Sorry for the long delay in posting about the project I’m actually working on. Because of its connection to the government there were some hoops I needed to jump through before I could write anything. But now I’m ready to start a series of posts on the Borlaug Institute Agricultural Initiative in Kisangani, DRC.
As I’ve written on here before, the Congo doesn’t exactly have a happy history. In 1885 King Leopold II of Belgium created the Force Publique, a group of military regulars and mercenaries, to bring his personal colony, the Congo Free State, under strict control. Unable to feed the soldiers, Leopold ordered his men to live off the land and thereby started a tradition of pillaging villages for food in the Congo. This tradition was continued after Congo’s independence in 1960, particularly under the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko, and still exists to this day in parts of Eastern Congo. This practice lead to a military force virtually indistinguishable from rebel factions, as the military will often liberate a town only to subsequently steal all of the food and mass rape the women.
The theory behind the Borlaug Institute project is that when the soldiers aren’t paid, they still continue to be soldiers because they don’t have better opportunities, but when the soldiers aren’t fed they will do anything they need to in order to obtain food. Therefore, if the soldiers were able to be provided with a steady food source, it will help to prevent them from pillaging nearby villages.
The project is broken into two phases:
Phase 1: Construction of the farm and training of the Agricultural Company to become farmers.
Phase 2: Expansion of the farm using local construction methods and training the Agricultural Company to become training for future soldiers.
Mostly I’m going to focus on Phase 1 here. This involved the physical construction of a farm and two fish ponds at the military base in Kisangani. This included about 12 acres of cassava (a staple food in the Congo and provides both flour from the ground up root and some sauces from the leaves), 2 acres of other vegetables like amaranth (like spinach), and two large ponds. The majority of the construction was done using bulldozers and other mechanized methods. This allowed all of the initial construction to be completed during the short dry season from January to March.
Mechanized construction presented a problem of making replication of the project impossible without huge financial investment, so when I get to Phase 2 I’ll explain the goal of replicating the construction using human labor.
Since I wasn’t around for this part of the project, I’ve only heard about it from those who took part in it, but here’s what I’ve learned:
A group of 60 soldiers were selected to form Ag Company (AGCO). They have their own Captain, a strong dedicated leader who is a major asset to the project, and a few other minor officers to keep the chain of command working.
AGCO was taught methods of creating and maintaining a farm but agricultural trainer who spoke Lingala, the local language, as well as French. Many of the men had already farmed before but they were taught about crop rotation, common agricultural diseases, and other things which would improve crop yield.
The initial farm which was cleared using bulldozers consisted of twelve acres of cassava, the main staple crop of the area, and about four acres of other vegetables. The cassava would take a year to ripen, but then it would be able to feed 1000 men for a year. The other vegetables, mostly amaranth, a spinach-like plant, would be harvested on almost a weekly basis.
Two large fish ponds were also constructed, with feed and drainage canals used to cycle in fresh water, and they were stocked with 40,000 baby tilapia. The goal was to be able to provide fish as a good source of protein to the soldiers on a semi-regular basis after 4-6 months of growth.
A livestock breeding program was also instituted. Cows and pigs were chosen to be raised by the soldiers mostly for training purposes and for occasional special events when the meat could be given to the soldiers.
In my next update on the project I’ll get into Phase II, and then I’ll write another post on some of the problems and unexpected changes we’ve encountered along the way.