Coffee and Conflict: The Burundian Civil War

4 April 2014 | Eric Bell

Eric Bell is a postgraduate student, studying International Development: Poverty, Conflict and Reconstruction at the University of Manchester’s Institute for Development Policy and Management. He is currently finishing his thesis which focuses on the links between aid, governance and conflict in the DRC. Nearly all of his postgraduate research has been focused on central Eastern conflict and reconstruction.

BURUNDI COFFEEAs I write this article, I am sitting on a train in France at 6:30 in the morning.  I am frustrated because no café was open at this time and the train has no beverage service – therefore, I have no idea when I am going to get my first cup of the day.  My love for coffee is strong, and if yours is too, this article may be hard to swallow (pun intended), yet it is important to consider.

Thanks to the Fair Trade initiative, the origin of coffee and the working conditions of those involved in the production of the coffee we drink have become household concerns. However, Fair Trade focuses primarily on sustainability and economic equity. What is left out of the picture is how coffee can play a part in massacres, wars and political corruption. To look at this in more detail, we can shift our attention to Burundi.

Prelude to conflict

First, a brief background on Burundi is needed to understand how Burundi, Rwanda and coffee are interconnected.  Burundi’s history is not unlike its northern neighbour, Rwanda.  It was subjugated indirectly during colonial rule by the Belgians.  The colonisers used the same structure of rule as Rwanda, placing the Tutsi minority in positions of power, while the Hutu majority occupied the lower rungs of society.  However, the similarities stop there.  After independence, Rwanda experienced a Hutu revolution, changing the power structure. Burundi, on the other hand, maintained Tutsi leadership, first through the continuation of the monarchy, and later through authoritarian Tutsi oligarchies.

The roots of the Burundian Civil War are best understood by looking at the events which transpired in April, 1972.  Supported by the DRC, Burundian Hutus tried to mount an uprising against the Burundian Tutsi power structure.  The national army, which was nearly homogenously Tutsi and controlled by the political elite, brutally put down the rebellion in what “has been described as “selective’ genocide“.  It was selective in that it targeted only educated Hutus involved in the civil and business sectors.  When the guns fell quiet, between 150,000 – 200,000 had been killed and a further 300,000 were refugees in neighbouring countries.  This had a dramatic effect on the political, economic, demographic and natural landscape of Burundi, as there was no longer any competition from an educated rival group.  With complete control of all aspects of political and economic matters, coupled with an uneducated, rural agricultural sector, the Burundian elite were able to turn the country into their own private bank accounts.

Coffee harvesting in Burundi.

The coffee curse

Burundi’s primary export has been agricultural.  During the days of colonialism, it acted as the breadbasket for those working in resource extraction in the DRC.  In post-colonial Burundi, coffee became the primary export.  Preying on agriculture itself is very difficult when compared to other resources.  Therefore, the farming and harvesting of coffee is not the state’s primary concern.  The wealth comes from the upper stage of the coffee production line – washing, roasting, packaging, shipping, etc.  All of these industries are also owned by the state.  Profits from each of these industries and the foreign currency earnings of coffee would go into private accounts and used for activities such as buying out political opponents, bolstering the military, and personal expenditures.

It is not surprising then that investment shifted from agricultural to industrial in the post-1972 era.  This shift was made with little concern for the increasing population and the affect decreased agricultural production would have.  With this pressure on society, uprisings were not uncommon; however, the bolstered military, in the pocket of the elites, quickly, easily, and very often brutally extinguished these rebellions.

The evidence of state dependency on coffee rents is seen when the coffee prices devalued in the 1980s.  This was due to the emergence of Colombian and Brazilian coffee production.  The decrease in coffee profits dealt a crippling blow to the state elites on two fronts.  First, it weakened the clientele / patronage system of ruling which had allowed them to stay in power.  And second, it weakened the capabilities of the military.  Therefore, after the assassination of democratically elected Hutu president Ndadaye, the elites and the military were unable to stop the rebellions, thus starting the Burundian Civil War in 1993.

In 2003 the Global Cease-fire Agreement was signed ending the civil war which led to the democratic election of President Pierre Nkurunziza.  However, extreme poverty, unsustainable population growth, land use issues, and government corruption are still problems plaguing Burundi today.  These conditions are not unlike those which brought about predation and conflict mobilization in the past, so the peace is tenuous.

What now?

Consumer-ready Folgers Coffee.

So, where does all this leave us coffee lovers (or any product which has been linked to violence and war)?  What actions can we take so as not to contribute to further bloodshed?

Understanding where our money goes is an important first step.  In the case of Burundian coffee, the American coffee company, Folgers, was responsible of 65% of Burundi’s foreign exchange earnings during the war.  This implicates us Western consumers in the violence that occurred there.  With the knowledge of where our money goes, we can then begin to make changes in our lives that curb the spread of violence.

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