How the world’s newest Jesuit university is promoting sustainable agriculture

Friends at the Mongata agricultural training centre

Friends at the Mongata

DRC’s abundant natural resources are not only to be found underground. Any new visitor to the country cannot fail to appreciate the land’s rich vegetation and fertile farmland. And yet despite its excellent soil and climatic conditions, DRC needs to import much of its food from neighbouring countries. The agricultural sector is perhaps another victim of the mineral resource curse. Intense focus on exploitation of precious commodities – the quest for Eldorado – has contributed to the lack of interest in developing the nation’s agricultural potential.

Having identified a national agricultural skills deficit, Université Loyola du Congo (ULC) has sought to create a centre of excellence for sustainability and food security. Instituted only last year, ULC is the world’s newest Jesuit university. Its Centre de Recherche et de Communication pour le Développement Durable (CERED), which is part of the University’s Faculté des sciences Agronomiques et vétérinaires, has developed a multidisciplinary programme for a diverse range of stakeholders that includes researchers, students, and local communities.

I travelled to ULC’s home in Kimwenza, a southern district of Kinshasa, to meet CERED’s director, Ghislain Tshikendwa Matadi SJ. Pére Ghislain’s vision is to develop a centre bringing together natural and social sciences, which puts the welfare of people at the core of its research and educational formation. As superior of a fledging community of Jesuit scholastics located on-site in ULC campus, his first mission is to conscientize young minds in the Society of Jesus in the mission of the Society including issues relating to sustainability. Having spent an evening with these impressive young Congolese Jesuits, who articulately explained the situation in DRC to me, I realise Pére Ghislain’s influence begins at home!

            Pére Ghislain (left) & Emmanuel

The next day I accompanied Ghislain to CERED’s agroforestry centre and agricultural training centre in Mongata, on the Batéké Plateau, 165km from Kinshasa. The Mongata project began a number of years ago when Pére Ghislain coordinated the planting of trees on 4200 hectares of savanna. The plantation which mostly consists of Acacia trees is now well established and is managed by local people. Mongata also acts as a meteorological station for measuring the impact of climate change, and has a bee-keeping project which draws on the techniques of local traditions and wisdom.

On the journey out of kinshasa, two things struck me powerfully. First was the dire state of the roads. Any driver must skilfully dodge enormous potholes, traverse mud-pits and small ponds, and carefully navigate around a plethora of broken down trucks.  The vast revenues from the mining industry are clearly not finding their way into improvements for DRC’s basic infrastructure. The other thing the road trip made me painfully aware of was the relentless sliver of slum developments alongside the road, inhabited by a population existing in dire poverty and desperate for work.

Entering the peaceful countryside outside Mongata, I wondered why so many flee to the big cities from such a rural idil. Passing through villages however, I realised that the poverty of countryside-dwellers was just as acute as in Kinshasa. I noticed too that there was little evidence of agricultural infrastructure or employment.

When we arrived at Mongata in the early evening, a group of local farmers, which included the village chief, had gathered. They were here, apparently to welcome me, but also for formation session led by Ghislain and CERED staff member Emmanuel Mwanangulu. After a presentation on the idea of establishing a cooperative at Mongata to strengthen the position of the community in purchasing and selling, a lively discussion ensued in a mix of French and Lingala. A meal of maize, chicken and legumes followed, and the local men seemed happy to have the opportunity to chat with each other. Then they went off, mostly by foot, some by motorcycles.

My experience at Mongata called to mind the aspect of Laudato Si which encourages investment in local rural economies. Pére Ghislain’s work embodies the guidance and encouragement of Pope Francis when he says: New forms of cooperation and community organisation can be encouraged in order to defend the interests of small producers and preserve local ecosystems from destruction. Truly, much can be done! (para 180).

Please like & share:

More than just crops? The debate about European farming policy

The harvest is rich but the labourers are few?

Few would deny the importance of farming to Europe’s identity. The intricate patchworks that make up our rural landscapes result from centuries of careful interaction between humans and nature. Throughout the ages, the countryside has nourished bodies and souls alike. In recent years we have also become acutely aware that responsible stewardship of our farmland ensures water quality, reduces flood risk, and helps protects wildlife.

But the European farming sector is in crisis.

A rural exodus

Who can imagine Europe without countryside?

