Many farmers feel it is the perfect crop. You plant it once, then let it grow for five years or more. No weeding or fertilizing required. At the end of the five years, you make a nice profit.
The crop is trees – fast-growing trees like eucalyptus. And the hills of northern Burundi are teeming with them. Farmers in this region are turning from coffee plants to trees because trees are easier to maintain and more profitable.
Claver Gahungu is a farmer who decided to try tree farming. He devotes some of his land to trees, and continues growing coffee on the rest. “Every year, I make about $200 (US dollars) in my forest,”
Mr. Gahungu says. “That’s more than I make from the 600 coffee plants that occupy more than half a hectare of my fertile property.”
Coffee is Burundi’s top export. But over the last ten years, production has decreased by half. In part, this is because coffee plants are aging. Many date back to colonial times. During the civil war in the 1990s, they were not well tended. The coffee plants are now unreliable, often producing a crop only every two to three years.
Many farmers felt that the time required to weed and mulch coffee plants, along with the cost of purchasing chemical fertilizer, just wasn’t worth it. Nyandwi Christian of Mwumba municipality decided he could no longer make a living growing coffee. He complains, “Every year, I spent more than $100 (US dollars) to maintain my field of 200 coffee plants, even when they did not produce. It became unbearable!”
Local farmers find tree farming a more reliable source of income. After five years of growth, a eucalyptus tree can sell for $5 (US dollars). After ten years, it is worth $40 (US dollars) – though most farmers sell them sooner. Each year, farmers cut only the largest trees, saving the rest for future years.
Tree farmers are finding a ready market at local brick manufacturers. The wood is in high demand because of increased building construction.
Trees have other benefits, too. They can thrive on less fertile land. And farmers can grow fodder crops in the space between the trees.
But trees are not without their downside. While they are prized for growing quickly and producing good fire wood, eucalyptus trees also require a lot of water. At this point, however, farmers in northern Burundi see a bright future in tree farming.
Servillien is a resident of Gashikanwa municipality. He looks out over a plain that is owned by the government and is mostly unused. He says, “If you could offer me a part of the Vyerwa plain, I would plant the trees and bury poverty for a lifetime.”