How forests are helping Rwanda heal the climate and its communities

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Rwanda plants trees to heal nature and its people, who are still recovering from the 1994 genocide.

Globally only around 26 percent of parliamentarians are women… But Rwanda is a rare beast, a country where women occupy the majority of the seats. These include Minister of the Environment Jeanne d’Arc Mujavamaria. Since she was elected in 2019, she has made sure that reforestation is a key principle in the country’s climate change action plan.

“Forestry is very important for the climate, but also for air and water quality and our economic transition,” she told me via Zoom right in front of Cop26. And in a country where it is vital for different communities to understand each other better, planting trees can play a role. “All community work brings people together, and afforestation is part of that,” said Mujavamaria. “This shows that Rwandans can work together to tackle the planet’s biggest challenge.”

Rwanda is known as a land of a thousand hills and tour operators are posting pictures of the lush, fertile land. But this is only part of the story. Between 1960 and 2007, forest cover retreated from estimated 659,000 ha to 240,746 ha. The disappearance of trees in the country was partly due to the atrocities that took place in 1994, when, in just 100 days, about a million people, mostly from the Tutsi community, were killed by ethnic Hutu extremists.

“We are losing not only people, but also a lot of natural resources,” said Juliet Kabera, director general of the Rwandan Environmental Protection Agency (Rema). “People were hiding in the woods. People ran after them, and they burned forests to find them. ” According to her, after the genocide, people returned to the country, the government had to resettle them, and they often freed up places by cutting down forests.

Since then, the government has begun to change the situation in order to revive nature and support its people. By 2019, Rwanda has achieved its goal of foresting 30 percent of its land area, but it does not want to be satisfied with what has already been achieved. Rwanda planted 25 million trees last season, with 43 million trees planned for 2021-2022.

Planting trees is part of the healing process, Cabera said. “We have made great strides. When we plant trees, we invite everyone to do the same thing at the same time. ” She described scaffolding as “glue” that can glue everything together.

“We can grow forests, promote development and meet the needs of communities,” said Mujavamaria. “We are working to help people understand this. Forests benefit people: they protect our wildlife, mountain gorillas and chimpanzees, generate revenues from ecotourism and provide funds for local communities. ”

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And they absorb carbon, as Cabera pointed out. Rwanda wants to be seen as a serious player in the fight against climate change, despite its historically low contribution to global heating. It was the first least developed country to present an updated nationally determined contribution (NDC) or roadmap as to how it plans to cut emissions under the Paris Agreement in May 2020 and plans to reach zero by 2050.

Mujavamaria said her NDC, which includes growing afforestation as an important goal, is “ambitious but achievable.” “We are not talking about planting trees, but about growing forests,” said Cabera. And this is a long-term perspective. “We must ensure their survival by using high quality seeds and planting the right species, as well as raising awareness among the local population about what they need to care for,” added Cabera. “If they build a house, it must coexist with the biosphere, otherwise they will find another place to build it.”

Kabera acknowledged that this is not always easy – “it takes time and we need to be patient.” But creating new jobs in forestry, ecotourism and business can help. In 2020, the Gishwati Mukura forest landscape in the Western Province of Rwanda was recognized biosphereand deserves the protection of the cultural organization of the United Nations UNESCO. Traditional crops and products such as honey and tea, which are grown at the edge of the biosphere, are now marketed as “high value”, offering local residents a higher income.

And the country is working with schools and young children with the idea that they can “internalize new concepts and ideas and pass them on to their parents,” Cabera said. “Now every school has an environmental club.”

Mujavamaria wants to show that even countries like Rwanda, with limited resources, can take action to tackle climate change, and it is clear that others should follow suit by showing ambition at and after the climate summit. “We want Cop26 to put forward action, not just words,” she said.

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