NYABIHU, Rwanda - Laurent Hategekimana, a villager from Nyabihu, a district from Western Rwanda, recalls the terrible condition of the Gishwati natural forest a few years ago when it was overrun by illegal loggers and invading farmers.
Many invaders of this natural reserve were local villagers, and Hategekimana, a farmer-turned-environmental activist, faced a hard task changing their minds.
“Although many haven’t yet started getting tangible benefits, some people are engaging in beekeeping while others are trying to venture into tree planting, conservation farming and handcraft,” the father of six told IPS.
In these remote rural parts of Rwanda, tropical forest conservation is now creating new jobs for several thousand indigenous people who live especially near major rainforests in Western Rwanda, thanks to the country’s new laws and policies encouraging community participation in environmental protection.
With a number of challenges facing this group who self-identify as having a link to surrounding natural resources, scientists recommend strategic solutions to resolve possible conflicts between people and the conservation of wildlife along this part of the Congo river basin.
Some scientists believe it is important to find out what kinds of activities communities want, need and could commit to and steward in a sustainable way, to come up with durable actions that address biodiversity conservation and climate change issues.
Thanks to several conservation mechanisms adopted recently by the Rwanda government and stakeholders, Hategekimana is among members of the indigenous community who have become actively involved in keeping guard of the Gishwati natural forest. They inform the local administrative authorities of illegal activities such as felling trees without a permit and burning charcoal.
“I now understand the importance of conserving the forest. That’s why I sacrifice my time to protect it,” Hategekimana said.
Over the last two decades, large parts of these natural reserves on the Rwandan side of the Congo rainforest were nearly depleted, largely due to resettlement and livestock farming.
When new forest conservation efforts were initiated in 2015, most local villagers felt they were depriving their main source of income. Some were initially engaged in illegal logging, timber, and charcoal business.
The natural reserve of Gishwati-Mukura, now a national park for conservation, is currently contributing to improving the livelihoods of the local communities living in the surrounding areas. This, in turn, offers the forest a better chance of regeneration.
This has pushed local residents to launch a local NGO focusing on the conservation of the newly created national park. Thanks to these initiatives, the size of the reserve increased from 886 to 1484 hectares, the number of chimpanzees grew from 13 to 30, the 600 hectares added to the core forest are naturally regenerating and chimpanzees started using this area over the last two decades
Professor Beth Kaplin, the Director of the Center of Excellence in Biodiversity and Natural Resources Management of the University of Rwanda, told IPS that there is a need to commit to really listening to the people who live next to this park and interact with it daily and develop strategies collaboratively to solve emerging problems.
“We need to take time to find out what kinds of activities communities want, need and could commit to and steward in a sustainable way (…) to come up with durable actions that address biodiversity conservation and climate change issues,” she said.
Gishwati Forest, a protected reserve in the north-western part of Rwanda, covers an area of about 1439 hectares and Mukura forest, with a total surface of 1987 hectares, has critical populations of endemic and endangered species such as golden monkeys, blue monkeys, and chimpanzees and over 130 different types of birds.
The reserve also boasts about 60 species of trees, including indigenous hardwoods and bamboo, according to Rwanda Development Board, a government agency responsible for Tourism and Conservation.
The Rwanda Environmental Management Authority (REMA) estimates the forest reserves initially covered 250000 hectares, but illegal mining, animal grazing, tree cutting, and other practices drastically reduced its size.
In 2014, Rwanda received $9.5 million from the Global Environment Facility through the World Bank to restore the forest and biodiversity in the Gishwati-Mukura forest.
The primary purpose of this funding was to support community-based activities. These included farm stays, handicrafts, beekeeping, and tourism activities such as tea plantation tours and the chance to learn from traditional healers, who use natural plants to support modern medicine and synthesised drugs.
The collective efforts of villagers, environmental, indigenous NGOs and local administrative entities to train and mobilise villagers on the importance of conserving the forest in this part of the Congo River Basin, which covers 33 percent of Rwanda, has been praised.
“These efforts have changed people’s mindsets and in turn save this natural forest from extinction,” said Jean Bosco Hakizimana, a senior local administrative leader in Arusha, a small forest village from Nyabihu, a mountainous district in North-Western Rwanda.
Delphine Uwajeneza, the deputy head of the African Initiative for Mankind Progress Organization, told IPS that the key to achieving the current natural forest conservation efforts would be to include indigenous people in decision-making and management of ecosystems. Her NGO advocates for the protection and promotion of the rights, welfare, and development of the historically marginalised people in Rwanda.
“Current conservation efforts will not allow rainforests to persist if they are completely closed off from use or other benefits by these communities … they are the first to preserve the environment,” Uwajeneza told IPS in an interview.
While the Rwandan Government and stakeholders are satisfied with current conservation efforts, some scientists and activists shake their heads in dismay and say it is not enough. They are adamant the communities living around those natural reserves need to benefit.
Dr Charles Karangwa, Head of the Regional Forests and Landscapes Programme for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Eastern and Southern Africa Region, told IPS the most important is to balance the need of these communities trying to make a living and trying to maintain and sustain their forests.
“Development actors need to engage these vulnerable communities in a win-win situation,” he said.
In 2011, Rwanda joined “The Bonn Challenge”, a global effort to bring 150 million hectares of the world’s deforested and degraded land into restoration by 2020. Rwanda has reached its 30% forest cover target, according to officials.
However, despite the good policy framework and efforts towards achieving this goal, experts stress the need for identifying ways that communities can benefit from the resources of the forest in sustainable ways.
“People who work here (in the traditional ceramic industry) earn their livelihood without entirely depending on forest resources,” says 55-year-old Giselle Uwimanaas as she chats with neighbours in the village a stone’s throw from a nearby rainforest reserve of Mukura in Rutsiro, Western Rwanda.