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ENVIRONMENT-RWANDA: Unhappy Ending of a Welcome Return

Aimable Twahirwa and Michée Boko

KIGALI, Jun 8 2007 (IPS) - The return in 1996 of over a million Rwandans who had fled their country in the wake of genocide two years earlier, fearing persecution at the hands of Tutsi rebels who took control of Rwanda, was greeted with relief in many quarters.

Camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo – then Zaire – where most of the refugees congregated had been ravaged by cholera in 1994. The camps had also come under the control of Hutu militants responsible for the genocide, presenting a considerable obstacle to efforts at stabilising the Great Lakes region.

Upwards of 800,000 minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered in the course of the three month long genocide by Hutu extremists, after a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana and his Burundian counterpart, Cyprien Ntaryamira, was shot down over Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, on Apr. 6, 1994. In all, some two million people fled the country after the killings.

With the return of refugees, however, came new patterns of settlement in Rwanda. These have generated problems of their own in the north-western region of Gishwati.

Once an area of magnificent forests, Gishwati has been stripped of much its tree cover over the past decade by returnees – many of whom went there in search of land to farm.

Officials say cattle breeders who operate extensively in this part of the country have also put pressure on forested areas, as has rising demand for firewood and timber. According to the Ministry of Lands, Environment and Forest Resources, Rwandans depend on wood for 95 percent of their energy needs.

However, communities in Gishwati hold government responsible for the environmental destruction in their region. Many residents say local authorities have acted irresponsibly in allocating plots of land in the forests.

Madeleine Mbabazi, who lives in the north-western town of Bigogwe, goes further – alleging graft: “The uncontrolled chopping down of trees was encouraged by corruption and theft at the highest levels of the state, to the point where…authorities were powerless in the face of the disaster.”

Bonaventure Bizumuremyi, publication director of ‘Umuco’, an independent bi-monthly newspaper appearing in Kigali, also paints officials in a bad light.

“It’s deplorable to see that certain officials are only concerned with…profits, while rural communities continue to stagnate in misery,” he says.

What is beyond dispute is the reduction in forest cover. A 2006 study from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, ‘Report on the State of Forest Resources in Rwanda’, notes that of 28,000 hectares of forest in Gishwati, only 4,500 remain.

Donath Gapira, a small-scale stockbreeder from Nkamira, also in the north-west, claims trees continue to be logged. He also points out that fields in the region are now easy prey for soil erosion, adding “There must…be strict measures to stop the ecological destruction in this area.”

Ironically, the disappearance of Gishwati’s forests has taken place amidst government plans to address deforestation, and reforest at least 60 percent of the Central African country. About 29 of Rwanda is wooded at present, according to the lands ministry.

“We have drawn up a series of strict measures to limit…destruction of forests. If we did not take these measures, there would inevitably be a risk of…ecological disaster,” Christophe Bazivamo, the Minister of Lands, Environment and Forest Resources, told IPS.

These steps include making fines the penalty for all illegal logging. Previously this was punishable through laughably short prison terms of a week to a month.

However, a researcher at the National University of Rwanda notes that widespread rural poverty in Rwanda will continue to pave the way for deforestation.

According to the 2006 Human Development Report, produced by the United Nations Development Programme, almost 52 percent of people in the country live on less than a dollar a day – and about 84 percent on less than two dollars a day.

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