Loss of trees, loss of livelihood

The loss of forestland, a side effect of Rwanda's ethnic violence in 1994, is destroying the country's economy

May 21, 2006|By STEPHANIE HANES | STEPHANIE HANES,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

GISHWATI FOREST, Rwanda -- In 1995, a Rwandan named Gad Tegeri cut down a tree in the Gishwati Forest Reserve, 30 square miles of soaring hardwoods in the hills east of Rwanda's largest lake.

He and his family, returning to Rwanda from exile in Congo, needed land to grow food. The Gishwati forest seemed more fertile ground for restarting life than United Nations refugee camps outside the city of Gisenyi.

So, with his wife, baby daughter and his machete, Tegeri climbed the slopes into the forest and started chopping. Other refugees followed and cleared more land for themselves.

Over the next five years, tree by tree, they cleared all but a few acres of what had been a protected forest. They replaced the African mahoganies and kosso trees with a patchwork of corn and potato fields that helped free them from U.N. handouts of food.

And now, in part because of Tegeri and other former refugees like him, Rwanda is almost devoid of trees.

It is another misfortune for Rwanda, a debilitating side effect of the violence in 1994 when gangs of Hutus, the majority ethnic group, killed an estimated 800,000 people, most of them Tutsis. Although the destruction of forests was largely ignored at the time, that loss of forestland is bringing ruin to the country's farmers and to Rwanda's economy.

Rwanda is Africa's most densely populated country and one of the most intensively farmed. Almost every hill is terraced and farmed, the mountainsides stepped in lush green strips. Bean and sorghum fields press against red-tiled houses; banana trees are cultivated right up to the edge of paved roads.

Until the mid-1990s, the government managed to protect the country's forest reserves from the population pressures. But by the time refugees such as Tegeri were on the move, environmental concerns were no longer anyone's priority.

Rwanda, because of the killings, experienced one of the largest, fastest population shifts in the 20th century. When Tutsis gained control of the government, millions of Hutus fled into neighboring Congo (then known as Zaire), and close to a million Tutsis who had fled to escape the slaughter returned. Tens of thousands of other Tutsis who had left Rwanda years before now seized the chance to return home.

"After the war, we thought it would be better here," says Tegeri, who returned after decades in Congo. "We thought we would find good farmland."

He and other refugees first crowded into Gisenyi, on the border with Congo. Members of the Interahamwe - the militant Hutus largely responsible for the genocide - sometimes slipped over the border and attacked them.

"We were very scared," says Mwiza Vareriya, 20, who lost five relatives to the Interahamwe. "But then we got to the forest, and we felt safer."

The U.N. and Rwanda's new government encouraged their move. The government declared a small section of Gishwati Forest open for settlement, and U.N. workers built long lines of aluminum-roofed houses.

"There was no focus on conservation or environmental protection," says Teddy Musabe, a lecturer on environmental management at the National University of Rwanda. "It was just an emergency. There was no long-term planning."

Vareriya, her parents and her seven brothers and sisters cleared 2 1/2 acres to plant corn, peas and potatoes. Tegeri helped settle 1,350 other families he had lived with in Congo, and was elected a leader of their new village. Other refugees, as well as Rwandans in search of land, arrived to claim patches of hillside. People moved farther south into the forest, closer to the sources of the Sebeya River. And one by one, the trees came down.

Tegeri lives in a village called Arusha along the switchbacks of a steep, rocky dirt road. This was once the northern edge of the Gishwati Forest, a tropical jungle of thick trees, vines and wild bush. Today it is farmland. There are no indigenous trees left - they all fell to machetes in the mid-1990s.

At first, Tegeri says, he and other residents cleared most of the trees and bush so they could plant crops. When the Interahamwe began hiding in the forest in 1997, the villagers cut whatever remained, for safety.

Now the hillsides lack the root systems that once stabilized the soil. And they lack the thick leaf canopies of the trees that once softened the rains.

Autumn and spring are Rwanda's rainy seasons. Given the lack of trees, those rains can be counted on to wash away the road, Tegeri said. And without a passable road, villagers have all but given up trying to sell their corn and sorghum at the market below the hills on the tar road that leads to Gisenyi. They farm for only subsistence now.

But even subsistence farming is becoming more difficult, in a country where farming is the livelihood of 90 percent of the population and accounts for about half of the country's economy.

"The soil, it's not like it was," Tegeri says. "People here are so many, so they farm in the same place every season, every season, every season.

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