Coffee, Conflict, and the Congo: Healing Hearts and Minds begins with Life and Limbs

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Women play an important role as coffee producers (Photo courtesy of Polus Center)
Women play an important role as coffee producers (Photo courtesy of Polus Center)

Coffee, Conflict, and the Congo: Healing Hearts and Minds begins with Life and Limbs

The Lake Kivu region in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has been called “a paradise for coffee” due to its perfect location for farming coffee: latitude, altitude, and rainfall. Tragically, the world’s best coffee growing regions often overlap with landmines and explosive remnants of war. Burma, Colombia, Ethiopia, Vietnam, and Yemen are a few examples. The Lake Kivu region is no exception. This was once a burgeoning coffee producing area, but lasting conflict and the presence of explosive hazards have held back what could be a promising local industry and source of prosperity for local communities. Yet today there is hope in the reemergence of DRC’s specialty coffee industry, and a new initiative supported by the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement in the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs will help encourage this effort to bring peace, stability and better livelihoods to coffee farmers, their families and local communities.

Women carry a heavy burden in the coffee industry (Photo courtesy of Polus Center)

Growing coffee, like any agriculture effort in countries facing conflict, is especially difficult and dangerous. Throughout the world women play an important role as coffee producers. In eastern Congo, the majority of civilians injured by these hidden hazards are women working their coffee farms or bringing their products to market. This often results in the loss of life or limb and lasting, debilitating psychological trauma for the survivors. Sadly, this is what happened to Masika Julienne when she was only 13. In 1999, Masika was on her way to farm coffee when she stepped on an unknown object. The last thing she remembers is an explosion before waking up in a health center. Realizing she lost her right leg to a buried piece of unexploded military ordnance, Masika feared for her future, worrying that she would be unable to work and to marry because she was now an amputee.

The overwhelming challenges for area residents to receive necessary physical and psychological care to recover from these devastating injuries have been compounded by protracted conflicts in Congo that have led to severe lack of health services. In addition, given reduced available international funding, many nongovernmental organizations curtailed survivors’ assistance activities in the Congo to focus on more immediate humanitarian assistance in recent years.

Young women picking coffee beans (Photo courtesy of the Polus Center)

In addition to efforts to survey and clear explosive hazards as well as outreach to help area residents avoid injury, survivors assistance programs are a third key element to the global effort to help countries emerge from conflict. Linking coffee with survivors’ assistance programs is one way we can help individuals support their families and lead meaningful and productive lives within their communities.

Since December 2017, the Polus Center, our partner for survivors assistance programs in the DRC in collaboration with Eastern Congo Initiative, Higher Grounds Coffee and On the Ground, began providing prosthetic limbs, counseling, and related rehabilitative support, forming the “Lake Kivu Coffee Alliance.”

Survivor Masika Julienne, injured while working her coffee farm, is fitted for a prosthetic limb (Photo courtesy of Polus Center)

Masika Julienne was the first person to receive a prosthetic limb from this project. Now, after receiving her new limb she would like to become a prosthetic technician to help other people in the same situation as she was -- marginalized because of missing a limb. For other survivors, U.S.-supported survivors assistance programs may allow new opportunities to return to their fields, an eye-opening prospect and a cause for celebration for you to savor over your next cup of coffee.

The United States is the world’s leading financial supporter of international efforts to reduce dangers from landmines and other explosive hazards around the world. Working through U.S. Embassy Kinshasa, we have invested nearly $20 million in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since 1993 toward clearance of unexploded ordnance, outreach to prevent injuries, survivors assistance, and efforts to stem proliferation of small arms though the U.S. Conventional Weapons Destruction program. To learn more about the United States’ global conventional weapons destruction efforts, check out our annual report, To Walk the Earth in Safety, and follow us on Twitter @StateDeptPM

The Lake Kivu Coffee Alliance is also featured in the 2018 State of Global Partnerships Report and participated in the Office of Global Partnerships’ Boldline Accelerator and Global Partnerships Week Forum.

About the Author: Dennis F. Hadrick serves as a Program Manager in the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement (PM/WRA) with the Department of State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.com.