Trapped by an ancient tradition

Cattle and land at the heart of insecurity affecting women farmers in South Kivu.

February 13, 2015 17:30

Women farmers from the Ruzizi plain river, in the Congolese territory of Uvira, complain about the destruction of their harvests when transhumance starts: that is when cows –led by ranchers- descend from the mountains looking for pasture. The passage of the animals leaves the agricultural fields trampled and the vegetables and grains destroyed; so the family economy collapses and uncertainty takes over their lives.

However, this dispute is historic: whenever the cows pass through, there is always an argument. Sometimes, farmers use weapons to avoid cattle reaching the grazing land, and ranchers do exactly the same to force the seasonal migration. Neither the law nor the government have resolved these border issues – which date from the Belgian colonial period.- The transhumance has gradually become a source of violence –sometimes with fatal consequences- that destabilises the South Kivu province, bordering Rwanda, which is rich in minerals and has experienced permanent conflict since the genocide in 1994. The International Crisis Group has described this region as a "grey zone" which has suffered varying degrees of violence for 20 years[1].

Agrarian reform and land organisation are two issues of primary importance in order to achieve a certain amount of stability in the region. This is necessary given that farmers and ranchers of different ethnic groups, involved in conflicts since the colonial period, have to coexist here. However, the lack of interest in this region shown by successive national governments, as well as ambiguous legislation, have granted a discretionary power to the traditional leaders (mwami), who are guided by traditional laws and customs, but have not been able to peacefully resolve local conflicts over land. They themselves frequently take sides in the struggles for control over power and land.

In 2010, the Framework of Agreement among Communities was created, involving agronomists, farmers –most of whom are women- and ranchers –most of whom are men and they reached agreements that, nowadays, are the law by which they abide. They created mixed committees to apply the agreements in Kakamba, Biliba, Rhunigu, Kiliba and Ndunda, which are all communities from the Ruzizi plain in the middle of the transhumance conflict. They divided the lands between cattle paths with access to water and lands for pasture and they designated lands for cultivating food crops. Saidi Allo Ibya Sango, from the Network for Organisational Innovation (Réseau d'Innovation Organisationnelle,RIO), one of the instigators of these agreements, says that "the (Belgian) colony had envisaged all of these spaces, so these plans were followed. The problems started to be resolved slowly".

The transhumance begins in April. The ranchers from the north of the Ruzizi plain, especially those located in Kamanyola, head to the south with their large herds of cows to seek land for grazing. These migrations sometimes last until August or September, when the herds return to their cowsheds. The women who work as farmers in Kamanyola and in other villages on the plain explain that the destruction of their crops due to the transhumance of herds causes them economic and physical insecurity.

SMS for alarm

On 6th June last year, the "Femme au Fone" (FAF) system received SMS describing a massacre of 33 people (8 children, 17 women and 8 men) in the village of Mutarule, in the Ruzizi plain. Although the causes of this crime are complex and are not only related to the cattle, what is for certain is that this crime reinitiated the debate about the conflicts, even armed conflicts, that are periodically generated by the age-old activity of transhumance, as well as their impact upon people's security.

Some days after the massacre, FAF received some SMS referring to the insecurity problems that women farmers in Ruzizi are facing. The women from Uvira raised the alarm about some confrontations caused by the transhumance of the cattle through crops belonging to women in villages such as Kamanyola, Kiliba, Runingu and Katogota. Some days after, "Femme au Fone" went to this territory and spoke with some of the women, who confirmed that these disputes are source of physical and economic insecurity for them and their families.

In this region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, bordering Rwanda and Burundi, and also known as the Great Lakes region, law is imposed by tradition, supported by the importance of customs, although not by the Constitution. Cows are of economic and immaterial value, because they are used to pay the dowry of daughters of marriageable age and to wield real and symbolic power. This is why, at times, the job of protecting the cattle is delegated to armed groups, including the Army: as was the case with the Mutarule massacre, where a high command of the South Kivu region had property and investments.

On 29th September last year, the editorial office of the FAF broadcast a debate about 'The effects of transhumance on the security of the women in the Ruzzi plain.' The key actors involved in this historical dispute gathered around the microphones: Fatuma Kayengele, leader of the organisation Woman, rise up (Femmes Lèves-Toi) from Kamanyola; Jean Bosco Sadiki, spokesperson for the ranchers of Kamanyola; Bertin Zagabe, a local government representative from Kamanyola; and Saidi Allo Ibya Sango, from the RIO.

A summary of this debate follows:

Femme au Fone (FAF): Saidi Allo Ibya Sango, you are member of the Network for Organizational Innovation, tell us about the history of transhumance on the Ruzizi plain.

