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close this bookThe Courier N 159 - Sept - Oct 1996 - Dossier: Investing in People - Country Reports: Mali ; Western Samoa (EC Courier, 1996, 96 p.)
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View the documentGrowing rice at high altitude in Burundi

Growing rice at high altitude in Burundi

by Jean-Pierre Tilquin and Miguel Amado

This tiny country tucked away at the heart of Africa has, as is well known, been convulsed over the last three years by an acute socio-political crisis. The tragic consequences have included loss of human life, damage to the economic and social infrastructure, and a movement of refugees to neighbouring countries. Burundi, already one of the most densely populated nations in Africa, also has high population growth. It could be argued that it is only thanks to the hard work and perseverance of the farmers (admittedly, 90% of the population) that the country manages to keep going at all.

Agriculture in Burundi follows traditional lines and is based on a farming system divided between food crops for consumption by the farmer and his family, and cash crops (mainly coffee, tea and cotton). Although at the beginning of the decade the crops grown for food were sufficient to meet the population's needs, today demographic pressures are forcing farmers to increase food-crop production. It is these pressures that have prompted them to descend into the marshlands which cover approximately 110 000 hectares (8% of cultivable land in Burundi). These marshes are flooded during the rainy season and so allow rice to be cultivated.

Population growth has also meant that fields cannot be left fallow for long periods. This has resulted in more intensive use of marginal land and an increase in forest clearing. Such practices exacerbate erosion of cultivated areas. The loss of organic matter and nutrients leads to reduced soil fertility and lower yields. Although rainfall in Burundi is high, the soil is only moderately fertile, because of factors such as acidity, aluminium toxicity, and phosphorus immobilisation.

While 20% of land suitable for cultivation is currently given over to growing dry beans-a staple in the Burundi diet - various factors now point towards farming the low-lying marshlands, with a particular emphasis on rice. This is one way of increasing the useful agricultural surface area of the country.

The events of 1993 (democratic elections, followed by the assassination of President Ndadaye), have created a period of instability which has been highly damaging for the country's agriculture. Some people lost their property and livelihood, and are only now slowly re-establishing themselves. The environment has also suffered as a result of the sheer numbers of displaced people. They occupy areas, both urban and rural, which were completely unprepared for the flood of people. it is estimated that 50 000 hectares of forest have been destroyed as a result-with devastating consequences for the country's ecosystem. What is more, the rate of demographic growth has led to overfarming and to a reduction in the average surface area of farms (to 0.7 ha per household).

Rice-a crop for the future

Against this background, the prospect of farming low-lying marshland offers some hope for the people of Burundi. In fact, the marshy valleys have long been used to grow beans, maize and sweet potatoes during the long dry season for later consumption during the short dry season. This practice, which was environmentally sound, provided a regular harvest, but also ensured the preservation of the marshlands.

The practice of growing rice during the rainy season, followed by a crop of maize and beans during the dry season, is a form of integrated agriculture. It should be economically viable and environmentally sustainable while ensuring product quality, delivering a good yield, limiting any risks involved and allowing a high degree of social integration. These are the criteria which need to be examined in determining whether high-altitude rice cultivation in Burundi succeeds or fails.

Rice crops have been grown in this region, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika and in the Ruzizi valley (altitude 800 m), for more than 200 years, having been introduced by successive migrations of people travelling along the old slave route from Zanzibar. Certain varieties, known as 'pandabilima' (which in Swahili means 'he who climbs the mountain') can be grown on land up to a height of 1300 metres. They cannot, however, be planted on the higher central plateau because low temperatures at night render them completely infertile.

It is not surprising that the new scheme to grow rice at high altitudes was greeted with interest. Indeed, it became almost a craze among farmers -to the extent that in 1990, rice crops covered more than 20 000 ha of Burundi. The area planted with rice fell subsequently, and in some regions the crop disappeared altogether. This was due largely to the appearance of the fungal 'rice blast disease', which can wipe out an entire crop, and to inadequate planning and misguided husbandry. The extensive planting of only one variety left the crop particularly vulnerable and once the disease did take hold, it was virtually impossible to eradicate. Needless to say, in a country where access to pesticides is non-existent, the introduction of a new crop cannot be based on a single variety; if it is to establish itself successfully, varietal diversification is vital. We should point out here that attempts were made in 1984 to improve varietal diversification

in the framework of the EU's Scientific and Technical Programme run by DG XII of the Commission. At that time, it was necessary to familiarise farmers with the techniques for growing the new crop and this aspect of the programme was funded by the EDF, in particular through three integrated projects. These related to agriculture and pastoral forestry and were initiated during 198889 in three provinces of Burundi.

