Beatrice Semahane is up early. The sun is barely above the horizon and, along with a dozen other farmers, she is cleaning and piecing together a long stretch of damaged wire. The wire marks the border between Virunga National Park and farmers’ fields in Kibumba, a mountain village about 50 kilometres from Goma in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
After gorillas and buffaloes repeatedly crossed into their fields at night and ate their crops, local farmers got together to repair the electric fence that separates the fields from the park.
Mrs. Semahane says, “Every farmer in Kibumba has at least once been in one way or another the victim of animals invading their fields. No one is spared.”
Mrs. Semahane is 38 years old. For almost half her life, she has grown vegetables in her 700-square-metre field. Over the past several years, animals from the park have destroyed her carrots and potatoes.
In early 2016, Mrs. Semahane lost the equivalent of five bags of carrots and eight bags of potatoes. That amounted to 100 kilograms, or one-fifth of her harvest.
In 2014, park authorities installed an electric fence to keep animals inside the park. But the fence does not completely encircle the park, and the wires were soon damaged. Plants became entangled in the wires, allowing the animals to once again reach the fields. In addition, farmers say the fence has not been electrified for more than a year.
Joël Wenga works with the Congolese government’s nature conservation agency, which is responsible for parks. He says residents have also contributed to the rapid destruction of the electric fence.
He explains, “Some villagers steal the wires and posts. This creates weak points in the fence, and allows animals to easily pass through.”
Mushumo Habineza grows carrots and leeks in Kibumba. He says animals ate half his carrots last month. Mr. Habineza believes that animals entered his fields from the unfenced part of the park. He says, “I harvested 300 kilograms, instead of the 500 kilograms I usually do. It was after these animals passed through. I saw their tracks the next day.”
So the farmers had to start all over again.
In 2016, Mrs. Semahane created the Umoja association, which means “union” in Swahili. The group’s 46 farmers take turns maintaining the electric fence to protect their fields.
Every Monday, they split into groups of 15 and disperse to various locations where repairs are needed. With their hoes, machetes, spades, and other tools in hand, they first identify places where the wires are broken. Then they cut away the plants growing close to the fence, and attach pieces of wood where it looks like the fence might collapse.
Sometimes they buy cement and install fence posts, using money from park officials or members’ contributions.
The farmers say that, even though part of the park remains unfenced, they’ve noticed a big difference.
Mr. Habineza says: “Thanks to the regular cleaning and maintenance of the electric fence, we can go a full week without an attack on our fields. Before, our fields were attacked every day. The frequency of intrusions has really declined.”
Mrs. Semahane hopes that the fence will once again be electrified to keep the fields safe from animals. She also wants park authorities to extend the fence around the entire perimeter of the park.
For their part, park authorities say there have been technical problems with electrification, but that workers will soon restore power to the fence.
Photo: The photo on Beatrice Semahane’s plot of land.