SANGO: From 2007 to 2010, RIO and Action for Development and Endogenous Peace (Action pour le Développement et la Paix endogènes -ADEPAE) accompanied the tribes of Uvira and Fizi (two territories located in the South Kivu province) to understand the difficulties they faced and we observed three difficulties or problems: Firstly, the conflicts over land disputes and land management; secondly, the collaboration between some tribes and armed groups; and, finally, the problem of bad government. The dispute between cattle ranchers looking for pasture and the women farmers is above all a conflict over land. Here, we can also discuss other problems: the burning of the brushwood that destroys fields, the passage of the cattle that damages lands, the theft of cows, and the looting and armed robbery of cattle from the ranchers.. There is another problem: the conflict for leadership among some mwami (traditional authorities) and lack of recognition for the government. All of this leads me to say that the problem between the farmers and ranchers in Ruzizi is just one of the conflicts experienced in the region. Moreover, this is the problem that unleashes the other conflicts because it is where the provocations begin: When the cattle destroy a field, the land owners retaliate and the attacks begin, so the origin of all of the violence that we see in the Ruzizi Plain is a conflict over land.

FAF: Fatuma Kayengele, of Woman, Rise Up (Femmes Lèves-Toi). How does the transhumance affect the women's security?

KAYENGELE: For years, us women farmers have had this problem, but our security has got worse since the Mutarule massacre, because those ranchers from Mutarule who were not involved in the transhumance, ran away from the city in fear and took their cattle to Kamanyola. We don't have space to keep all these herds, and with the migrating and the displaced cows, our situation has worsened. We do not feel safe.

FAF: Jean Bosco Sadiki, spokesperson for the ranchers in Kamanyola. Why do cows continue to eat crops and destroy fields?

SADIKI: Since the times of our ancestors, there have always been cows in Kamanyola. I agree that the impact of the conflict is greater since the Mutarule massacre and I can confirm that the Matarule ranchers moved to Kamanyola and we don't have much space. However, we are looking for solutions, and very soon the ranchers are going to return to their homes in bafuliro[2] territory (one of the ethnic groups of the province) where there are fields for grazing. I would ask Mrs Fatuma and other women farmers not to be afraid because we are starting to send the cows back.

FAF: MrBertin Zagabe, you are spokesperson of the Kamanyola regional government and have already organised some meetings and debates between ranchers and farmers. In these meetings, some measures were taken, some agreements were reached and a contract was signed. Why does this problem persist without a lasting solution?

ZAGABE: We held a meeting on 21st June last year, in order to talk about the destruction of the fields ofcrops. This meeting was attended by ranchers, farmers, the Chairman of the Civic Society of Kamanyola and technicians, such as agronomists and veterinarians. The aim of the meeting was to discuss the problem of the mass presence of cows and the lack of space. Everyone there signed an agreement that, from now on, every time a a cow destroys an orchard, both parties have to meet up. This was never done before, but now it has started to happen! Before, the arguments and violence started straight away, but now they meet up to evaluate the damage and to agree the compensation that one will pay to the other. This agreement has helped us. I think the atmosphere has started to improve a bit. However, some women farmers want to cause problems: they come shouting that their fields have been destroyed, but when you ask them to show you, they don't take you to see it, or they take you and then you discover it is not their orchard.

FAF: You have talked about the reduction of social tension, but Femme au Fone was in Kamanyola a few days ago and spoke to some women farmers who said the opposite. I suggest you listen to one of their testimonies:

We are really worried. There are thousands of cows coming from Luvungi, Bwuegerha, Lubarika, Katogota and Mutarule staying in Kamanyola. We have no space to let them graze. When the ranchers want to feed their cows, they release the cattle and they do not stick to the small path designated to take the cows to the river to drink. The cows go all over the place and their owners let them destroy our yucca fields; some of them even steal our crops to feed their cows because there is no land for them to graze. Of course, this causes problems and tension. We would like to know what the authorities are actually doing because they have already had us attend various meetings in the Security Council, they made us sign an agreement, but the fact is that nothing changes. So, here we are with 10,000 cows that do not allow us to work in our fields, and in this city everybody lives off the land. I would like to ask the authorities to look for a specific area for these herds, or to make them return to their stables. Otherwise, it will cause a war and it will be worse than what we went through in Mutarule.

FAF: Mrs Fatuma Kayengele, doesn't this signed agreement help the farmers?

KAYENGELE: It does not work at all. Currently, we don't have seeds, or cuttings, and our lands are empty because the cows ate everything and they keep coming back. How can we pay for our children to go to school? These crops help us to feed our families and to support our homes.

