IN the last two decades, the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has claimed 5 million lives, more than the last hundred years of wars in the Middle East.
Violence from the M23 militia, a rebel group based in Congo’s North Kivu province, forced more than 100,000 Congolese to flee their homes, adding to the 2.2 million displaced since the beginning of 2012. Last week, M23 was defeated after 18 months of insurgency.
For many Americans this issue is out-of-sight and out-of-mind. But for some in Seattle it hits closer to home. Since 2010, Theo Chocolate and Eastern Congo Initiative in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood have been working together to help Congolese farming families emerge from poverty and violence by fostering economic opportunity. We believe partnerships like ours will be critical to reviving the region, and we’re already seeing signs of progress.
Still, the challenges are daunting. Although Congo has enough arable land to feed a third of the world’s population, only 2 percent is currently being cultivated. Agriculture remains central to the country’s economy, accounting for half of the gross domestic product.
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Farming employs 84 percent of women in the workforce, providing them with critical support as they face the dangers of war and struggle against oppression in a region Save the Children recently ranked as the worst place in the world to be a mother.
We have met many courageous Congolese farmers who, despite a generation of conflict, work tirelessly to provide for their families and create opportunity for their communities. But violence has at times forced nearly all of these farmers to temporarily flee their homes, leaving their crops and their livelihoods behind.
This year, the U.N. increased its efforts to bring peace to eastern Congo, and conscientious U.S. policymakers such as U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, have worked to direct congressional attention to the region. So far, these efforts have shown early glimpses of success. We believe peace will come.
But long-term stability will require more than just political and military action. It will depend on continued, committed economic investments to create lasting economic opportunities for the Congolese people.
The Congolese government was recently upgraded to a B3 credit rating by Moody’s; the Congolese economy is ripe for growth. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has for years invested tens of millions of dollars in economic and infrastructure projects in eastern Congo.
With the region at a tipping point, this investment is more important than ever. We encourage USAID to continue its long-term commitment to eastern Congo. Programs from USAID and its international partners have paved the way for investments from private and nonprofit organizations like Theo and Eastern Congo Initiative, and they have created life-changing opportunities.
During the past three years, Theo and Eastern Congo Initiative have trained more than 2,000 Congolese farmers to grow high-quality cocoa, a value-added crop that commands solid prices on the global market. Cocoa is considered conflict-proof because its true value isn’t realized until it has been processed.
Theo has already imported 340 tons of organic, fair trade-certified cocoa from eastern Congo — a purchase with the potential to increase household incomes for thousands of Congolese farmers and their families. Theo will purchase another 500 tons of Congolese cocoa from the current harvest, which runs through January 2014.
Congolese cocoa has become a vital part of Theo’s supply chain, and Congolese farmers have become important partners. These farmers have watched a generation slip past without knowing peace, yet they still carry hope.
We share their hope.
Joe Whinney is founder and CEO of Theo Chocolate in Seattle. Whitney Williams is CEO of Eastern Congo Initiative and president of Seattle-based social good agency williamsworks.