Fr Daniel Syauswa SJ teaches at a Jesuit agricultural and veterinary college in Kinshasa called the Institut Supérieur Agro-Vétérinaire (ISAV), in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). For the next few years, however, he will be working on a PhD in agroforestry at the University of Guelph. ISAV currently has four faculty members in advanced degree programs in Canada so that it can improve on its offerings to Congolese students. Already the college is well known for combining studies in agriculture and veterinary science, and now, 20 years after it was founded, it wants to offer science programs at the Master’s level and to expand into agroforestry.
Agroforestry is a branch of agriculture that looks at integrating the management of trees along with conventional crops and livestock. In Africa, Fr Syauswa says that it makes sense for people to study agroforestry, agriculture, and veterinary science together because most farmers do not specialize in one crop or in raising one kind of animal. They practise mixed farming, and adding trees to this mixture makes a lot of ecological sense, because it enriches the soil, provides shade, prevents erosion, and offers a good source of fuel.
Fr Daniel’s agricultural views on optimal methods of farming in Africa are linked to his theological views on ecological relationships more broadly: they are thoroughly integrated in their context and distinctively African. Although Fr Daniel teaches in Kinshasa, he comes from North Kivu province in eastern DRC, where his home village has been wiped out in the ongoing conflicts of that region. Not surprisingly, therefore, his views on ecological well-being take such conflicts into account.
Canadian Jesuits International caught up with Fr Daniel in Guelph to obtain a “view from the South” on ecological matters. He talked about three major requirements for ecological health:
“Africa is often depicted as a victim, like someone who is injured. What is needed for victims is help and compassion, and there is a tendency for us Africans to say that we are victims. But in reflecting on this, I have tried to draw on the African capacity to engage in solidarity, a value that tends to get lost. What I mean is this: in certain areas people have enrolled in conflict; they have taken up arms against their own communities because of promises of money or resources. They are killing their own brothers, actually, that is what’s happening. We know that one of the central dimensions of African cultures is kinship and solidarity, but these tend to be easily forgotten because of conflicts, and sometimes because of poverty.
“My idea is that as Christians we need to bring solidarity to the centre of how we live the gospel, not simply looking at solidarity as a value in traditional communities—because then what people do is put that value in the past… I have tried to correlate a biblical concept to the African vision. The biblical concept is “shalom.” Shalom means wholeness; it’s peace that includes the human, the non-human, and spirits. People in Africa believe that these three components are connected. It’s not a museum belief: I think that we can still affirm certain ways of relating to one another in human communities… We need to rediscover solidarity. That’s one aspect.”
Understanding the vital importance of land
“The second aspect is connected to the value given to land in African cultures. More than 75 percent of African communities depend directly on land, in a kind of primary relationship—unlike in developed countries where you can live disconnected from the land. What I’m trying to say—and I think we should say it loudly—is that the human connection to land, to natural resources, to the material means of living is a relationship that has a big impact on how communities relate to one another…
“There is a very strong connection of people to their own land. People still hope stability will come in places like the eastern DRC and wherever they go as internally displaced people, there is a hope that they can go back to their place. One example is my own village—I went there to visit in 2007. It doesn’t exist any longer, and yet I grew up there until I was 18 years old. But the school is still there and parents make sure that the school doesn’t disappear. There is hope that stability will come. People still go farming near where the village was, and when they go there they take their children to the primary school, and in the afternoon the children join their parents in the farms. Then they go back home together. And the following day, the same scenario. They now live in a nearby town, about five kilometres from the village.
“Because of the massive number of people who leave their own lands, finding new areas for coexistence with already existent communities isn’t easy. It’s a long process. This situation of internally displaced people has gone on for a very long time. But until today you have many families who, whether they live far from or near to the old area, are still waiting to return…
“Land reform is such that it may be very difficult to bring those people back home and make them live peacefully with others. So I’m really trying to understand the way we organize land through laws and through traditional customs of control. If you want to deal with the question of peace on the basis of ethnicity alone, or tribalism, as people tend to portray it for Africans, you may miss a very important aspect. Looking at ecological crises, a more comprehensive perspective will address issues not only connected to which group we are from, but how the land and resources can be what unite us and make us cooperate for our common wellbeing.
“Part of why people tend always hope is that they are hoping to return to their place—and that is biblical, the hope to return. Even after 10 or 20 years, populations will want to go back to where they lived, and when they go back they may find new structures and new people and again conflicts may erupt. However, if we look at how land connects us, we can solve many of the problems or at least not rush to solutions by saying it’s easy, it’s about origins. Many times it’s also about how we share resources, it’s about the meaning we give to the land.
“My comparison with Canada would be how the First Nations sometimes resisted being removed from their own lands. It’s unfortunate that First Nations are separated from others, but I think it gives an idea of what is at stake. Land is not only for production: it’s our land and people are ready to shed their blood for it. This is still true today.
“Most communities in the South feel physically and spiritually, in their bodies, conflicts going on in the land around resources. People living in cities can still in many ways detach themselves from the consequences of conflicts, but that’s not the case in rural places. The people still live on an everyday basis. They go into the nearest forest to collect wood for cooking, and conflict means they will not be able to cook their food. Then humanitarian groups will bring aid. But I remember in part of my own parish people refusing biscuits and processed food from a UN mission. They said we are able to cultivate our own food; what we need is security so that we can do it. Of course, help is good, but people have these resources and only need help to make use of them. People will tell you we are able to grow our own food.”
Making connections between local ecological health and global justice
“And the last aspect or requirement for a healthy ecology in my view is the inclusion of even distant nations as part of the scenario in the exploitation of resources. We have our values, such as solidarity and land, and we can try to reclaim or build on those values, but we should not only focus on our own local values. We need to include how we relate to distant “others” in using our resources, and then land becomes the place where we understand competition in combination with solidarity…
“Certain places are more inhabited than others, and there are conflicts which are connected to human pressure and land. Sometimes neighbouring communities claim control over certain resources and those material aspects will basically translate into conflicts among people… It happens in a very subtle way.
“Armed militias are intermediaries between local people and international or regional groups that work for other corporations. Research has shown that some of the armed militias are simply used to make an area insecure, and once the population has run away—people cannot sustain violent conflict—exploitation then can go on without any worry. Many villages, including in my own parish in North Kivu, have been either burned down or simply depopulated, with people trying to find refuge in other places. And then these people who are supposed to be farming, growing food, are gone. There is this competition where the population is expelled and exploitation goes on. People have seen helicopters flying in and out of those areas where the people have been disconnected from their own land.
“And most of the people working in mining areas are Congolese, but they used by these armed groups, and when they are interviewed they say they were promised a better future…
“When you understand how the land and its resources unites distant peoples you understand then the role that the West can play in advocacy, because we are connected through conflicts… Part of what we use here in the West every day in terms of technology plays a role in places like the DRC, positively or negatively. And that’s why I say wholeness is not about making peace in Africa a question of Africans alone—because we don’t master all the components, but these components may help secure people’s relationship to one another.”