Africa, Combating Desertification and Drought, Development & Aid, Environment, Food and Agriculture, Headlines, Population

ENVIRONMENT: Desertification Gains a Foothold in Rwanda

Aimable Twahirwa

KIGALI, Feb 15 2007 (IPS) - As recently as 2002, 41-year-old Marie Mutezinka was still able to meet the needs of her four children by farming in Gako, in the Bugesera region of south-east Rwanda.

The area lent itself to agriculture, notes Denis Munyarugerero, a former resident of Gako : “Because it was marshy, the soil in Bugesera was fertile and allowed significant agricultural production.” In his fifties, Munyarugerero is currently working as a tailor in Nyamata, the largest commercial centre in the region.

A joint mission by the agriculture ministry and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation in August 2003 showed annual cereal production of about 904.000 tonnes – by far the highest in the country.

But much has changed.

Since 2003, little rain has fallen in Gako or other parts of the Bugesera region, previously considered the country’s bread basket. As a result, harvests have been dramatically reduced.

A February 2004 bulletin on food security from the Famine Early Warning System Network (Fews Net), an American non-governmental organisation, noted that the population of Bugesera continued “to suffer from serious food insecurity despite a brief improvement in the situation after the production of courgettes, sweet potatoes and vegetables in the marshes.”

The bulletin adds that average rainfall in Bugesera had dropped as low as 10 millimetres (mm) annually, as opposed to a national average of 377 mm per year.

This situation prompted an exodus to the cities, particularly Nyamata.

Mutezinka was amongst thousands who made the journey in the hope of finding a job, or being able to make a living in the informal sector. Today she sells fruit and vegetables in the city. “The repeated droughts ultimately led to a serious famine for which the only solution was to leave our village,” Mutezinka says.

Over the past four years, Bugesera has also lost a good many cows for want of grazing.

“Slowly but surely, desertification has started taking its first steps in Bugesera, and has been threatening animals and humans since 2003, ” said Christophe Bazivamo, Rwanda’s Minister of Land, Environment, Forests and Mines.

He believes matters have been aggravated by the return of some three million refugees who fled the country after the 1994 genocide, in which upwards of 800,000 minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed by Hutu militants. This mass return opened the door to unsustainable land use by people needing food and fuel.

United Nations World Food Programme representative Maarit Hirvonen says the agency has sounded the alarm about food shortages, which threaten to extend throughout Rwanda. She says assistance is needed with feeding 270,000 pupils from 300 schools.

Government has also stepped in, employing workers as seasonal labour in the marshes of the Nyabarongo River through a food-for-work project.

In addition, a campaign encouraing each citizen to plant at least one tree was launched in October 2004 by the land minister. ‘Rwanda Vision 2020’, a national development plan, has set a goal of having trees on 30 percent of the country’s surface area by 2020.

“We should plant lots of trees to prevent soil erosion, especially in the disaster regions. This long drought is proof that Rwanda is threatened by desertification,” warned Bazivamo.

For his part, Gaspard Musonera – mayor of Bugesera – says the region is not yet in the grip of famine, despite the drought of recent years. “There is no famine in our region”, he noted. “The situation is certainly worrying, but it is not yet at the famine stage.”

However, citizens see things differently, and are calling for more help.

“They are teaching us ways to fight against drought and desertification, but they do not want to help us first meet our daily needs,” says Fidèle Kalinda, another drought victim from the Bugesera region, who now spends his days wandering around Nyamata.

 
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