Goma — Aid workers are predicting another year of insecurity and forced displacement for rural people in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. They say that to cope with marauding armed groups, farmers are switching to crops that are less likely to be stolen.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization conducts regular surveys in eastern DRC and has found in the past year that many farmers have been switching to crops they did not grow previously.
The FAO attributes this change to increased insecurity. Guillaume Kahomboshi is a food security expert with the FAO in Goma.
He says the peasants are struck by the way that wars here always seem to break out at harvest time. They are thinking the wars may just be an excuse to steal their crops, he adds.
To try to reduce the risk of their harvest being stolen many peasants are switching to other crops, according to Kahomboshi.
For example, he says, in Rutshuru, a territory near Uganda that is mostly controlled by armed groups, most of the peasants are starting to grow soya.
Kahomboshi suggests this is because soya is unpalatable until it has been dried and milled, and the armed groups prefer food that is ready to eat.
In addition, there is good demand for soya in Uganda, where it is milled and then used as an ingredient in biscuits and other processed foods.
Kahomboshi tells VOA that farmers in Masisi, another war-stricken territory west of Rutshuru, are switching to growing cassava, another crop which he says is less vulnerable to theft by armed groups.
Agronomist Franck Muke at Goma University agrees with Kahomboshi that soya is less likely to be stolen but he's not so sure about cassava, known as manioc in Congo.
He says cassava is more of a risk because it is a staple food, and he has noticed that although cassava is not easy to pilfer, because it has to be uprooted and then dried and milled, it is often quickly pillaged.
However, the non-governmental organization Concern, which did a survey of villages affected by ethnic conflict in Masisi, reported less theft of cassava than of other crops.
Among the hundreds of thousands facing the problem of crop theft in eastern Congo are the inhabitants of a camp for displaced people at the town of Kitchanga.
Several camp residents who spoke to VOA had recently come from the nearby village of Kahemba. They had left, they said, because of a tax imposed by an armed group of one and a half dollars a month. Several people said they were unable to pay this tax, and if they did not pay it, they risked being killed.
Some people in the displaced camp said they go back to Kahemba from time to time to try to look after their crops.
One farmer, Germain Ngowa, suggested they could guard their crops better if they organized their own patrols.
We could share the task of guarding the crops, he says, by forming a union, and for example women could do this during the day and the men could do it at night. He acknowledged that they would have no defense against armed marauders, but seemed to think this could still help prevent theft.
Kahemba is not deserted, but the people who have stayed there have to support the militias, either through the monthly tax and often by enrolling their young men.
The sad reality is that years of war and ethnic conflict in parts of eastern Congo have divided communities against themselves, so that villagers' crops are as likely to be stolen by their neighbors as by the armed groups.