Who can imagine Europe without countryside?

Farmers are finding it increasingly difficult to make a living from the land. This reality is borne out by a few statistics. In the 1960s a fifth of Europeans worked in agriculture. Today the figure is below 4%. Between 2000 and 2012, approximately 4.8 million jobs were lost in the European agricultural sector. And the hardest-hit group are those under the age of 35. This age group currently represents a mere 6% of farm workers. Put simply, the countryside is undergoing a population implosion.

This bleak situation has led to increased demands for reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), a scheme that hoovers up a hefty 40% of the EU’s annual budget. In spite of its immense expense, farmers throughout Europe are deeply unhappy with the CAP. It is significant that even though the average UK farm receives over half its income from CAP subsidies, farmers in England and Wales voted overwhelmingly in favour of BREXIT.

Small is beautiful?

The main source of discontent is that smaller and more labour-intensive farms have suffered under the CAP’s focus on food production. It is estimated that between 2005 and 2010, over 2.5 million small farms were shut down. Given that 10% of the largest farms receive nearly 75% of CAP payments, critics argue that the EU is effectively subsiding large farms.

Éric Andrieu: subsidies should favour small farmers

Éric Andrieu MEP: subsidies should favour small farmers

This is where the French Socialist MEP Éric Andrieu enters the stage. Andrieu is responsible for a report entitled ‘How the CAP can improve job creation in rural areas’. A leading critic of the EU’s obsession with export competitiveness, Andrieu argues that the alarming haemorrhaging of young people from farming must be tackled. His report, which MEPs narrowly voted in favour of on 27 October 2016, sets out a raft of proposals, including measures to boost training for young famers, financial help for new entrants into the farming sector, and a fairer distribution of direct payments to farmers. Subsidies should be favourable to smaller farms and direct payments should be withdrawn from those who simply own (but do not farm) agricultural land. The MEPs also accepted measures to encourage shorter supply-chains and promote more organic food production.

The CAP: a behemoth to be slain?

Prof Dieter Helm: subsidies for 'public goods'

Prof Dieter Helm: subsidies for ‘public goods’

Whereas Andrieu’s proposals are premised on the basis that it is possible to readjust the CAP to make it more equitable to smaller farmers, others propose the abolition of what they regard to be an inherently flawed ‘behemoth’, incapable of reform. This is the view of Professor Dieter Helm, an economist at Oxford University. Helm believes that BREXIT provides an opportunity for the UK to ‘reset’ farming policy and learn from the mistakes of the CAP. Whilst belonging to a free-market economic tradition, Helm nevertheless accepts that rural activities will always need public funding. However he argues that public money should be used to incentivise what he calls ‘public goods’, rather than simply subsidise food production. For Helm, there needs to be a public debate about what should be considered a ‘public good’. This would certainly include the environmental and recreational value of non-urban contexts.

More than just crops

Despite their different methodological starting points, both Helm and Andrieu agree that the ‘capital’ of the countryside consists of much more than simply the financial value of the physical goods farmers produce. They are critical of European economic policy that characterises the countryside’s value purely in commodity terms. The CAP has overlooked the role that small farms plays in providing employment, and as a means to protect the traditional character of rural landscapes. According to Andrieu and Helm, public funding, whether through subsidies or incentives to promote ‘public goods’, should be indexed to wider social benefits and environmental sustainability, and not simply used to reward production.

At this point it is worth pointing out that there is a third figure who has something to contribute to the debate. Pope Francis has often spoken of the dangers of economic systems that favour large-scale production models, especially in the agricultural sector. For this reason, Laudato Si’ affirms that civil authorities have a duty to ‘adopt clear and firm measures in support of small producers and differentiated production’ (LS, 129). In the philosophical language of the encyclical, such measures are necessary to avoid destructive instrumental and technological uses of the natural world, but also to protect opportunities for work: ‘we were created with a vocation to work’ (LS, 128).

Francis: seeing the countryside as a multi-faceted common good

Francis: seeing the countryside as a multi-faceted common good

In each of these different voices advocating reform of agricultural policy, we can hear a desire to acknowledge the countryside as a multi-faceted common good. The ‘harvest’ consists not simply of crops, but also the intrinsic value of the land, and indeed the intrinsic value of its workers.

Please like & share: