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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
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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