BURUNDI: Farmers decry eviction from forest reserve
BUJUMBURA, 8 February 2005 (IRIN) - A group of farmers in Burundi's northwestern province of Cibitoke, who were recently banned from a forest reserve, have appealed to the government to allow them to harvest their crops, their representative said on Monday.
"In [the northern province of] Kirundo people are dying because of food shortage; we are worried that the government will not allow us to harvest our crops in the Masango Zone yet it has not been able to feed all people starving in Kirundo," Michel Niyonsaba, 44, the farmers' representative, said.
He added that recent heavy rains had destroyed their homes and some of the crops yet the government had not provided them help.
Cibitoke Governor André Niyindereye announced last week the immediate ban on cultivation in the Kibira Forest natural reserve, saying farming had led to the forest's destruction so much that the area "could turn into a desert".
The ban, made following a field visit to the forest reserve, affects all farming activities in the Mirundi Zone of Bukinanyana Commune.
Niyindereye said the local administration would also stop farming in the Ruhororo Zone of Mabayi Commune, especially on the border with Rwanda and the natural forest of Nyungwe, which he said were being depleted by farming.
"We want to rescue this part of the forest," he said.
An official of the Institut National de la Conservation de l’ Environnement et de la Nature (INCEN), told IRIN that at least 2,000 hectares of the 40,000-hectare reserve had already been destroyed.
The official, who requested anonymity, said most of the destruction began in late 2004 after the governor, who has since been dismissed, distributed forestland to farmers living nearby.
According to the official, the ban was imposed when many of the farmers have not yet planted their seeds.
Part of the forest had also been destroyed over the course of Burundi's decade-long civil war when security forces allowed people living around the road passing through the forests to clear the bushes where rebels suspected to have been hiding.
According to the INCEN official, the Kibira Forest was considered a protected area as early as 1933.
The official said delineation of the country's national parks was carried out in 1980 and those ousted went to Rugombo in Cibitoke, and to other provinces such as Kirundo and Muyinga, but some remained around the reserve.
The official said the Interior Ministry banned farming in Cibitoke, Kayanza, and Muramvya provinces, among other parts of the country in 2003.
"Land scarcity is not only at Mirundi but it also recorded in other overpopulated provinces like in Muramvya and Bubanza where the forest extends," the official said. "Even if the forest was given to all the people needing it, it would not be enough."
The official said, "Destroying the forest is creating a desert and [is akin] to committing suicide."
"People will die of hunger. Rice, which requires a lot water, will no longer grow in the low altitude Imbo region as the rivers will have dried up," the official said.
He added that the Kibira Forest reserve was the source of many of the country's rivers, and had helped fight soil erosion, protected Lake Tanganyika and maintained the water levels at
the main Rwegugura Dam.
Protesting the cultivation ban, the farmers said the lands they had been cultivating had been
given to their forefathers by Burundian King Mwambutsa in 1954. They said they were expelled from the reserve in 1980 when it was declared a natural reserve.
"I was thirteen when we were ousted," Niyonsaba said. Since then, he said, they had often attempted to return to the lands in the fertile forest but always faced official resistance.
Niyonsaba said former President Jean-Baptiste Bagaza, in office during the 1970s, pledged to solve their case but was ousted from power before he could do so.
Niyonsaba said various government authorities that had visited the area since then had not resolved their plight.
"We still have nowhere to go, the government should show us other places to settle, it should at least allow us harvest what we farmed so that we may not die," he said.
However, Niyindereye said the administration was looking into ways of assisting the farmers.
"A solution to their problem will be found," he said. "We are now identifying those who have no land. Those who have planted will have their seeds back."