Rwanda Launches Plan to Reverse Environmental Degradation

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Forest clearing in Rwanda, home of the endangered mountain gorillas, threatens the existence of the primates (Photo by weesam2010/flickr)

Rwanda, the most densely populated nation in Sub-Saharan Africa, has launched a national plan to reverse the current degradation of soil, land, water and forest resources by 2035 while boosting economic development growth.

The new Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative, part of a blueprint to lift the Rwandans out of poverty, will evaluate the country’s forests, grasslands and wetlands to safeguard biodiversity, ensure sustainable agricultural production, and spur low carbon economic development.

“Ecosystem restoration is not about planting trees only, but it’s ensuring that you establish the balance that ought to be between human livelihood and the environment they live in,” said Stanislas Kamanzi, Rwanda’s Minister of Environment and Lands. “It’s a synergetic vision that development and environment go hand in hand.”

Rwanda, with the support of the U.N. Forum on Forests, IUCN and other members of the Global Partnership on Forest Landscape Restoration, is drawing up an action plan, as part of the initiative, to rehabilitate ecosystems and sustainably manage resources. On the priority list are areas deeply scarred by decades of mining activities, agricultural plots in need of soil protection, and swathes of riparian forest. Factories damaging wetlands will be relocated and the tree or agro-forestry species that can co-exist with crops will be planted. The partners expect the plan to be completed by summer.

The global community welcomes Rwanda’s efforts, with the Global Environment Facility pledging an initial investment of US$6 million and Canada promising support. “I think this is where it can get quite exciting,” said Stewart Maginnis, Head of the Forest Conservation Programme at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). “We might start to get some traction” when governments like Rwanda acknowledge environmental concerns as part of their economic plans, he said.

Rwanda, home of the endangered mountain gorillas, faces intense pressure on its resources with nearly 90 percent of its population depending on subsistence agriculture, with little or no cash income. Years of poor policymaking and the ravages caused by the bloody genocide that devastated the nation in 1994 had left the country’s environment seriously damaged, Kamanzi said. Civil war refugees that fled into the Gishwati Forest Reserve, for example, cleared 10,000 hectares of trees for their settlement, inducing heavy floods and landslides that swept away homes and took human lives.

“We’ve been facing a situation whereby if nothing was done to establish equilibrium between the use of resources and land use activities, we would reach a point of no return,” Kamanzi said.

Rwanda already has success stories in reversing practices that proved to be detrimental to the environment. The destruction of marshes altered water flow and caused the country’s power generation to drop to almost zero. This means forking out almost US$1 million a day to feed diesel generators to replace the hydroelectric power, said Jan McAlpine, Director at the U.N. Forum on Forests. “They immediately made the connection between wetlands and their energy security,” she said. Aggressive wetlands restoration was then launched in some areas.

The idea is to scale up such small, localized projects to the national level under the initiative. If the action plan is implemented properly, Rwanda will not only meet, but exceed the commitment it made at last year’s Conference of the Parties to the Convention of Biological Diversity to restore 15 percent of degraded ecosystems by 2020. Such examples and commitment may be exactly what the world needs to keep the momentum for environmental efforts alive.

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