Sunday, December 20, 2009

A new, green day dawns in war-wracked Rwanda

BY PERRY BEEMAN
Des Moines Register
December 20, 2009

Kigali, Rwanda- Drive even a couple of hours through the self-described "Land of a Thousand Hills" and it's hard to see this nation as an upstart environmental leader.

Hungry villagers have shorn slopes of trees to make room for crops, turning much of Rwanda's once-rolling rain forests into a patchwork of 2 1/2-acre garden plots, typically one per family. The land is farmed to the sky.

"From the plane, the view of the problem is clear," said Fidele Ruzigandekwe, wildlife agency director at the Rwanda Development Board. "Every square inch is cultivated."

Such intense farming comes at a huge environmental cost — one that a small group of Iowans is working to address. Runoff has killed most streams, choked hydroelectric plants and fouled water supplies.

Yet President Paul Kagame has become an unlikely green crusader, one of Africa's strongest voices on environmental sustainability. Major global players such as the World Bank and former President Bill Clinton's Global Initiative have joined the cause, betting aid payments that this poverty-plagued nation, wracked by slaughter just 15 years ago, can become a model for developing a modern economy while sparing the environment.
 
In many developing countries, environmental protection barely ekes onto the radar. In many developed countries, voters and businesses push back against the cost of being green.

In Rwanda, authorities put visitors on notice at the airport that environmental protection is serious business: Airport workers confiscate travelers' plastic grocery bags, which are banned because of the litter they create.

"We are very committed to development, but sustainable development," said Vincent Karega, a top Kagame aide on environmental matters, working in his Kigali office.

In many developing countries, environmental protection barely ekes onto the radar. In many developed countries, voters and businesses push back against the cost of being green.

In Rwanda, authorities put visitors on notice at the airport that environmental protection is serious business: Airport workers confiscate travelers' plastic grocery bags, which are banned because of the litter they create.

"We are very committed to development, but sustainable development," said Vincent Karega, a top Kagame aide on environmental matters, working in his Kigali office.

"If we just look at economic aspects without taking into account the environment, then we might not achieve anything," Karega said. "The country is very hilly, so soil conservation is a must. And also there is still unexploited potential for ecotourism. So we can make money out of conserving nature rather than destroying nature."

Great Ape Trust and Earthpark, two of Des Moines businessman Ted Townsend's organizations, have joined with Rwandan federal and local governments to restore the shrunken Gishwati Forest, get Rwandans jobs planting trees or guarding woodlands, and set up craft and crop cooperatives to help boost local incomes.

Rwanda earlier this year issued its first environmental scorecard, a 137-page document that calls for fewer farm workers, better soil conservation, more renewable energy, modern landfills, recycling, better septic systems, expanded drinking-water systems and the country's first land-use plan.

Problems challenge nation's air, water, soil

Rwanda's monumental environmental challenges play into its drive to convert from subsistence agriculture to a stronger, more diversified economy in which more people work nonfarm jobs in ecotourism or in fields such as information technology. That would allow some hills to go back to grass, or perhaps tea, which can hold the soil and fight erosion.

Hillside farming sends a torrent of soil into lifeless rivers that run the color of creamed coffee, making them iffy drinking-water sources. Landslides killed 119 people in the past two years. The soil lost each year would grow enough crops to feed 40,000 people.

Other signs of trouble: Backhoes regularly dredge streams to keep the nation's top source of generated electricity — hydropower — online. Rwandans burn wood and charcoal for cooking, blurring the skies with a persistent haze. Sewage treatment is nearly nonexistent, as is tap water in many places.

The smell of eucalyptus — a nonnative tree nearly worthless for wildlife and damaging to other plants — wafts across the countryside. It's grown in large plots for firewood.

The soil is tired, producing lower and lower yields, according to the federal government. Few Rwandans can afford synthetic fertilizer or cattle, which would produce manure. The government has set goals that call for more fertilizer, more livestock, modern farm methods and fewer people working the landscape.

Crops have even crept up the mountains harboring the rare mountain gorillas that are the main attraction of the country's No.1 source of foreign cash — ecotourism.

The federal government is crafting the country's first comprehensive land-use plan, which could ban farming on some fragile slopes, said Natural Resources Minister Stanislaus Kamanzi.

In early October, a severe thunderstorm wiped out Kavumu village's crops and destroyed dozens of homes. Madeleine Nyiratuza, coordinator of the Iowa-linked effort to restore nearby Gishwati Forest, wonders whether the severe weather is tied to clearing of the forest and to climate change.

Extent of poverty increases challenge

Even on a continent known for its poverty, Rwanda poses a tough case. It's among the poorest of the poor, and it lacks the plentiful natural resources — oil, natural gas, gold, diamonds — of its neighbors.

The country's concentrated population, 10 million people crowded in an area a fifth the size of Iowa, is among the densest in Africa. Its per-person income of $500 is among the lowest. Still, that's a sharp rise from just a few years ago. The goal: $900 per person by 2020, a shade more than the current average income for sub-Saharan Africa.

