Burundi, War, and Coffee’s Dark Side – Kaffeeklatsch Ed. 5

In the last edition of Kaffeeklatsch, we took a look at the specialty processing method utilized in Burundi – double washing. Contemporary coffee farming in Burundi produces high quality, specialty beans. However, Burundian farmers have not always had so much financial gain and control over their crops. In this episode, let’s look at the history of Burundi and how coffee interweaves with the terrible wars and instability of the region. 

The Landscape of Burundi

Early Exploitation and Colonization of Burundi

For a long time, Burundi relied heavily on agriculture for its available capital, and its people for their livelihoods. Burundi makes a perfect region for growing coffee. The soil is volcanic and rich with Nitrogen. It drains water slowly, which aids the growth of all plants in the country. The easy production of agriculture in the area was a major draw for the Germans who originally colonized Burundi and neighboring Rwanda in 1890. Part of the German Protectorate of East Africa, this colony boomed with agriculture. Germany considered it to be the bread-basket of Africa at the time. 

The Flag and Coat of Arms of Ruanda-Urundi

After World War I, Germany lost all claim to its colonies. The signing of the Treaty of Versailles granted the state of Ruanda-Urundi to the Belgians. Its easy access to Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo) and (then British-ruled) Tanzania made Ruanda-Urundi highly profitable for Belgium. 

After World War I, Germany lost all claim to its colonies. The signing of the Treaty of Versailles granted the state of Ruanda-Urundi to the Belgians. Its easy access to Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo) and (then British-ruled) Tanzania made Ruanda-Urundi highly profitable for Belgium. 

After the first World War, Belgium ruled with a hands-off approach, handing governance to the minority Tutsi aristocrats. Belgium continued with this method after the war, also asking the neighboring British to keep an eye on things from a distance. All the while, Belgium raked in the profits from the enormous amount of Robusta coffee grown in the colony. 

Burundi Gains Independence

Following World War II, Burundi became a UN Nations’ Trust country. The trust intended to set colonies up for a successful transition to independence. By 1959 the push for independence was strong, as was the push to separate from Rwanda. The people of Burundi were tired of colonizers looting their labor and natural resources for personal gain, with little to no care about the effects of their decisions on the people they governed. Soon, Burundi saw the formation of their first oppositional political party, UPRONA (or the Unité pour les Progrè National). 

UPRONA was a multi-ethnic party that supported the restoration of power to the old monarchy of Burundi, led by Tutsi Prince Louis Rwagasore. Burundi’s first election in 1961 resulted in an 80% favor towards the UPRONA party and Rwagasore becoming the first Prime Minister of Burundi. 

Just a few months after his inauguration, the Prime minister was assassinated. His demise? A Greek national accompanied by the members of the oppositional party backed by the Belgians. The day after the execution of the convicted assassin (July 1, 1962), Belgium granted Burundi their independence and leaving them with a political mess. Since then, Burundi has called out Belgium for their role in the plot. 

The Hutu & Tutsi  People of Burundi

After independence, the Tutsi monarchy remained in power, even though they only comprised 20% of the population. The Hutu people made up the majority of Burundi civilians. At first, things seemed stable enough. The King filled new government positions with equal members Hutu and Tutsi. But things came to a head in January of 1965 when a Hutu Prime Minister, Pierre Ngendandumwe, was killed just 8 days after his inauguration by a Rwandan Tutsi employed by the American Embassy. This riled tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi of Burundi. The Prime Minister’s successor, another Hutu, was also assassinated later the same year. 

Selective Genocide

By April of 1972, tensions in the area were high. Nearby, Zaire (DRC) and Rwanda had their own conflicts raging between Hutu and Tutsi. With each country looking across borders, every rebellion or coup was fuel for tensions in the neighboring countries. The Hutu of Burundi saw an opportunity to take control and planned a coup. In retaliation, the national army of Burundi went on a mission of selective genocide, executing all remaining Hutu governing officials and killing 200,000 Hutu people. It was selective because they were only afraid of the educated Hutu men being able to infiltrate the existing civil and business structures. 

During this civil war, 300,000 refugees fled to nearby countries like Somalia and the DRC, even though they were experiencing their own forms of violence. Here in Lexington, Kentucky, there is a large population of resettled refugees from the DRC, displaced due to violent struggles between the Hutu and Tutsi in the region, stemming back to the 70s. 

Tents at an East African Refugee camp

During this civil war, 300,000 refugees fled to nearby countries like Somalia and the DRC, even though they were experiencing their own forms of violence. Here in Lexington, Kentucky, there is a large population of resettled refugees from the DRC, displaced due to violent struggles between the Hutu and Tutsi in the region, stemming back to the 70s (learn more about refugees in Kentucky here). 

With no more educated Hutu in the region, all positions of power within the political and economic sectors fell to the Tutsi. The Burundian elite were able to run the country, unchecked, for the direct benefit of their personal bank accounts. 

