KINSHASA — In the village of Mbankana, an agrarian community high on the Bateke Plateau, a volcanic area some 80 miles from the capital, a tractor hired out to small farmers rumbles out to the fields.
While local farmers would like to see more tractors available for hire, disputes over regional land access have left them uncertain about where they can legally use the rented equipment.
The National Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN) recently banned farming within a reserve that includes areas surrounding the villages.
According to the National Confederation of Agricultural Producers (CONAPAC), a non-governmental organization, small farmers have been encroaching on the reserve because tracts once available for local agrarian purposes have been sold off to rich outsiders.
Even two former national parliamentary presidents are among those who recently acquired large holdings near Mbankana, says CONAPAC vice president Rosalie Biuma.
Both CONAPAC and the ICCN say most concessions aren't being farmed. And according to CONAPAC adviser, Etienne Bisimwa, it reflects a nationwide problem.
"Big people in government, people who have a lot of money, they will buy a big part of land and just keep it like that and not use it," says Bisimwa, who describes the situation as emblematic of a nationwide pattern. "There is an issue of more than 2,000 big farms which are not being used."
By Bisimwa's estimates, while a typical concession might comprise only 500 hectares of land, other parcels are so large that it takes half a day to drive through them.
The blame game
At a recent meeting on land rights, small farmers complained that local chiefs are selling off the land.
"Local people have to be able to farm or they won't survive," said Ephraime Mbo, a local farmer. Another farmer, Ambroise Ngai Ngai, corroborated the charge, explaining that 40 hectares for which he paid the customary rent in 2003 — a 25-year lease — had been resold by his chief.
But Jacques Moba, a Mbankana village elder, said in some circumstances land can be reallocated ahead of lease expiration.
"That can happen if land is not being used or if the tenant was paying the rent in installments and has not kept up with the payments," he said.
Further complicating matters, customary rents can be vaguely defined and expressed in terms of products such as whiskey or clothing rather than cash. But regardless of the type of transaction, it is generally agreed that rents are now worth ten-to-fifteen times what they were worth five or six years ago. It also is clear that locals have been outbid for large swaths of land that are now lying idle.
Laby Mokosu, the chief of Mbankana, said he was within his rights to cede land, just as his ancestor, the King of the Bateke, had ceded the land where Kinshasa stands today. He said he had discussed a plan with the government to build a second city of Kinshasa on the Bateke Plateau, as the existing city had become polluted.
As for the peasants, he called them lazy, explaining that they had not put the land to good use.
National development at stake
CONAPAC’s Bisimwa, however, argues that government must think more about local farmers if it wants the country to develop.
"The government is not thinking in terms of promoting farmers," he said. "For them the local farmer is a peasant, he is not educated, he does not smell good and he lives in the rural area. But we are saying that those are the farmers we have to promote if we really want to promote agriculture in this country."
Land grabbing in Congo is speculative, Bisimwa says, often based on the anticipated demand for jatropha, a crop used to make biofuel. The profits, he says, are unlikely to be invested in rural areas.
"People who are grabbing the land, they are taking it just to wait for the international situation," he said. "They are saying, 'When [outsiders] need jatropha in their country, what will they do? They will come here, they will produce jatropha, and they will just export it'."
But so far, Bisimwa says Congolese are doing most of the land grabbing in the DRC, and he advises prospective foreign investors to refrain from buying Congolese farmland until land-tenure laws are clarified.
The government is currently working on a new land law, and CONAPAC says existing laws need to be harmonized, land titles need to be mapped, and that new titles for small farmers should be legally defined and secure.
Following Mbankana's recent land rights meeting, ICCN officials agreed to allow agricultural encroachment on the land reserve so long as people do not build there.