The End of the New Green Revolution in Rwanda?

In a critique of Rwanda’s Green Revolution, An Ansoms argues that the promise of the ‘reconfiguration of the rural landscape’ has failed. Food price inflation rose rapidly while the economies-of-scale of the new system were captured by middlemen and local elites. Yet, the World Bank and the IMF persist in using the so-called Rwandan ‘success story’ to sell neo-liberal policy packages as the panacea for Africa’s development. However opportunities for alternative voices are opening up and criticism is also being picked up by Rwandan policy makers.

By An Ansoms

Previously, on we called into question the positive impact of a ‘New Green Revolution’ in Rwanda. Particularly in terms of poverty reduction and food security, the results seem mitigated [. Also other authors in this blog series have written extensively upon the inherent contradictions in the analysis of the poverty datasets (see, for example, here)  and the discussion was even picked up by the Financial Times in August 2019 . However, while most critics focus upon the political dimension of this controversial debate, it is important to also look into what happens in Rwanda’s rural hills.

In fact, within Rwanda, the space for criticism around the flaws of the Green Revolution is opening up. International, but also local Rwandan media have published critical accounts. Rwandan civil society organisations have played an important role in renegotiating authorities’ decisions. Local farmers have openly complained to the Rwandan ombudsman’s services. Community debates on local radios have debated about the perverse impact of delayed seed distribution, imposed crop choice, and too rigid policy decisions. And, importantly, these forms of contestation are being picked up by Rwandan policy makers. Ten years after the introduction of the New Green Revolution in Rwanda, the plurality of forms of contestation are resulting in a reconfiguration of the rural landscape.

How? Let’s turn back in time. In the aftermath of the civil war and genocide, Rwandan farmers oriented their strategies towards creating ‘autonomous farming systems’ oriented towards ‘risk minimisation’ and ‘food production’. Rural landscapes were characterised by land fragmentation – sometimes reaching extreme levels. Most land was cultivated with a diversity of crops in multi-cropping arrangements. The average farm of 0,6 hectares was spread over three to four plots on which about eight different crops were cultivated. Most of the harvest was consumed at home. Surpluses were sold – in small quantities – at local markets. People cultivated crops in alignment with overall agro-ecological conditions, but also on the basis of their dietary needs. They navigated between producing as much as possible, while mitigating risks in relation to climate variation and potential crop disease.

Since 2007-2008, Rwandan authorities embarked upon an ambitious project to reorganise the entire agrarian sector. Instead of counting on subsistence-based family farming, the Rwandan government elaborated a ‘Green Revolution strategy’. This strategy aimed at promoting productive farming through a modernisation and professionalization of the entire agrarian sector. A national land law established a centrally-organised land registration system, attributing individual land titles. The Crop Intensification Policy imposed market-oriented cultivation in combination with regional specialisation. A top-down organised administrative chain rigidly translated nationally imposed performance targets to local levels through a system of performance contracts.

The ambitions of Rwanda policy makers fitted neatly within the African Union’s and African Development Bank’s ambitions for primary sector economic development. It also aligned well with the World Bank’s aim for promoting modernised farming systems throughout a ‘New Green Revolution for Sub-Saharan Africa’. Also, major international consortia, such as for example AGRA (Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, founded in 2006) found in Rwanda a pilot zone for testing out what a profound transformation of the African agricultural sector could entail.

Rwanda’s Green Revolution entailed a fundamental ‘reconfiguration of the rural landscape’. Pilot phases in Rwanda’s marshlands transformed scattered plots into neatly separated squares. Land rights were collectivised and transferred to cooperatives. Multi-cropping was replaced by mono-cropping production, focusing upon priority crops. Cooperative guidelines even imposed particular seed types. In a second stage, also hill-land was absorbed in the rural landscape reconfiguration. The Rwandan government embarked on an ambitious land titling schedule that attributed individual land rights. But in order to obtain those rights – and keep them – farmers had to insert their land into land consolidation programs. Each region’s administration decided upon three to four priority crops, to be cultivated in mono-cropping arrangements. As a result, rural landscapes in the hills changed drastically from scattered plots with a variety of crops to uniform crop coverage and joint organisation. Farmers became increasingly dependent upon market exchange mechanisms. Even rural market landscapes transformed. The presence of local traders selling small surpluses decreased, while large-scale professional traders – often without any roots in the local setting – took over.

However, whereas overall productivity rates rose, small-holder farmers lost their autonomy. They became increasingly dependent upon a system in which their bargaining power was limited. Food price inflation rose rapidly with traders profiting from local scarcities in order to make high profits. In fact, local trickle-down effects of increasing growth were – in most cases – limited. Whereas the economies-of-scale effects of the new system were captured by middle men and local elites; local populations absorbed the increased risk embedded in the modernised system. Decreasing subsidies for imposed seeds and chemical fertilisers; delayed deliveries; imposed cultivation modalities not adapted to local agro-ecological diversity… An increasing number of defaults started to reach the surface.

Eventually, these defaults became more and more apparent in the rural landscapes. In many locations, farmers tried to ‘cheat’ by cultivating non-authorised crops in hidden locations. Initially, these forms of resistance remained well hidden beneath the surface for fear of being punished with fines, land confiscation, or even imprisonment. In 2016-2017, however, farmers turned to a more drastic form of resistance. At various locations in different regions, farmers decided to stop cultivating altogether. The phenomenon of ‘uncultivated land’ – normally very rare in the land-scarce and overpopulated context of Rwanda – became increasingly visible. In certain locations, entire terraces were left uncultivated because of disappointing experiences in the years before, or because land had become so degraded that it was no longer worth the effort. Farmers indicated that degradation was the result of excessive and wrong use of chemical fertilisers, or because of erroneously applied terracing techniques.

