Society

Flood And Famine: Turning African Swamps Into Fertile Farmland

In Burundi, what was once marshland is now yielding crops each harvest season.

A Burundi rice farmer
Gabby Bugaga

The Cankuzo and Ruyigi marshes have been drained, and the farmers of eastern Burundi are starting to smile again.

For years, the small, dried-up tracks of land left this territory with a shortage of food and income. But the swamps have now been turned into fertile soil to plant new crops and reap much more plentiful harvests.

Locals hope the regular famines of the past will not return again.

On the road towards the border with Tanzania, the first sight that catches your eye are the beautiful green squares, carefully taken care of, where rice, cabbage, beans and other vegetables are growing.

Men and women are plowing the fields, irrigated by the canals that were created when the marshes were drained. “Five years ago, this area was a swamp full of papyrus, and therefore was useless. Now, as you can see, it’s full of agricultural opportunities,” declares Mathias Musaniwabo, a local political leader.

With the help of German investments, a large portion of these fields were converted, explains Sylvestre Muyamara, provincial head of agriculture policy. “We drained the water out of the marshes and cleared the farmable lands, we’re very proud of the result,” he said.

Stagnant water was rerouted to give life to the farmable lands that are now providing harvests every two or three months. “The exploitation of the swamps is tricky business, if you don’t drain it right, the swamps can dry up and become acidic,” explains Baptiste Sindayihebura, an expert in agricultural engineering.

This redirection of the marshes was a blessing for the local farmers who could no longer sustain their families from produce on their lands, and were increasingly choosing to migrate to border towns inside Tanzania. This was what finally pushed local leaders to start looking for solutions, says Leon Barikwinshi, communal agronomist.

Eat and sell

“We were planting 10 kilograms of seeds and only reaping five bean plants. Before that, we could harvest enough to eat and even sell some,” says Mwura sector leader Anselme Ntirubaruto.

The region had been fertile, but erosion was slowly ruining the land, and the essential nutritive agents were flowing down into the swamps. “I moved to Tanzania because I couldn’t produce enough to feed my kids,” says Sabine Muhagaze, mother of four, who'd cultivated bananas and sweet potatos. “We didn’t know about these opportunities, and they turned out to be very efficient. I came back two years ago, and now we couldn't be happier.”

Marcien Manirakiza, a researcher in sustainable development, says the agricultural vulnerability was caused by rocky and acidic soil, and the lingering dry season.

"As long as we’ve been living in the valley, our vegetables have been our main source of revenue. We have a healthy range of vegetables: cabbages, carrots, cucumbers, potatoes and so on,” claims 70-year-old farmer Joseph Ntakabasoba.

Some locals are now in the fruit and vegetable business thanks to these swamps. “It used to be really hard to harvest what we sowed, but now, it’s enough to meet our needs. Of course, it’s not regular, but it’s still an improvement,” says Pascal Baribesha.

Another farmer added: “Today, every one of us has a chance to live a decent life, meaning being able to eat, pay for studies, put a tin or brick roof over our heads.”

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Society

Why Chinese Cities Waste Millions On Vanity Building Projects

The so-called "White Elephants," or massive building projects that go unused, keep going up across China as local officials mix vanity and a misdirected attempt to attract business and tourists. A perfect example the 58-meter, $230 million statue of Guan Yu, a beloved military figure from the Third Century, that nobody seems interested in visiting.

Statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou Park, China

Chen Zhe


BEIJING — The Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development recently ordered the relocation of a giant statue in Jingzhou, in the central province of Hubei. The 58-meter, 1,200-ton statue depicts Guan Yu, a widely worshipped military figure from the Eastern Han Dynasty in the Third century A.D.

The government said it ordered the removal because the towering presence "ruins the character and culture of Jingzhou as a historic city," and is "vain and wasteful." The relocation project wound up costing the taxpayers approximately ¥300 million ($46 million).

Huge monuments as "intellectual property" for a city

In recent years local authorities in China have often raced to create what is euphemistically dubbed IP (intellectual property), in the form of a signature building in their city. But by now, we have often seen negative consequences of such projects, which evolved from luxurious government offices to skyscrapers for businesses and residences. And now, it is the construction of cultural landmarks. Some of these "white elephant" projects, even if they reach the scale of the Guan Yu statue, or do not necessarily violate any regulations, are a real problem for society.

It doesn't take much to be able to differentiate between a project constructed to score political points and a project destined for the people's benefit. You can see right away when construction projects neglect the physical conditions of their location. The over the top government buildings, which for numerous years mushroomed in many corners of China, even in the poorest regional cities, are the most obvious examples.

Homebuyers looking at models of apartment buildings in Shanghai, China — Photo: Imaginechina/ZUMA

Guan Yu transformed into White Elephant

A project truly catering to people's benefit would address their most urgent needs and would be systematically conceived of and designed to play a practical role. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of true creativity, too many cities' expression of their rich cultural heritage is reduced to just building peculiar cultural landmarks. The statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou is a perfect example.

Long ago Jinzhou was a strategic hub linking the North and the South of China. But its development has lagged behind coastal cities since the launch of economic reform a generation ago.

This is why the city's policymakers came up with the idea of using the place's most popular and glorified personality, Guan Yu (who some refer to as Guan Gong). He is portrayed in the 14th-century Chinese classic "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a righteous and loyal warrior. With the aim of luring tourists, the city leaders decided to use him to create the city's core attraction, their own IP.

Opened in June 2016, the park hosting the statue comprises a surface of 228 acres. In total it cost ¥1.5 billion ($232 million) to build; the statue alone was ¥173 million ($27 million). Alas, since the park opened its doors more than four years ago, the revenue to date is a mere ¥13 million ($2 million). This was definitely not a cost-effective investment and obviously functions neither as a city icon nor a cultural tourism brand as the city authorities had hoped.

China's blind pursuit of skyscrapers

Some may point out the many landmarks hyped on social media precisely because they are peculiar, big or even ugly. However, this kind of attention will not last and is definitely not a responsible or sustainable concept. There is surely no lack of local politicians who will contend for attention by coming up with huge, strange constructions. For those who can't find a representative figure, why not build a 40-meter tall potato in Dingxi, Gansu Province, a 50-meter peony in Luoyang, Shanxi Province, and maybe a 60-meter green onion in Zhangqiu, Shandong Province?

It is to stop this blind pursuit of skyscrapers and useless buildings that, early this month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a new regulation to avoid local authorities' deviation from people's real necessities, ridiculous wasted costs and over-consumption of energy.

I hope those responsible for the creation of a city's attractiveness will not simply go for visual impact, but instead create something that inspires people's intelligence, sustains admiration and keeps them coming back for more.

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