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February 13, 2014

Bringing Seeds of Life to CAR

by Joe DeCapua

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization says the ongoing fighting and violence in Central African Republic are pushing the country toward a full-scale food crisis. Despite the insecurity, the FAO says it wants to ensure that crops are planted before the rainy season arrives. 


The FAO says conflict is putting much of the country’s population at risk of not getting enough to eat.

Dominique Burgeon, director of the agency’s Emergency and Rehabilitation Division, said, “We are extremely concerned with the overall humanitarian situation in CAR and especially the food security sector where up to 1.6-million people are currently food insecure out of a total population of 4.6-million, which is a huge share of the population that is food insecure.”

The FAO describes the situation in the capital Bangui as “increasingly worrying,” but says it is “even more acute” elsewhere in the country.

The problem began early last year as mostly Muslim Seleka rebels toppled President Francois Bozize. Communal violence erupted in December after Seleka leader Michel Djotodia became interim president and rebels began attacking civilians. Djotodia was pressured to step down, but the violence has continued under the new interim leader Catherine Samba-Panza.

Now, however, militias, known as anti-balaka, have waged a campaign of revenge attacks. Human rights groups say the militias – who appear to be a mix of Christians and animists – are trying to drive all Muslims out of the country.

Burgeon said that the violence has disrupted agriculture for about a year.

“For the all of last year people were constantly displaced within the country – couldn’t crop their land. When they could cultivate their land it was sometimes looted, burned -- and they also lost all their agricultural assets and tools, the seeds. So this has meant that they had very little harvest last year.”

There’s concern that the “hunger gap” in CAR will come early this year. It’s a time when food stocks are low prior to the next harvest.

“In [a] normal year the hunger gap would start in July and last until September / October. This year the hunger gap is expected to start as early as February, early March, leaving them in a very difficult food security situation until the next harvest,” he said.

The FAO’s initial plan is to support the country’s staple crops.

Burgeon said, “One of the main crops for them is maize. So what we are currently trying to do is to support the next planting season for maize. And that is due to start in the south of the country in early March. And we believe this is absolutely critical to support the children. And then to go on a bit later on and support sorghum planting season. But it is super important that we support this planting season with the seeds, but also with the tools, in time for the farmers to prepare their land.”
Burgeon added that if the FAO and its local partners fail to support CAR farmers now, the population will need “protracted food assistance.” That, he said, would be a “terrible situation.”

An FAO assessment in December found that 78-percent of CAR farmers planned to either grow crops on their land or on land near the make-shift camps where they’ve sought shelter.  But that depends on their having seeds and tools.

“For the people agriculture is the only option. Therefore, they plan to crop their land and that’s why we want to assist them as much as we can -- of course, not exposing them to undue risk. But it’s clear that when they want to do it – if they have the opportunity to do it – we want to be there,” he said.

The Food and Agriculture Organization is in the process of rebuilding CAR’s seed stocks. It’s collecting seeds from neighboring countries, as well as Nigeria.

All this, of course, carries a price tag. Burgeon said the overall cost will be $39-million, $10-million of which is needed now.

“If we wait for too long, the rainy season will start. Transport will be extremely difficult and therefore it will complicate our operation. Therefore, while we are going for road transportation now, we may have to use air assets in the coming weeks.”

The FAO estimates 75-percent of the population relies on small-scale agriculture for food and income.

Another U.N. agency – the World Food Program – has begun airlifting emergency supplies into Central African Republic. The first flight carried nearly 2,000 metric tons of food – enough for 150,000 people for one month. In all, the WFP plans 25 flights over the next four weeks.

The WFP resorted to airlifts because insecurity along the road from Cameroon to Bangui made truck drivers hesitant to make the trip to Bangui. The few trucks that have arrived in recent weeks had an armed escort.