But what about the coffee? 

Arabica (left) vs Robusta (right) Beans
Arabica (left) vs Robusta (right) Beans

During colonization, there was pressure for farmers to produce high quantities of robusta coffee in the area. These lower-quality beans had high demands because mass-produced household coffee brands were seeing a boom in coffee sales in the US and Europe. Farmers’ only option was to sell their crops to State-run (Tutsi) processing facilities with no other means of processing their own beans. The majority of money made off of coffee in the country was going directly to the governing class (who sold it to importers), not to those who grew it. 

By 1972, the Tutsi’s were pushing the country away from agriculture and towards industrialism. Because of the unbalanced power structure in the coffee sector, the Tutsi government had little concern about the hardships the Hutu farmers experienced. This push left the Hutu farmers with little to no support and no way to process their coffee cherries. Small uprisings popped up on coffee farms around the country, but the army stopped them with violence.

An Unstable Market

Colombia and Brazil’s emergence into the robusta coffee scene pushed Burundi’s failing coffee market over the edge. Now the ruling party held an absolute glut of processed coffee beans, and no one to sell them to. The passive money the Tutsi elites had come to rely on threatened to dry up. Less money for them also meant less money for the military, who were assisting them in the violent suppression of the Hutu people. 

The disregard for the needs of the Hutu farmers stoked the early embers of the civil disruption in Burundi. Although many of the coffee farmers had already been displaced, the government still had hundreds of thousands of bags of coffee from previous harvests. Finally, the Tutsi regime found a buyer: Folgers. The international coffee company was responsible for 65% of Burundi’s foreign exchange earnings (buying 90% of the available coffee) for the entirety of the Civil War, helping to subsidize the violence in the region.

Burundi’s Bloody Climax 

By 1993, things were critical. The majority of the Hutu had fled the country, displaced by the violence against them. A coup finally succeeded in the creation of a new government. The new ruling party saw the need to start to rebuild and find peace between the two ethnic groups. Two freshly formed political parties came together to move Burundi towards true democracy. Burundi saw their first free and fair elections in the Summer of 1993, the first since colonization. 

A Hutu, Melchior Ndadaye, became the first democratically elected president of Burundi. His call for unity seemed sincere and he appointed positions equally between Hutu and Tutsi, including a woman Prime Minister. Ndadaye also announced the amnesty of many political prisoners. Unfortunately, by October, another coup resulted in his death, jumpstarting what is known as the Burundian Civil War. 

Unrelenting violence broke out on both sides. Within a year, 100,000 would be dead, with both Hutu and Tutsi deaths. Armed militias and street gangs began stockpiling weapons and worked for hire for the most extreme politicians. Both sides used child soldiers. Despite the efforts of bi-ethnic political parties, violence and unrest continued in Burundi. The military ran the government, unsuccessfully, for many years. 

Peace at Last for Burundi

In 2000, peace documents were drawn up, and the Arusha Agreements were signed. However, conflict remained in Burundi, egged on by unrest in Rwanda and the DRC. In 2005, Burundi staged their first election in over 10 years and saw their first signs of lasting peace. In April of 2006, the government lifted the nightly curfew in Burundi for the first time since 1993. Random bursts of fighting continued into 2008, but most of the country was peaceful. Things were beginning to restabilize. 

Quality Over Quantity: Burundi’s Modern Coffee Industry

With a semi-state of normalcy returning to rural Burundi, coffee farming is booming once again. In 2015, coffee made up 27% of all exports from Burundi. No longer are farmers pushing to produce high volumes of robusta coffee. The need to increase the value of the coffee they were selling, an influx of training materials, and access to tasting their crops, have led to the growth of specialty coffee in the region. Growers also can now take their harvest to one of the many processing stations that are now set up in Burundi and process their own beans to sell for a higher cost. The Burundian method of double washing has also helped the value of Burundian coffee to increase. No longer is all the profit from coffee going directly to the elite. It goes back into the hands of those who cultivated and processed it. 

Graph of all Burundi's Exports of 2017
Graph of all Burundi’s Exports of 2017

Burundian Coffee at Nate’s

Nate's Coffee's Teka Processed Burundi

Try our Teka Processed Burundi, grown in the Kirimiro region of Burundi, which specializes in high-quality coffees. After harvest, farmers take their beans to the Teka processing station to double wash them. This station sits high in the sky at 6332 ft. above sea level. With notes of nori and soy, our Teka Processed Burundi roast slowly sweetens as it cools. These beans are double washed and triple graded for the highest quality possible and pair well with sushi and pineapple upside-down cake. 

Sources: 

Photographs:

  • “Banga, Burundi 4” by christing-O- licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
  • “Banga, Burundi 3” by christing-O- licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
  • “Aerial view Lusenda Burundi refugee camp.” by MONUSCO licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/