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Food production declines as Angolan refugees go home

[Zambia] Some of the Angolan refugees ready for repatriation at the departure center of Meheba refugee camp. [Date picture taken: 02/19/2005] Nebert Mulenga/IRIN
Angolans departing Meheba refugee camp in 2005
The repatriation of Angolan refugees is creating food shortages in and around the Zambian camps they have lived in for decades.

"The repatriation of Angolan refugees has affected us so much. They were very hardworking farmers and we used to buy cheap beans, rice, cassava, sweet potatoes and maize [the staple crop] from them, but now we have nowhere to run to for cheap foods," said village headman Chiwevu, whose hamlet is located on the outskirts of the Meheba refugee settlement in northwestern Zambia.

Zambia hosts about 143,000 refugees from Africa's civil wars and politically unstable regions, including Angola, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Somalia and Uganda, in a string of camps along its western and northern borders. Meheba houses about 14,415 people.

On arrival each family was allocated 2.5 hectares of arable land for cultivation. "We provide all refugees with food rations for the first two seasons, after which they are expected to be self-reliant to grow their own food for consumption and sale. So far, Angolan and Rwandese refugees have proved to be very successful and viable farmers," said Khalid Mahgoub, a North-Western Province field officer for the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.

The 2002 death of Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi ended the country's long-running civil war and the following year the refugees, some of whom had lived in the camps since 1970, began to return home.

More than 60,000 Angolans have been repatriated since 2003 and a further 15,000 will return home by December this year, but they remain the largest group of refugees, comprising about 72,000 people, of which 49,000 have settled outside the camps.

As the Angolan refugee population declines, so has crop production in the region. Chiwevu said the government had stopped agricultural inputs for local farmers and insisted that agricultural cooperatives be formed, but this had led to infighting, "hence we have been depending on food supplies sold by the refugees".

"The total agricultural output for Meheba refugee settlement has fallen to unprecedented levels since the start of the Angolan refugee repatriation programme," said agricultural officer Jones Maseka. "Even within the camp, the situation is so bad that there is urgent need for relief food to save many lives."

Meheba produced over 12,000 tonnes of maize in the season before the repatriations began, but the most recent harvest only yielded 1,600 tonnes. Cassava under cultivation fell from 2,000 hectares to 20 hectares, while the sweet potato crop declined from over 5,000 tonnes to less than 800 tonnes.

The refugees also established fish farms and sold their products beyond the camp's borders, but of the 353 fishponds operating in 2002 only about 150 are left.

"Apart from the fact that many farming Angolan refugees have repatriated, those who have remained are uncertain of their future and, therefore, can't go full throttle in farming. We are now seeing many of them selling their livestock and fish in the ponds. This is why we have recorded the sharp decline in production trends," Maseka told IRIN.

Judith Lungu, dean of the University of Zambia's agricultural school, said reduced food production at the camps could have been avoided if government had taken precautionary measures.

"Refugees contribute a lot to food production. When they leave, the land should be given to people or organisations that will continue to use that land for productive farming. This is one way communities can somehow benefit from having hosted refugees," said Lungu.

Zambia's commissioner for refugees, Jacob Mphepo, said an initiative was being designed to bring together locals and refugees communities "to learn from each other", but this would depend on funding. "It's a pity that our people could not learn the tricks of successful farming from Angolans for over 20 years."

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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