Author: Leela Rainanina Nicole Ndayiragije Arame Tall

On the frontline of climate change: the grit and resilience of women in the face of multiple crises in Burundi

Source(s): World Bank, the
Women in Rwanda growing coffee to support themselves.
Ilene Perlman/Shutterstock

A recent visit across Burundi’s lush, green landscapes masks a moving story of loss, and what it will take to reduce climate drivers of fragility for the world’s most vulnerable. Women in Burundi’s rural areas are already spending what little money they have to increase their land’s resilience in the face of climate change. Often, these costs come directly from their meager household budgets, sometimes simply to secure their access to productive farming land to feed their families.

Burundi is gifted with nature’s wealth—forests, fisheries, and fertile land. But its green landscapes, plus the tranquil waters of its main body of water, Lake Tanganyika, hide the scars both of civil war and of land conflict that looms over the Burundians farming the country’s characteristically steep collines (hills). Where originally the forests were rich with trees and healthy soil, now—amid pressure to feed one of Africa’s fastest growing populations—land is over-cultivated or cleared to build houses, and forests have been cut for wood to use in construction and as fuel.  

The aftermath of the war and multiple crises has made rural women and their land-based livelihoods the primary lifeline for their households. When men left to fight, women were left behind to farm the land and protect their families. Many have witnessed both the destruction of their houses and the turmoil caused when returning refugees claimed old land now occupied by others who had stayed behind. As well, some local forests were burnt down during searches by the military.

“The crisis changed my life, and has brought disease, stripping away the fertility and productivity of the land,’’ said Kerida, an “inababiri,” a mother of twins with 11 children. Poor mental health (such as trauma) has since left men often unable to farm, spiraling into alcoholism and violence towards their wives. “This is normal… for all of us,” said Kerida, as she recounted the number of women like herself, abused during the war, who didn’t always know who the fathers of their children were. Not just crises but competition for land—land conflicts—and land degradation have disrupted people’s lives in Burundi.

We went to visit the collines most vulnerable from climate change to cross validate findings through focus group discussions for our Advisory Services and Analytics Report, “Diagnosing Drivers of Climate Fragility in Burundi’s Colline Landscapes”. This was also an opportunity to cost these climate impacts and shape the Colline Climate Action Plan (CCAP ) to inform climate resilience investment at national scale in Burundi. The focus group discussions found that most of the household expenditure managed by women is actually invested in land. Women made up 60% of the 4,000 “high-risk climate and fragility” households in the collines in Kibande, Bibare, Maramvya, and Bugarama where over 90% of people have been found to be vulnerable to the compounded risk of climate change, land degradation, and land-related conflict.

Among the 26 women (sample group) interviewed across four collines, we found that, on average, women spend 36% of their household expenditure on the upkeep and management of land, regardless of whether they are landowners or not. Women who owned land invested over 38% of household expenditure on cultivation, labor, terracing – more than they spend on clothes, food, school fees for their children, and healthcare-related expenditures (see Figure 1). During times of climate shock, overall expenditure could be increase by 150% on average (for example due to food price increase), and up to 100% more if any land-related conflict occurs (for example paying for a mediator or enforcement to resolve conflict over land ownership). This finding underscores that rural woman are already paying for climate resilience out-of-pocket, taking money from their meager household budgets to ensure access to productive lands to feed their families, often at the expense of investments in education, health, nutrition, and well-being.

The landless are even more vulnerable. More than 90% of the women in our sample groups, especially those who were landless, were found to be vulnerable to climate hazards, including heavy rain and landslides.

This makes landless households highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and to climate-related shocks that damage their homes and disrupt their access to food. When women lose crops, their husbands leave for Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital, to seek jobs. Landless, with nowhere to go, the women may labor at 10,000 fib ($5)/day for neighbors who own more than a hectare of land to provide food, clothes, school fees, and medicines for their children. In her interview, Evade shared her coping strategy–to try and save 35% of her income. But the increasing severity of rain, with multiple climate risks manifesting annually – like landslides, crop failure, inundation, and pest infestation, means she ends up spending three times as much as usual, which depleted all her savings, and dashed the hope of owning a place of her own someday.

The costs of adapting to climate change are high, with climate shocks resulting in one less meal a day, smaller portions of food, and sometimes no food at all.  Per interviews with sample groups, close to one-third of all household expenditure is on food. The food typically eaten by a household of seven would be beans and rice, with cassava for lunch, and vegetables and rice every other day. And though many families are blessed with two meals during cultivation seasons, 90% of them lack regular access to meat or fish. Those lucky enough to have a bountiful harvest can treat themselves to fish every fortnight.

But with more frequent heavy rains, floods, and annual infestations of pests harmful to food crops, families have had to switch to one meal a day and reduce their portions. Instead of beans, many families have cassava leaves and sweet potatoes, with men forgoing their meals for women and children during the dry seasons. People in Burundi are already trying to “adapt” to climate change with what they have on hand, cultivating short-term crops like vegetables and looking for jobs in the city or as laborers in neighboring collines.

Conflict over land compounds the costs of climate change. Aidine, the elected head of one of Bibare’s collines, is married with four children. She is considered relatively wealthy because she owns her land and can invest her savings in protecting her land by terracing it. But ownership comes with its own costs: a land dispute can cause an 80% increase in a landowner’s expenditure to cover the administrative and legal fees needed to resolve any boundary issues they have with neighbors. Aidine spends 40% on food and another 40% on agriculture, including 10% on protecting her land from the climate crisis. “The war, conflict over land, and climate change have all brought us disease, and it is all connected,” she says.

Celestine, a widow, spends most of her money on food, clothes, school fees, and medical bills, and has no capacity to protect her land from climate hazards. During flooding caused by heavy rains, her food is three times as expensive, meaning she has to send her children to beg. She is landless, like all widows in the village, and must labor to earn a measly 10,000 Bif ($5) a week to support her five children, the oldest of whom is 18 years old. Over the past few years, the incidence of plant and zoonotic diseases has increased, meaning no food for the children and laboring on an empty stomach.

However, when they can, Burundian women are responding to the climate crisis by adapting their farming practices and investing in restoring the land’s productivity. Davine is a second wife with five children in her care. She owns her land and is her family’s sole earner. She has received support from the World Bank IDA-funded Burundi Landscape Restoration and Resilience Project to protect her land from climate risks and hazards. She has even been given a land certificate in her name, enshrining her right to land ownership, going against tradition. She spends 10% of her income on agriculture, cultivating cassava, beans, and sweet potatoes. The project supports her with labor and new landscape management, as well as climate-smart agriculture techniques like terracing and improved seeds, and farming techniques that help restore land productivity as a nature-based solution to respond to flooding.

There is hope for the future in Burundi’s green rolling hills. While Burundi has socio-economic challenges and is severely impacted by climate change, it is also a place where women display grit and entrepreneurial spirit.  Among the first generation of women to get a secondary education and providing a flicker of hope for Burundi’s future are 23-year-old Ivette, a food trader; Nadine Nshimirimana, a widow who secured capital by selling land; Bernadette Hakizimana, a divorced mother of two who started a small banana beer business to ensure her family’s survival. When asked what more the World Bank could do to support them, the members of this focus group responded in a chorus of: “Give us money to start our own trade and businesses. We want to be rich women; we will be wealthy!”

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