Eventually, it was the prospect of the 2017 presidential elections that led to a ‘breach in the rigidity’ with which Green Revolution policy prescriptions were imposed. With various zones affected by food insecurity, and by fear of having elections in a time of food shortage, president Kagame himself gave the order to turn the table. He ordered his administration to loosen the strings, and to reapprove the cultivation of traditionally important crops such as sweet potatoes and sorghum. In addition, authorities were urged to be more flexible in response to farmers’ concerns. These decisions decreased the pressure upon farmers’ food systems. Multi-cropping reappeared, although initially limited to particular prescribed crop types.

After Kagame’s re-election, this evolution continued. A previously ignored debate on disappointing poverty evolutions became a hot topic within Rwandan policy circles – although mostly discussed behind the behind screen. President Kagame from his side publically raised the issue of high child malnutrition rates during the 2018 national leadership retreat. As we illustrated in a previous blog, certain authorities tried to push away policy makers’ responsibility in pointing to farmers’ lack of knowledge on dietary requirements. But local populations used the openness to discuss around malnutrition and poverty as an occasion to widen ‘space for contestation’ around rural policy decisions. Initially, critical discourses strategically questioned the ‘too rigid interpretation of well-intentioned national prescriptions by local authorities’. But eventually, those forms of often localised contestation culminated into a more fundamental questioning of Green Revolution policy principles. This evolution was not so much the result of a broad wave of explicit criticism at the macro level, it was rather the result of smaller forms of contestation by civil society and by farmers bypassing official policy guidelines.

Interestingly, these forms of localised resistance were very effective in bringing about a ‘fundamental change in the rural landscape’ once more. The phenomenon of non-cultivated land has become much scarcer although there are locations where large tracks of land remain entirely empty – probably because the land is too degraded. Multi-cropping has increasingly re-emerged as a standard, and no longer as an exception. In a number of locations, farmers no longer combine the ‘authorised’ crop types, but return to old practices of complex multi-cropping with a high diversity of crop and seed types. At the same time, however, they continue to cultivate certain market-oriented crop types that were introduced through agrarian modernisation policies. In marshlands, the reconfigurations are less profound, even though in several locations, increased diversity in cultivation practices can be noticed.

All there reconfigurations allow us to pose four fundamental sets of questions. Firstly, is the current reconfiguration of rural landscapes part of a ‘larger trend of calling into question of the green revolution orientation’ within Rwanda’s agrarian reform? Will farmers be allowed to regain autonomy within their farming systems in a structural way? And what will then be the future role of public interventions in the agrarian sector? Because indeed, a return to the past – with purely auto-subsistent family farming systems – is not viable in a context of increasing resource scarcity and land fragmentation. However, a fundamental revalorisation of farmers’ locally-embedded knowledge – in combination with scientific input that gives credit to farmers’ risk-mitigating orientation – would be a clear step forward. Rwanda could be a very interesting breeding ground for agro-ecological innovations adapted to smallholder farmers’ realities.

Secondly, does the current evolution towards more flexibility for farmers in their farming practices represent a broader political opening towards ‘taking peasants’ voices on board’? Or is this only a way to further safeguard the legitimacy of current elites to stay in power? It is interesting to see how problems in relation to food security, crop failure and food price inflation are more openly debated on national Rwandan media. However, it is often the local authorities who are blamed for the excesses of the system, while the overall structural problems of the Green Revolution policies – and the responsibilities of national authorities – remain hidden behind the surface. Thus, question remains whether the discussions will eventually touch upon the skewed power relations within the agrarian sector at large. As long as the voices from below are not truly considered, problems of poverty and malnutrition will continue to re-emerge and undermine Rwanda’s broader developmental process. They fuel discontent and resentment and might ultimately reach a point where renewed violence in this conflict-prone region is not excluded.

Thirdly, what impact did Green Revolution policies have upon overall ‘land distribution’? Over the past decade, a significant group of smallholder farmers – unable to keep to  official policy measures – have been driven out of the agricultural sector. They had to cede there land to authorities, or sell their land in times of emergency. The past decade of rural reforms has resulted in land concentration in the hands of fewer people. Also, many young people no longer find employment in the agricultural sector, while alternative employment opportunities remain scarce. How to engage with an increasing low-skilled labour force in an overpopulated country? How can these people find a decent way of living? And what tensions arise when a large group of people feels excluded from the so-called economic success story that Rwandan policy makers and international donors proclaim? Finally, what does the Rwandan case teach us more broadly?

International donors, and particularly the World Bank and the IMF, continue to laud the Rwandan experience as an exemplary case of post-conflict economic reconstruction. They continue to back up the story of a highly successful Green Revolution, despite striking evidence to the contrary. Their responsibility is huge, both in terms of financial support as well as in terms of ideological stubbornness. On the basis of the Rwandan ‘success story’, the World Bank and the IMF persist in selling neo-liberal policy packages as the panacea for Africa’s development. Eventually, this story is as much about Rwanda, as about global interests peddling a neo-liberal economic growth model under the flag of development assistance. It is time for the international community to turn the eye of criticism upon themselves.

An Ansoms is a long-standing ROAPE contributor. She has a PhD in Applied Economics and is a Professor in development studies at the Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium. Her focus is on natural resource conflicts and challenges for rural development in the Great Lakes Region of Africa.

Featured Photograph: Rwanda has high population density and intense land cultivation (9 July, 2007).


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