ANGOLA: Reconstructing the breadbasket of Huambo

More than 300 minefields still present one of Angola's biggest challenges to reconstructing its former breadbasket, the central province of Huambo, where villages, farms, water supplies and schools all straddle routes in "suspect areas".


The province, with a population of almost two million, reportedly contributed about 22 percent to national cereal production in 1999, but almost three decades of civil conflict, which ended in a peace pact in 2002, devastated the infrastructure and displaced several thousand farmers.

"Everything was destroyed by the war," said Waldemar Fernandes, who works for the British mine-clearance NGO, Halo Trust. "Armies put in mines, which is easy; demining is difficult, especially since the army doesn't have records."

Angola is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world - an area about the size of Texas is infested with up to four million mines - and although the war is over, its legacy remains: mines put a stranglehold on economic development, commerce and political participation.

But that hasn't stopped those desperate enough in Canhama, outside Angola's second city Huambo, from growing crops uneasily among the minefields.

Like much of Angola, Huambo is blessed with natural resources. It is located on the high central plateau of the Planalto region, where fertile soil and a temperate climate create ideal conditions for agriculture, the main source of revenue before the war, when Angola was better known as a coffee exporter than an oil producer.

The Angolan National Coffee Institute in Huambo intends expanding the cultivation of Arabica coffee in greenhouses throughout the province, providing the organisation can obtain adequate fertiliser, the Afrol news service reported recently.

"Huambo is 1,600 meters above sea level and has lots of rain ... it's perfect for agriculture," said Paixao Amaral, head of Huambo's Ministry of Urbanism. "Oil will run out - in the long term we will have to stop being reliant on oil and diamonds."

Agriculture accounts for 9.6 percent of Angola's gross domestic product, according to the latest Ministry of Finance figures, and the government hopes that when the mines have gone and big infrastructure projects are finished, Huambo will start exporting again, creating jobs in its labour-intensive agricultural sector.

"The population is returning to the fields to cultivate," said Manuel Cotingo, who helps clear mines in Huambo.

Justino Jose, a local farmer from the nearby Chiva village said: "I grow maize, potatoes and beans; now I can go down the road freely to the market. When demining is finished we will work to grow everywhere - the land is fertile."

Attempts are also being made to revive the Benguela railway, which took most of the Planalto's agricultural produce like maize, wheat, cotton, coffee, sugar and cattle to markets in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in the north and Zambia in the northeast.

Huambo grew around the 1,300km railway, which during Portuguese rule ferried minerals from the DRC and landlocked Zambia to the port of Benguela on Angola's west coast. It was considered so vital to exports that the old Ministry of Agriculture - whose crumbling façade remains - was housed next to the train station building.

Work on the US$300 million Benguela railway project is being done principally by Chinese labour, often to the resentment of unemployed locals, as part of China Eximbank's $3 billion line of credit extended to Angola last year, which is also funding 10,000 new apartments on the outskirts of Huambo.

Ironically, China was one of the countries that helped destroy roads and railways in exchange for Angolan oil during the civil war. "In Huambo, most mines came from [the former] USSR, Germany, Cuba, China, Czechoslovakia and a few from France and Italy - these countries had no shame," Fernandes said.

As the Angolan peace agreement took root, several hundred thousand internally displaced persons (IDPs) began returning to the Planalto and foot traffic more than quadrupled, according to the Humpty Dumpty Institute (HDI), a US-based mine watchdog. Landmine-related casualties increased dramatically and local farmers were unable to transport their produce to and from local markets safely.

The government estimates that there are 70,000 to 80,000 mine survivors, representing 78 percent of all persons with disabilities. Approximately two-thirds of the survivors are concentrated in the northwestern province of Luanda, with others in the central provinces of Bié, Huambo, Malanje and the eastern province of Moxico.

With Angola's first elections in 14 years scheduled for 2007, mine clearance has helped make previously isolated communities accessible, giving residents the opportunity of registering to vote. "People are not so concerned by either [political] party; they want the freedom to work," said the Halo Trust's Fernandes. "Now they will have more power over their own future."

The roads in and around 200 villages in Bie have been cleared. HDI estimates that when the polling stations are set up, over 200,000 people will be able to vote.

Angola is sub-Saharan Africa's second largest oil producer, after Nigeria, and government coffers are reaping record windfalls, thanks to high oil prices and soaring production, which are slowly starting to trickle down to the people.

Von: source: IRIN 07.06.2006,$StorySummary$0.fullStory&sp=l37856

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