FAF: Zagabe, as spokesperson for the regional government in Kamanyola, how do you plan to help to make people respect these initiatives?

ZAGABE: We carry on producing weekly statistics, which demonstrate that the measures taken are bearing results. For instance, at the end of the day, the veterinarian has to know how many cows have left and how many have come back. In the beginning, we counted about 10,000 cows and now there are 1,500. This means the agreement allowed many ranchers to leave Kamanyola with their cows. There are still ranchers who must go back, but we have already taken a step towards resolving the conflict. I want to tell you about a case. A woman farmer came to complain because cows had destroyed her field. We went to check and because it was true we were able to speak to the person responsible, who acknowledged that his cattle had broken the wooden fences of the stable and escaped. The two people affected talked about it and reached an agreement. Moreover, we implemented a rule that there must be 5 ranchers per 5,000 cows, instead of one, as is often the case, and this was respected. Consequently, on the way back, all of these cows destroyed a lot less and this is further evidencethat the agreement between the farmers and the ranchers is bearing positive results. Mama Fatuma should go to Birato to see that these cows have already left. However, it is true to say that an enormous amount of damage was caused to the seeds in July and this is a problem for the women farmers in Kamanyola.

FAF: You are always talking about Kamanyola, but Femme au Fone has received similar complaints from other localities, such as Kiliba, Katogota and Luvungi. Have you talked to the leaders of these towns?

ZAGABE: You know, when a man is sick and does not speak to the doctor, he cannot be treated. We advise the local authorities to guarantee security in the Ruzizi plain because, you know, women farmers also cause trouble from time to time. Some of them have grown crops on the paths reserved for transhumance, so when the rancher arrives with his cattle he goes looking for a different route and a new conflict starts. What we want to do now is to clearly establish these paths for the cows.

FAF: Sadiki (rancher), when will the agreement that you established with the farmers come into effect once and for all?

SADIKI: I think the solution will be final when both parties are able to respect the agreement.

FAF: Mr Saidi, as spokesperson of an NGO, what do you think is the likelihood of lasting peace in the Ruzizi plain and what is the role of each of the actors here in our radio studio?

SAIDI: There needs to be an open collaboration between farmers, ranchers and the State. The State must accompany them in the process of determining together the areas allocated for growing crops and grazing, as well as the paths for transhumance. If we consider that there is hardly any land for pasture in this region, as a lasting solution, the government should train ranchers to develop the cattle industry in stables. Instead of having 50 cows producing two litres of milk each per day, ranchers could have 10 cows in a stable producing 20 litres each per day. This is already done in Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. This kind of cattle industry produces more and causes less damage. The State has to commit to training the ranchers.

FAF: Mr Zagabe, any complementary proposal to contribute to the solution?

ZAGABE: I think we have to restore peace in the Ruzizi plain, so that the ranchers will not be scared and will go back to their communities. Another key factor in achieving peace is respecting the agreements, instead of using popular justice[3].

FAF: What do the ranchers say about this debate, MrBosco?

BOSCO: I think the government has to ensure peace in the area and restore the pastures in the territory between Bwegera and Luberizi, where we can take our cows to forage. Our cows can live in peace there. It is a lie that ranchers steal crops from the women farmers and that they have weapons. Justice exists and nobody has caught a rancher stealing crops or carrying weapons. These accusations are false.

FAF: Mrs Kayengele, what would you like to say to close this Femme au Fone radio programme?

KAYENGELE: I agree that the most important thing is for peace to be restored in the region. I am glad it has been acknowledged that there is no land in Kamanyola for grazing cows, and I agree with the request of the ranchers' spokesperson for them to be given lands beyond Kamanyola. This proves that I am telling the truth. In Kamanyola, there is no land for grazing or for the cows to pass through. Right now the reality is that us women farmers in Kamanyola have no seeds to sow and this is a big problem.


[1] Comprendre les conflits dans l'Est du Congo (I): la plaine de la Ruzizi. African Report No. 206, p. 2. 23 July 2013. International Crisis Group, Belgium.

[2] Further information about Bafuliro and Barundi, and the Mutarule massace in June 2014: The Mutarule massacre conflict from below in Eastern Congo, Kris Berwouts, 18 June, 2014, African Arguments. It can be found in the following link:

[3] Popular justice is a physical punishment that the community or a group of people inflicts upon a person who commits a crime. In the South Kivu province, it is a widespread practice and it is a serious obstacle to resolving conflicts. Women accused of witchcraft are also subjected to popular justice by their own community, with the aim of imposing a punishment or expelling them from the community.