Rwanda Commits to Nationwide Forest Restoration

The Rwandan government has launched an initiative that aims to restore the entire country’s soil, water, land and forest resource by 2035.

Environmental activists lauded the plan, which was announced during the ninth session of the United Nations Forum on Forests last week. The Forum–backed by the UN General Assembly– declared 2011 to be the International Year of Forests. 

In the 1990s, poor forest management, damaging land use practices and conflict caused the country’s forest cover to shrink rapidly. Today, despite brisk economic growth in the past five years, 85% of the population still make a living from subsistence farming of degraded lands.

“This really is a good news story,” said Stewart Maginnis, Director of Environment and Development of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). “For the first time, we’re actually seeing a country recognize that part and parcel of its economic development trajectory has to be rooted in natural resources.”

The new Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative also will focus on safeguarding the nation’s rich wildlife, such as the critically endangered mountain gorilla.

According to Maginnis, Rwandan officials will work with IUCN, the United Nations Forum on Forests and the private sector to restore the ecosystem of the forest landscape, while spurring agricultural production, low-carbon economic growth, and new income-generating opportunities for poor, rural people.

Last year, during the meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, Governments worldwide committed to restoring 15% of their degraded ecosystems by 2020.

“What’s particularly exciting is that Rwanda is now ahead of the game and probably will actually exceed that target,” Maginnis said.

Some 1.6 billion people worldwide depended on forests for their livelihood and subsistence. The $130 billion in wood and other substances removed from them is equivalent to what industrialized countries spend annually on official development assistance (ODA). One billion hectares of degraded forest land and 500 million hectares of degraded crop land are suitable for forestry landscape restoration, according to IUCN.

Stanislas Kamanzi, Rwandan Minister of Land and Environment, said interest among development partners in his country’s initiative is growing.

Jan McAlpine, Director, Secretariat of the United Nations Forum on Forests, said the Rwanda initiative embodies many of the Forum’s policy recommendations. “The approach to integrating the economic, social and environmental actions related to forests is at the heart of the concept of managing forests sustainably, but it hasn’t been implemented very much in practice,” she said. “For the United Nations Forum on Forests, this action by this country and this leadership at this time is absolutely the most important message of today. It is acting, not just talking. It is considering thoughtfully the relationships, and then making a difference.”

The Global Environment Facility, which issues grants for environmental improvement projects, Canada, a leader in the international forest model network process, and other partners had already expressed their interest to support the Rwandan initiative, McAlpine said.

Asked about the state of Rwanda’s forests prior to the launch of the initiative and progress towards sustainable forestry management, Mr. Kamanzi said the nation’s overall environment was degraded due to poor policymaking and the bloody 1994 conflict. He cited the poorly managed hydraulic systems that caused frequent power outages in the marshlands and how the 1994 genocide had devastated a mountainous forest in the north-west, causing land slides and intensive flooding.

But with the introduction of better management policies, the hydraulic plants were up and running at full speed, and the mountainous areas were in the process of being reforested, he said. The aim now was to expand those local projects to a national scale.

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