‘I did not want to be a civil servant’

Paluku (63) has been a farmers’ leader in Congo for a quarter of a century. He was one of the people who made sure that family farmers across the country can now speak with one voice. But Paluku has not yet achieved his biggest dream: Congolese farmers are more than ever leading a dog’s life.

You have dedicated a major part of your life to defending the interest of family farmers in Congo. Why?
Paluku: ‘In Congo 70 percent of the active population lives from agriculture. The importance of this sector for the national economy is in stark contrast with the respect given to farm work. Especially after the harvest period people stand in line to strip the farmers off their income: lots of false accusations are suddenly reported to the police, who are only too happy to cooperate in the arrests at the price of a bribe. These practices made me so angry 25 years ago that I actively started to work for the interests of farmers.’

Are you still a farmer yourself?
‘As president of Conapac, the largest farmers’ organisation in Congo, I now live in Kinshasa. It is not easy to be three thousand kilometres away from home, but it is necessary to manage the daily operations of our organisation. My son took over the farm in North Kivu: a meat farm with 60 cattle on a 30 hectare acreage. In addition, I also have a 4 hectares of cocoa plantation and 4 hectares of palm oil land.’

That is a large farm according to Congolese standards?
‘It depends how you look at it. It is indeed a large business when you see it at a Congolese level, because the large majority of farmers has to survive on an acreage of under 5 hectares. But if you look at North Kivu, it is just a medium-sized farm. The best farmers in Congo live in our region.’

That is strange, because in Flanders North Kivu is associated with war and violence.
‘The government rarely invested in farming in North Kivu and you do not see many NGOs. Our farmers have to survive by their own strength, they are toughened by the savannah. This has turned them into real go-getters, and that pays off.’

Is your perseverance inherited?
‘I come from a poor family with six children. Father was a miner. His income gave us the chance to attend secondary school. My dream was to become a university professor or medical doctor. I had to let it go when my father gave up his job to care for our sick grandmother. From one day to the next I had to take care of myself. It became even worse when my mother also got sick. On her deathbed I promised her I would take care of my younger brothers.’

Where did you find the money?
‘I could have chosen a job as a tax inspector or civil servant at the population office of the local authority. But it is not in my nature to nag people all the time. So I went knocking on my cousin’s door, who was the owner of a flourishing farm. That is where I became a farmer. After a while I bought my own piece of land to grow coffee.’

And after that, how did you become a farmers’ leader?
‘I was quite active in the local church community and I was also in the school’s parents organisation. When a farming project for our region was approved everyone looked at me to make it work and keep it on track. I had to manage seven extension workers who had to raise the production level of 550 farming families. A big responsibility but it all went well. After the end of the project we set up a farmers’ cooperation in 1991 to continue the work. Another five years later I was the president of Sydip, a farmers’ union with the ambition to defend the interests of farmers in the broader region.’

Why did the Congolese farmers need a national farming organisation?
‘In the early nineties we experienced a gigantic devaluation: the bank notes farmers received at the market in the morning in exchange for their crops were worth nothing anymore later that same day. In that period many traders bought farm land to escape the devaluation. Some talked to a farmer’s  family member, who would sell the land behind his back. Other traders bought certificates from corrupted civil servants. Sydip wanted to oppose these practices, and fight it in court if necessary. But at the same time we still had to work very hard on our fame.’

In a large country like Congo this seems extremely difficult?
‘Well, Sydip made it happen anyway,  even though we only operated in the east of Congo. We even received invitations to take part in international meetings. About ten years ago we affiliated to the Eastern Africa Farmers Federation, of which I am still a Board member. Suddenly we travelled the world: Europe, South America, .... The meetings with farmers’ organisations in other continents gave us a great deal of confidence. We presented ourselves as representatives of the Congolese farmers everywhere we went. That was actually a little white lie, it still causes me some pain today.’

But behind the screens you continued to build that national agricultural organisation?
‘Indeed. We realised that some issues could only be taken up with the government in Kinshasa. Why are extension workers come not longer coming to our farms? Because farming research is almost non-existent now. And how come? Simple, there is no more budget. And who decides about the budget? Right, Kinshasa. So that is where we had to be: all farmers’ associations, shoulder to shoulder. But that was easier said than done. In 1998 Congo was split up in two main parts due to the violence. The east was controlled by the rebels, the west was controlled by government troops.’

Trias helped the farmers’ organisations in Congo to set up a coordinating federation.
‘We are very grateful to Trias for that. We needed that support to organise workshops in all provinces and two large meetings in Kinshasa. In 2011 the time was right to incorporate Conapac. A count from 2014 showed that we represent 539,000 farmers and that makes us the biggest organisation in the country. The only downside is that Conapac does not group all farmers’ organisations. You have Unagrico in the region around Kinshasa. And then there is Copaco, who developed their own dynamics even before the war. This was not compatible with the cooperative structures of Conapac.’

In 2011 the Congolese parliament adopted the very first framework law for agriculture. Have you been able to put your weight in on the debate?
‘Thanks to the support from Trias I was given the opportunity, together with three other farmers’ leaders, to stay in Kinshasa for months. That is where we learned that some Members of Parliament are more susceptible to our arguments. But you have to take the time to explain everything, because the political class is totally unaware of the reality in rural areas. They are all sons or daughters of doctors and lawyers.’

Can you give a few examples of what you achieved?
‘The framework law stipulates, for example, that agricultural organisations have to be consulted from now on before major amendments are made to a law which affect the agricultural industry. Also important: if you want to take legal action against a farmer, you first have to go past an advisory council. And farmers who generate power for their farm do not have to pay taxes on it. These are a few acquired rights which show that our work pays off.’µ

But have the farmers benefited already? Compare the situation in the field with that of the sixties for example.
‘(Sigh) we are far worse off at the moment. 70 percent of the farmers is destitute. A large part is settling for survival farming. Those people think it is normal not to have three meals a day. Others want to move on with their life, but their efforts are not rewarded because they come across numerous obstacles. Mobutu destroyed the information, research and transport infrastructure.'

Despite the low productivity the millions of farmers in Congo together produce a huge amount of food?
‘That’s right, but the harvest does not reach the market. In Kinshasa you can buy rice, chicken, potatoes and grain. You can buy everything you want there, but everything is imported from neighbouring countries. That is inexcusable, but we are stuck with this inheritance from the past.’

Talking about the past: can Belgium still play a role in Congo?
‘In diplomatic terms Belgium is very reluctant, and that is a shame. Our government could use some expert advice. There is a clear policy for the agro-industry, but the family farming activities are still being neglected, despite the adopted framework law. According to official statistics the government spends six percent of the budget on agriculture. But farmers  do not see much of that. Most funds are spent on training for the civil servants. Good administration is important, but what good is it when the farmers are just struggling to survive? We need money to build agricultural roads and storage warehouses. There is not a lot of political will to invest in this much-needed infrastructure.’

Why do you continue as a farmers’ leader?
‘(Thinks) What Belgium once taught us, is to stand on our own two feet. On the day of its independence Congo had 12 university graduates. To date the educational system is aimed to train civil servants and administrative staff. Self-employed entrepreneurship is still not in our blood. I want to change that, because the future generations are entitled to a better life than ours.’