Farmers Battle Drought

Many returnees in northern Uganda struggle to rebuild their farms.

Farmers Battle Drought

Many returnees in northern Uganda struggle to rebuild their farms.

Despite returning to villages after almost a decade in camps for the displaced, many northern Ugandans are struggling to revive their farms and small-holdings.

A persistent drought across much of Uganda has made getting back on their feet difficult, and some former refuges say they’re starving as they prepare for the year’s first harvest.

“Here I am starving without any harvest,” said Ketty Aromorach, 39, a villager in the Amuru district north of Gulu.

Her farm “has been destroyed by heavy rain and drought”, she explained, and she lacks access to clean water and adequate health facilities.

For many years, Aromorach lived in the Atiak camp for the internally displaced, about 90 kilometres north of Gulu. She was hopeful when she returned to her village of Chopele in March with her three children and two brothers, all of whom help her with their patch of land.

But, she says, her children still don’t get enough to eat.

“We are completely hopeless,” she told IWPR. “I am ashamed [to be] begging for food for my children from neighbours. In the camps, food was not a problem.”

Meanwhile, the most vulnerable in northern Uganda face a July 31 cut-off of food supplies from the United Nation’s World Food Programme, WFP, on which they have depended for the past couple of decades of war with the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA.

Earlier this year, the WFP announced that food distribution would end in April, while supplies for the most disadvantaged would continue only through July.

Since northern Uganda has enjoyed nearly three years of peace since the LRA decamped to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2006, WFP country director, Stanlake Samkange, said donor support for food distribution has dwindled.

But Ugandan officials, who recently visited some stricken regions of the country, say they will help those who remain vulnerable – they plan to begin distributing about 5 million US dollars in assistance.

Some of the worst-hit areas are in the northern districts up to the Sudan border including the Amuru district, the West Nile district in northwestern Uganda and the eastern regions of Teso, according to Tarsis Kabwegyere, the disaster preparedness minister.

Kabwegyere said indications are that an acute food shortage is hitting the north, made worse because some of the food being produced in the region is being sold to South Sudan, where farmers can get high prices.

One such northern Ugandan farmer is Jalon Loum, who said he is doing well.

A father of eight children, he left a camp for the displaced two years ago and now grows cassava and rice on his land 14 km from Gulu.

“I make good money from my harvest because of a good market and demand for food in southern Sudan,” he said. “The businessmen come and buy direct from me.”

He added that they often purchase an entire field of cassava, which they harvest and truck to South Sudan.

“I no longer worry about the market,” Loum said. “All I do is to plant a lot of food and wait for the buyer to come.”

Farming has been good, he said, and has helped him to take care of himself and his family.

“I no longer wait for relief food,” Loum said. “I am able to send my children to school. I produce enough food for my family, and sell some to meet my family’s basic needs.”

While high prices in South Sudan have benefited people like Loum, it has caused a food shortage in northern Uganda, complained Odora Oryem, a farmer in Pabbo Pacido village.

There is a high demand for cassava, beans, rice and maize in South Sudan and this makes northern farmers eager to sell all their crops, creating a shortage in northern Uganda.

“If all food produce is sold … then what happens to the family members?”Oryem asked. “What will they eat since they only rely on their own food?”

The food shortage has in turn caused higher prices for produce that is available, he complained.

Local council chairman Christopher Ojera of the Pabbo community north of Gulu said the best farmers often help the struggling returnees by paying them to work on their farms.

“A number of returnees here work in the farms of rich people in exchange for basic necessities like salt, paraffin, soap and money,” Ojera said.

The biggest challenge that returnees face is adjusting to a life of self-sufficiency after many years in displaced camps where food was provided, he said.

“Many lack the desire to work hard,” Ojera said. Coupled with a lack of farming know-how and a culture of subsistence farming, life is difficult, he said.

Back in Amuru, Aromorach disagreed with Ojera, saying that the government has done little to help people re-establish their farms by providing tools and seeds. Most former camp residents lack basic tools rebuild their farms, she said.

Aromorach was particularly critical of the Ugandan National Agricultural Advisory Services, NAADS.

“We have never been called for meetings to know how NAADS can help returnees improve on their farming,” she said. “We are just like lonely trees in the desert.”

NAADS regional field assistant Winnie Nyeko said the agency works closely with returning farmers to introduce modern farming techniques and improved seeds, but some villagers live in remote areas difficult to access.

Mary Acan, 25, a mother of three, said she is working twice as hard as in the past to re-establish her small-holding because she must work in someone else’s to survive.

“Do not talk about life,” she said. “I am surviving by God’s mercy. Imagine digging your garden, and [then] going to someone’s farm [and] working for 1,000 shillings (50 US cents) to live.”

Gloria Aciro Laker is an IWPR-trained reporter.
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