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How forests are helping Rwanda heal the climate and its communities

Planting millions of trees is part of the national recovery from the 1994 genocide, when 800,000 people were killed.

By Philippa Nuttall

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

Globally, only around 26 per cent of members of parliament are female. But Rwanda is that rare beast, a country where women hold a majority of seats. This includes its environment minister Jeanne d’Arc Mujawamariya. Since she was elected in 2019, she has ensured reforestation is a key tenet of the country’s climate action plan.

“Forestry is very important for the climate, but also for air quality and water and our economic transition,” she told me over Zoom just ahead of Cop26. And in a country where it is vital for different communities to better understand each other, tree planting can play its part. “All community work brings people together, and afforestation is one part of this,” said Mujawamariya. “It shows Rwandans can work together and meet the planet’s biggest challenge.”

Rwanda is known as the land of a thousand hills, and tour operators publish photographs of lush, fertile land. But this is only part of the story. Between 1960 and 2007, forest cover receded from an estimated 659,000 hectares to 240,746 ha. The disappearance of the country’s trees was partially linked to the atrocities that took place in 1994 when, in just 100 days, as many as one million people, mainly from the minority Tutsi community, were slaughtered by ethnic Hutu extremists. 

“We didn’t only lose people, but also lots of natural resources,” said Juliet Kabera, the director general of the Rwandan Environment Management Authority (Rema). “People hid in the forests. People were running after them and they burnt the forests to find them.” In the years after the genocide, people returned to the country, the government had to resettle them and they often made space by chopping down forests, she explained.

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Since then, the government has started to turn the situation around, to regenerate nature and support its people. By 2019, Rwanda had reached its goal of having 30 per cent of its territory covered with forests, but it doesn’t want to stop there. Last season, 25 million trees were planted in Rwanda, and 43 million trees are planned for 2021-22.

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

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“We can grow forests, increase development and meet the needs of communities,” said Mujawamariya. “We are working to help people understand this. Forests benefit people: they protect our wildlife, mountain gorillas and chimpanzees, generate eco-tourism revenues and bring funds into local communities.”

And they absorb carbon, as Kabera pointed out. Rwanda wants to be seen as a serious player in taking action against climate, despite its historically low contribution to global heating. It was the first least-developed country to come forward with its updated nationally determined contribution (NDC) or roadmap as to how it plans to cut emissions in line with the Paris Agreement in May 2020, and it plans to be net zero by 2050. 

Its NDC, which includes increased afforestation as an important goal is “ambitious, but achievable”, said Mujawamariya. “We are not talking about planting trees, but growing forests,” underlined Kabera. And this is a long-term view. “We need to ensure they survive by using high-quality seeds and planting the right species, and raising awareness among local people that they need to take care,” added Kabera. “If they build a house, it has to coexist with the biosphere or they find some other area to construct it.”

Kabera admitted that this is not always easy – “it takes time and we need to be patient”. But the creation of new jobs, in forestry, eco-tourism and business, can help. In 2020, the Gishwati-Mukura forest landscape in Rwanda’s Western Province was recognised as a biosphere, and worthy of protection, by the UN cultural organisation Unesco. Traditional crops and products such as honey and tea that are grown on the edge of the biosphere are now marketed as “high value”, offering local people a better income.

And the country is working with schools and young children with the idea that they can “pick up new concepts and ideas and transmit them to their parents”, said Kabera. “In every school we now have an environment club.”

Mujawamariya wants to show that even countries like Rwanda with limited resources can take climate action, and is clear that others should follow, by being ambitious at the climate summit and thereafter. “We want to see Cop26 bring out actions, not just words,” she stated.

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