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Agricultural recovery in northern Uganda

NRC is training a new generation of farmers (© William Surman)
NRC is training a new generation of farmers
© William Surman

For almost ten years, Emma Onying, now 72, lived in a temporary camp guarded by Government soldiers in northern Uganda. She had been ordered there by President Museveni after the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) had rampaged through her smallholding, abducting her only son, burning her hut and stealing her livestock. In total, between 1996 and 2006, 1.8 million people were ordered into protected camps throughout Uganda's Acholi sub-region as the LRA continued their attacks. Living conditions were squalid and the inhabitants survived on meagre World Food Programme rations. Outside the camps, agricultural activity ground to a halt and the land became overgrown.

The immense task of rebuilding the region's agriculture sector began in 2006 when relative peace returned to the area and the internally displaced people (IDPs) started to return home. "When we got home we had nothing, but we were just happy to be out of the camp," Onying says. She has now been back for two years and, with help from the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), one of a network of international aid agencies working in northern Uganda, she is able to grow enough food to feed her grandchildren and send them to school.

A familiar story

Emma Onying lived in a temporary camp for almost 10 years (© William Surman)
Emma Onying lived in a temporary camp for almost 10 years
© William Surman

Francis Nyeko, the NRC field officer who helps run the Food Security and Livelihoods programme, says Onying's is a familiar story. "Many returnees have no income and so no money to buy seeds or livestock. Our job is to provide these inputs to give them a livelihood and stability." But inputs are no good in isolation. The NRC is also working to overcome a more fundamental issue - rudimentary agricultural skills have been lost during a decade-long culture of dependency in the camps, and a generation of children that would normally gain intrinsic knowledge of the land as they mature instead know nothing but camp life. There is also a shortage of men as many joined the LRA, fled to the cities or died in conflict. "We are training a new generation of farmers," Nyeko explains. "We provide tools and seeds to grow maize, cassava, simsim (sesame) and beans." NRC trains the farmers through every stage of the growing season. They also run animal husbandry courses and distribute pigs, oxen and goats when the course is complete.

For the increasing number of youths, mostly male, with no interest in farming or with no access to land, the NRC also run courses in trading, retailing, bricklaying, carpentry and catering. In total the NRC Food Security and Livelihoods programme supports over 4,000 households. Together with other NGO and government schemes, the recovery efforts are paying off and the Acholi sub-region lost its 'emergency' food security status in 2010.

Progress despite remaining challenges

With many IDPs returning home to find that neighbours have moved boundaries and grabbed entire swathes of land, resolving conflicts has formed another major part of NRC's work. Between 2008 and 2009, Nyeko says that 40 per cent of returnees reported a land-based conflict. Traditionally, proof of ownership would be demonstrated by occupation, local knowledge and natural landmarks. But a ten year absence has thrown this system into disarray, leading to what Nyeko admits are 'inevitable conflicts'. Local courts face huge backlogs of cases and the problem is set to continue given that there are 70,000 IDPs still due to return from the camps.

NRC provides tools and seeds and trains the farmers through every stage of the growing season (© William Surman)
NRC provides tools and seeds and trains the farmers through every stage of the growing season
© William Surman

To help combat disputes, NRC runs the Information, Counselling and Legal Assistance (ICLA) service, which has so far helped nearly 10,000 IDPs. ICLA operators are experts in land law and land dispute resolution mechanisms and they provide free advice to returnees. They even host radio phone-ins where listeners can call in for advice on their land issues.

In northern Uganda, where the returnees have outpaced recovery, there remains a bottleneck, but thanks to the NRC land disputes are being resolved, new skills are being learnt and farmers are getting back on their feet. In fact some of the early returnees, who were dependent on World Food Programme rations during their time in the camps, are now selling their own surplus food back to WFP's Purchase for Progress pilot programme which aims to stimulate productive agriculture by helping smallholder farmers, like Onying, gain access to a reliable market at improved prices. Because Onying's land hasn't been farmed for almost a decade the soil is fertile and providing excellent yields. The NRC has trained her in post-harvest handling and negotiating skills and this year she hopes to have a large surplus which could be sold to WFP for a good profit. "Then we will construct a new home," Onying says from the shade of a mango tree, watching her grandchildren pick weeds out of a healthy crop of maize. If the recovery continues, the NRC hopes to phase out its operations in northern Uganda by 2013.

Written by: William Surman

Date published: June 2011


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