Without going into the technical details of the programme, it suffices to say that growing rice at high altitude in the tropics differs from rice-growing in temperate regions. The low night-time temperatures characteristic of high altitudes mean that the crop is subject to constant stress. In temperate regions, the stress caused by cold weather is a problem only at the beginning and end of the growing cycle. As for selection methods, rice varieties have been produced that are resistant to rice blast disease - which remains the main problem. Also, by mixing the varieties grown, the farmers have created a wide diversity which offers a stable basis for a sustainable crop.

Transformation of an ecosystem

From the viewpoint of development aid specialists, turning marshland into cultivable land means draining it (digging a ditch and fitting pipes). But this leaves the land open to erosion, causes silting in rivers and ultimately leading to desertification. By changing water levels in a region and disturbing the thermal equilibrium, marshlands cease to be marshlands. The method may have been justifiable before rice growing became possible. Indeed, it was employed in the natural marshlands of Buyenzi by some experts who specialised in upland rice. But it also resulted in large-scale destruction of one ricevariety-Yunnan 3-by rice blast disease in 1990.

Development projects which set themselves spectacular objectives can involve major alterations to the landscape. More often than not, these need to be rectified later. Thus, when it was decided to cultivate vast expanses of papyrus, the plants were moderately successful only thanks to constant artificial assistance. Put simply, the land could not sustain the crop on its own. In the process, the marshes were turned into floating peat bogs.

The option chosen here was to adapt the small valleys for rice cultivation and teach the farmers the relevant techniques. Together with their families, they have eagerly embarked on the work needed to prepare the terrain for cultivation, although there are still some land tenure issues that need resolving. (Some people have refused to commit themselves to marshland reclamation projects as long as the land does not belong to them). It should be stressed that growing rice along a strip of water is an option which is in harmony with environmental needs. It promotes percolation of the water, thereby restoring underground water levels and preventing pollutants from being washed down towards the Nile or Zaire basins. It is therefore in keeping with global strategies for conserving resources and ensuring sustainable development.

In the marshlands, farmers traditionally plant beans and maize in banked-up beds during the dry season (from June to November). By skilfully selecting and growing different bean varieties, the farmer can stagger his crops and thereby ensure a continuous harvest from September until the time the maize is harvested. The marshes are then left fallow during the heavy rains which reach their peak in April. A rice variety which can be harvested in six months could thus be fitted in during this perriod with out disturbing the traditional hill-farming work schedule.

Since farmers on the high plateaux had not traditionally grown rice, it was necessary to teach them the techniques needed to produce a successful crop. They were also informed of the benefits that improvements such as dykes, water supply pipes and drainage pipes could have on crop productivity. They have since applied this knowledge in their cultivation. During the dry season, without disrupting the infrastructures on which their rice cultivation is based, they have rebuilt banked-up beds and grown the traditional bean and maize crop. The system has been in place for about ten years and no drop in yield has been recorded. The yield averages 4.5 t/ha for rice, 1 t/ha for beans and 0.4 t/ha for maize-figures which are quite remarkable when compared with the yields of crops grown on the hills in acid soil with increasing levels of aluminium toxicity.

By alternating two different farming systems, the problem of weeds -and therefore hoeing-and of pests is greatly limited. The extensive mixing of the soil that takes place accelerates the recycling of biogenic material-and the marshlands stay as marshlands!