The U.N. Development Programme's human development index, which attempts to measure the overall health of an area, ranked Rwanda 167th out of 182 countries this year. Rwanda's overall poverty index was the 100th worst out of 135. Rwandans have a 35 percent chance of not living until 40. Life expectancy overall is 51.

As overworked family farm plots lose productivity, almost a quarter of children under age 4 are underweight, the United Nations reports. And several million new residents are on the way in just the next decade.

Many Rwandan families of 10 eat only what they can grow on 2.5 acres. Mother, father and children work the land from sunrise to sunset, hauling crops and supplies on their heads, backs or bicycles down steep, rocky roads well into the evening. Women often carry a baby on their back, too.

The tiny country has to rely on neighbors for its goods, said Heather D'Agnes, population and environment technical adviser for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Washington, D.C. "In most places, they count hectares. In Rwanda, they count the number of bushes."

Outside investment boosts development

In 1994, Hutu government forces and their allies in Rwanda killed nearly 1 million Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus in one of the world's worst genocides. Many Rwandans face rebuilding their lives and their country while living in the same village as a person who killed their kin.

Yet against this backdrop of poverty and emotional pain, the amount of commercial development in Rwanda astonishes Craig Sholley of the nonprofit African Wildlife Foundation in Washington, D.C., who regularly visits Rwanda.

On the road from Gisenyi, where Iowa's ape trust scientists maintain an office, to Kinigi, the closest town to the famed mountain gorillas, Rwandan-style strip malls pop up at virtually every major corner. The malls boast craft shops, produce stands, bars and restaurants, some with names like "New Horizons" or "Hope," post-genocide references seen throughout the country.

Major roads in and out of Kigali, the capital city, are well-paved, if pocked with potholes. But Kigali lacks a central sewer system, good roads within the city and modern trash disposal. Many lower-end hotels struggle to offer steady power, hot water and cockroach-free rooms.

Kagame is determined to improve those services, not only to improve life in Rwanda but also to transform the country into an international trading partner. The country is looking to export dairy products, software, computer services, fruit and juices, silk and fresh-cut flowers in addition to the already in-demand coffee and tea.

Kigali seems destined to turn into a cosmopolitan city. It has an entertainment complex that draws hundreds of young urbanites every night. Upscale restaurants offer views of the country's signature hills. A Starbucks-style coffee joint downtown draws an international crowd. One night in October, a local company drew thousands to a beer fest, complete with live music, on an acreage overlooking the sweeping lights of the city.

Rwanda has drawn investment from companies as diverse as Costco, Microsoft and Starbucks, which opened an office in Kigali to train farmers to grow high-end coffee more efficiently. Leaders like Clinton, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. pastor and author Rick Warren lend time and attention.

The World Bank is involved, too. Some scientists, including Benjamin Beck of Great Ape Trust, have criticized the bank for its support of cattle farms, which contributed to the massive deforestation. But now the World Bank is making a big investment in Rwanda, while keeping an eye on the country's environment.

The bank arranged to funnel nearly $400 million into Rwanda over three years and has ruled the country eligible for loans.

Signs environmental push is working

Outsiders say aid organizations and foreign governments want to see environmental sustainability before they send cash, adding urgency to Kagame's push for stringent conservation measures.

He must help the country find ways to keep making money off the land, but to convert the most fragile lands to trees or grasses to hold the soil, said Rose Mukankomeje, director general of the Rwanda Environment Management Authority.

Mwangi Kimenyi, a Brookings Institution fellow in Washington, D.C., said Kagame appears willing to pay the price of environmental protection now for long-term prosperity.

"The approach by President Kagame is by … making these conservation efforts now, you will get more economic activity later," Kimenyi said.

Marie-Helene Bricknell, the World Bank's coordinator for Rwanda, sees evidence the approach is working.

"Rwanda is a darling in East Africa because they perform," Bricknell said.

"You cannot work fast enough for them. The country is so committed to moving beyond that terrible period," she said, referring to the genocide.

Some experts theorize international guilt prompts some of the investment flowing to the country.

"A lot of that money is government money from nations that ignored what happened in the '90s, and now they are going to pay them back out of guilt," said Sholley, of the African Wildlife Foundation.

Those motivations aside, the eco-mission makes sense, he said. It's one of the smallest countries in the world, placing a premium on keeping land productive, and its lack of oil forces it to look to renewable energy. "Rwanda is a great place to give this a shot."

Related Materials:
Rank 32? Not us, Rwanda tells Index team

Rwanda: World Bank (WB) agrees with International Monetary Fund (IFM): Rwanda is off track to attaining most of its millennium development goals (MDG)

Rwanda: campaigners say the country is starving while the government says criticism is unfounded

More than 50% children in Rwanda are stunted

Rwandan peasants on the brink of extinction

Planting bio-fuels, in Rwanda, while Rwandans go hungry

Rwanda: Cabinet approves US35m Bio-diesel project

The UDF-INKINGI condemn the decision to sell 10,000 hectares for bio-fuel production to the detriment of people's food security in Rwanda

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