Regreening Rwanda’s thousand hills

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The balance of Rwanda’s wetlands is being restored, with a sub-regional and global impact

It is an uphill task, but in the highlands and the lowlands, Rwanda is slowly but surely restoring the slopes of its thousand hills. Many of them are green once more, but still in poor condition due to environmental degradation, mainly caused by human activity and the ravages of the war and genocide of 1994.

Determined to carve a brighter future and backed by strong political will, this country in Africa’s Great Lakes region has developed a strategy and launched a series of initiatives aimed at reducing poverty and protecting its natural heritage, with a target of 2020.

Major challenges facing the country include the extreme vulnerability of its fragile and unstable ecosystems, which are subject to exceptionally high demographic pressure – the country has an average population density of 580 inhabitants per square kilometer, compared with the African average of 33 per km². In an effort to secure a long term solution, the Rwandan government has launched the Integrated Management of Critical Ecosystems project, an initiative of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) with the support of a number of international partners, including FAO.

"A primary goal is to reconcile the need for more intensified production in the livestock, crop and fisheries sectors with that of conserving the environment and the biodiversity of ecosystems and species," observed Stanislas Kamanzi, Rwanda’s Minister for Natural Resources.

FAO recognises that the vulnerability of these ecosystems, coupled with poor farming techniques, poses serious constraints to development.

"Agricultural production being the natural environment, with its components soil and water, it is crucial for all governments to introduce good practices and appropriate agricultural technologies as tools for intensifying farming, respecting the environment in its entirety," said Alexander Müller, FAO’s Assistant Director General for Natural Resources Management and Environment.

Protecting wetlands

Marshes, lakes, rivers and peatlands are all wetlands that need some or extensive protection. They constitute valuable reservoirs of water and biodiversity, as well as energy sources. Marshlands, in particular, account for six percent of the national territory in Rwanda, or 165 000 hectares (ha), of which more than 90 000 are cultivated with traditional methods and 5 000 using water management practices.

"Activities affecting ecosystems, beyond the national context, have sub-regional and global impacts, hence the need for solidarity and an international commitment to save the planet," declared the Director General of the Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA), Rose Mukankomeje.

Rose – as she is known in the Rwandan capital Kigali – makes a point of seeking direct contact with a wide variety of stakeholders in the public and private sectors, convinced of the need to examine and approve reports of environmental impact studies in every field of socio-economic activity. One of her key priorities is to work with FAO towards a framework law for better management of marshlands, a crucial type of wetland and recognised as such by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar, Iran, 1971).

"Marshland farming is widely practised; what is more, some marshes contain peat, so therefore not only play a more important hydrological role, but also hold significant energy potential," said Mrs Mukankomeje.

Marshes are used for growing food and horticultural crops like tomatoes and cabbage – mainly for household consumption – but also for cash crops such as tea and sugar cane, as well rice, some of which is kept for domestic use while the rest is sold.

"It is crucial to rationalise farming on marshland so as to allow the regeneration of soils and the water table, and at the same time to encourage terrace cultivation on the hill sides," said Elisabeth Balepa, FAO representative in Rwanda.

On sites declared to be ‘protected areas’, the marshlands have been restored and crop production has increased two or three-fold on the slopes of the hill sides, according to officials of the marshland and hill sides management committees. Water from the marshland is resurfacing after a dry period of more than three years. Papyrus has started growing there once more, while several rare species of waterfowl have reappeared.

"We should go even further and encourage local communities to take greater responsibility through individual or community payment for environmental service schemes that help protect the environment, "said John Latham, Director of the FAO-hosted Global Terrestrial Observing System (GTOS).

According to FAO, demand for environmental services supplied by the agricultural sector – especially climate change mitigation, improved watershed management and biodiversity conservation – will continue to increase. Given this trend, there is a real need to introduce more appropriate incentives to encourage producers to modify their farming practices, so that the agriculture sector can satisfy the demand.

International cooperation and partnerships

Recent joint activities between FAO and the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands in Rwanda are an example of the synergy and overall collaboration between the two intergovernmental institutions – a collaboration aimed at assisting countries in the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands while taking into account the interdependence of people with their environment.

Discussions among FAO and the Secretariat of the Convention on Wetlands are currently being held in order to identify other joint actions in countries in Northern and Sub-Saharan Africa, such as Tunisia and Kenya.

“FAO’s cooperation with the Ramsar Convention aims also at reinforcing synergies among Biodiversity-related Conventions and other environmental agreements in order to avoid duplications of efforts and, with the support of the Italian government, to focus on coordinated actions and approaches,” says FAO expert Lucilla Spini.

"It is important that we harmonise all our activities across all sectors, so as to managing our natural capital sustainably, through partnerships and joint actions such as that between FAO and the Convention on Wetlands," concludes Anada Tiéga, Secretary-General of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.

(*)The Convention on Wetlands was adopted in Ramsar, Iran on 2 February 1971 and entered into force in 1975. The convention aims to oblige contractual parties to protect or manage their wetlands in such a way that they retain their essential ecological functions. The Rugezi-Burera-Ruhondo marshland has been designated by the Rwandan Government as the first Ramsar site in Rwanda.