The following post was written by Rodney North, Equal Exchange’s Answer Man
Lately the Democratic Republic of the Congo (aka DRC) has been in the news again, but for the worst reasons. The feared M23 rebel group is on the march in the eastern part of that vast nation. On November 20th they captured the city of Goma, and announced their intent to capture more cities. Meanwhile tens of thousands of Congolese ─ people already displaced by earlier violence ─ have had to flee their refugee camps as the rebels approached. In all about 500,000 people are displaced within the country. A powerful piece this Sunday in the New York Times, “The Worst War” explains in broad strokes what has been going on, and going wrong, in the region and how the DRC came to be this way.
Thanks to a special effort by our Quality Control Manager, Beth Ann Caspersen, we at Equal Exchange now pay special attention to what happens in the DRC, and want to share what we learn. We have a long history of working in war-torn countries, and regions recovering from civil conflict, like Central America and Peru in the 80’s and 90’s, Chiapas, and Sri Lanka. But until 2011 we had never worked in the DRC, partly because the violence there has been going on for so long that its coffee industry had been debilitated and simply conducting any business there was too dangerous, and sometimes impossible. But last year Beth Ann established key relations that have changed all that.
First Beth Ann got to know the Panzi Foundation, whose hospital on the Eastern border of the country provides critical care and rehabilitation assistance to thousands of women who are the victims of Congo’s now infamous gender violence. Beth Ann became determined to find a way to help raise funds for the hospital. That effort soon became our Coffee Congo Project, through which up to $2 from the sale of each package of coffee is donated to the Panzi Foundation.
By the end of 2012 we will have raised $20,000. Recently Beth Ann wrote a powerful piece about her visit to the hospital last month, and the great work she saw being done every day.
But Beth Ann knew that it ideally we would also import coffee from the eastern DRC and thereby help with the revitalization of their local coffee industry. It’s also what we do best, make the coffee trade a tool for economic development and social justice. To that end Beth Ann formed a connection with Joachim Munganga, President and founder of the SOPACDI farmers co-operative.
Last year we begun to buy coffee from SOPACDI and depending upon availability it makes up all of, or part of, the beans we use for this project. So we’re very excited about this parallel approach of working with both the SOPACDI farmers and the Panzi hospital.
But despite this good work we have to remember, and have to remind the US public, just how grim the situation is in the eastern Congo. The reality is very bad, horrific really – like a school shooting repeated every day, all year long. As impossible as that sounds. It’s estimated the country’s brutal warfare has taken about 800 lives each day, every year, for the last 18 years. That adds up to over 5 million killed. And the Congolese women – even more than soldiers and rebels – are the targets of this violence. Rape is a regular weapon in the conflict, affecting hundreds of thousands of women, and is now spreading among non-soldiers, too. It’s at its worst in the eastern Congo.
As we conduct our work in the DRC we’ll keep educating ourselves and updating you and we hope the news will be better in the months and years to come.