This lush tropical farm belt south of Kinshasa is one key testing ground for the new, western-backed policies that are supposed to restore Zaire to economic health and reshape the relationship between the government and its people. But a recent visit to Bas-Zaire province suggests many obstacles remain -- some of them placed by the government itself.

The prices farmers receive for their crops have in some instances doubled or tripled since the new policies took effect two years ago, but so has the cost of consumer goods, gasoline and fertilizer.

"We can spend all the money we make for the food we sell in a week -- before, it took two weeks," said Yika Bansala, who works a 45-acre farm with his brother and two friends near Kinkuanga.

There are no reliable statistics to measure crop production but most observers believe more food is being grown and sold. Still, some agricultural experts fear the increases in production come not from improvements in farming or seeds but from farmers simply stripping and using more woodlands and planting more frequently on already depleted soils. They worry that such practices may have disastrous long-term environmental impact here.

At the same time, some researchers say they are seeing a troubling increase in child malnutrition in areas where, ironically, food production is increasing.

While there are no reliable statistics here, in nearby Bandundu province the state-run Nutritional Planning Center has found acute malnutrition in 17 percent of children under 5. Researchers say they suspect farmers are so pressed to sell crops to raise cash that they are inadvertently skimping on food for their families.

In theory, higher farm prices and an open market should lead to an increased flow of consumer goods and farm tools into rural areas. In practice, the trucks that haul food from this region to Kinshasa often come back empty except for passengers. Given the prohibitively high cost of consumer goods, truckers say they make more profits and take less risks carrying people.

As a result, even bare essentials such as soap, salt, matches and kerosene are nearly impossible to find once off the main road.

Government agents often only seem to compound the problem. There are agricultural extension workers here who insist that farmers grow certain crops and fine them when they don't, and local rural commissioners who expect gifts and extract one day of labor each week for "public works" such as painting their houses.

"Around here it's never a question of what the government official can do for the farmers but what the farmers can do for him," said an American rural development worker with six years' experience here.

The essentials of farming are hard to come by. Fertilizer use has always been low, but now that its price has nearly tripled over the past 16 months, agricultural specialists say it is nearly impossible to convince farmers to use it. Bitu Mazala, a field worker here for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, says fertilizer use has dropped 75 percent in the area he covers. Ideally, he says, his farmers could use 5,000 tons per year; they only get 400.

Credit is also hard to find. A highly popular, U.N.-sponsored credit program loaned $1 million to farmers two years ago, got a 95 percent payback, then vanished. Local residents believe the funds to finance a second year never left Kinshasa.

With these obstacles, farming experts here seldom reflect the same optimism that exists in the aid offices and western embassies of Kinshasa. As Michael Fitzgerald, a fieldworker here for the British aid group Oxfam, recently put it, sometimes he worries that "all I'm really doing here is just cushioning people a little for the big blow on the way."