Manageable land development

There are three main types of marshy valley, each requiring specific programmes. The first consists of valleys lying above 1400 m with a rainfall in excess of 1500 mm. These areas are characterised by a clay soil, are constantly fed with water (with a high iron content) from the mountains, and are often very rich in organic matter. They require drainage using ditches and filtration channels, with changes of gradient so that the mountain water tables can be tapped and the water levels controlled. This is important to prevent a build-up of ferrous toxicity in the soil, which is extremely harmful to rice. A farming system involving paddy fields and banked-up beds can be accommodated perfectly in these types of valleys. Then there are the valleys lying between 800 and 1400 m with a rainfall of between 1100 and 1500 mm. These are known as 'dambos' in Swahili, and they extend from Northern Kenya right down to Southern Zimbabwe. Strewn with giant termite nests, the land here is well-suited to rice cultivation as long as water levels are carefully controlled. All the available water needs to be harnessed via filtration canals dug into the hillside. These allow the paddies to be irrigated speedily and, during the dry season, they can also be used to irrigate between the rows of ridgeplanted crops. It would, however, be very difficult to irrigate the entire valley during the dry season and so it is pointless digging a drainage ditch. The third and final type consists of small alluvial plains tucked away between the hills and stretching along the escarpments. Here, the level of soil fertility is determined by the heavy erosion resulting from farming on burnt land, and the practice of setting fire to the hills in order to 'regenerate' pastures. To grow rice in such locations, a filtration canal needs to be dug into the hillside, into which water then collects from the water table. The paddy fields also need to be terraced. These alluvial plains lend themselves perfectly to a farming system in which paddy fields are alternated with banked-up beds. All these land-adaptation schemes can be easily implemented and maintained by the farmers themselves.

A sociological revolution

Although rice grows quickly, it is highly labour-intensive. Thus, when

the young rice plants need to be planted out-which happens to coincide with the end-of-year school holidays-the whole family takes part. What is more, rice has become extremely important in sociological terms: reserved in days gone by for special occasions, it now forms part of the nation's staple diet, being mixed together with beans and dressed with palm oil and tomato sauce. The rice harvest is also a time for merrymaking and festivities which go on for the best part of a week.

Rice cultivation has also engendered a vital sense of solidarity among farmers as far as sharing water is concerned, and rice-growing cooperatives have been a runaway success. These enable farming operations to be synchronised and running costs to be reduced, in particular by reducing the number of bird scarers needed. The crop, furthermore, can be harvested when fully ripe. On individual plots, farmers usually only allow the rice to mature to 75% before harvest for fear of theft. Finally, the cooperative helps to ensure that infrastructures such as drains and canals are properly maintained and that water supply installations are treated with respect. Each cooperative is run by a representative appointed by the group of farmers. These supervisors are then responsible for organising all operations: choosing and storing seed for the following season's crops, getting information about new varieties, consulting each other and pointing out any problems they may have to those in charge of research and advisory services. The area allotted to each cooperative depends on the number of households in the group and also takes into account the area available, with 10 ares per family being the usual maximum for planted-up paddy fields. Cooperatives may range in size from 5 to 25 families.

Cooperatives like this are just the beginning. Networks of rural organisations, in which the farmers club together to buy equipment and fertilisers, need to be developed on a larger scale and they could provide a springboard for the development of the secondary sector, which is vital to the development of the country as a whole.

We would do well to recall that the cassava mills which have been so successful in Burundi and which still run today without any 'technical assistance' had equally humble beginnings.

The future

It must be acknowledged that the people who migrated to this 'wild frontier' of rice cultivation in Burundi also introduced into these regions diseases such as bilharzia and malaria (the mosquitoes carrying the parasite were transported in the luggage of people travelling from the capital to the provinces). Despite this, rice cultivation at high altitude has proved a veritable lifesaver for Burundi. In the year that the FAO plans to stage a summit on famine, it is appropriate to highlight the important role of rice-growing in the food production strategy of this country.

Until recently, Burundi ensured that it had enough to feed its people through a delicate balancing act between growing food crops, leaving land fallow and rearing livestock which produced manure. At present, however, increased agricultural production is only possible by increasing the surface area of the country under cultivation-at the expense of fallow land and livestock farming. Such a move risks reducing soil fertility and could lead to the substitution of crops of high nutritional value, such as beans, with higher yield crops such as cassava or sweet potatoes which suck the subsoil dry of minerals and nutrients.

In short, traditional farming methods in Burundi are arguably now out of balance and the situation is getting worse. This may, indeed, be a root cause of the ethnic crisis. A systematic policy of re-establishing marshlands and organising rural communities around high-altitude rice cultivation would allow the country to look ahead with optimism to the next 20 years. Suitable varieties are currently available and the altitudes at which rice can be grown have been pushed back in Burundi as far as 1700 m. What is now needed is the funds!

J-P.T. & M.A.