our land is blessed with matchless fertility,” he says. “We don’t even need chemical fertilizers. We earn lots of money with cacao.”
But the cooperative represents more than profit.
Françoise Kahindo, a farmer in the neighboring village of Masuli, says the initiative gives her hope.
“It’s a good thing that they’ve formed an association irrespective of their ethnic belongings,” Kahindo says. “I’m holding out hope that their initiative will spread to my village as well.”
Anisette Lukogho, a member of the cooperative, says she hopes the idea does spread, because conflicts have destroyed too many of DRC’s development opportunities.
“We want to be a light shining in the darkness for others, for them to bid adieu to ignorance and ethnic segregation,” Lukogho says.
Sylvestre Ndahayo, GPJ, translated this article from French.