My heart was touched recently by Rwandan school children. They gathered last month at Kinihira School near the edge of the Gishwati Forest. Most of these students go to schools without electricity or running water.
One lesson they’ve learned this past year is an important one. It’s about conserving the Gishwati Forest.
Since late 2007, Great Ape Trust, Earthpark and the Republic of Rwanda have co-sponsored and managed the Gishwati Area Conservation Program.
The work is centered in and around the former Gishwati Reserve, in Rutsiro District. Two years ago, the Gishwati Reserve had only 900 hectares of natural forest remaining with a chimpanzee population of 13 individuals.
Neither the forest nor the chimpanzee population was sustainable without immediate protection.
Gishwati has a history of deforestation extending over the past 50 years, in part because of ill-advised large-scale cattle ranching schemes, resettlement of refugees after the genocide, inefficient small-plot farming, free-grazing of cattle, and establishment of plantations of non-native trees.
As a result, the area is plagued with catastrophic flooding landslides, erosion, decreased soil fertility, decreased water quality, and heavy river siltation, all of which aggravate local poverty.
The Gishwati Area Conservation Program began in September 2007 when H.E. President Paul Kagame and Great Ape Trust Founder and Chair, Ted Townsend, pledged at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting in New York City to found a “national conservation park” in Rwanda to benefit climate, biodiversity and the welfare of the Rwandan people.
Within two months of that meeting, the Gishwati Reserve, long recognized as “beyond hope” by conservation NGOs, was chosen as the site of the park-to-be.
The progress of this project is inspirational and instructive, because solutions that work in the desperate situation at Gishwati are likely to be effective for many endangered populations of great apes in the future.
Gishwati is a test bed for new conservation approaches, and has become a “Forest of Hope” rather than being the place “beyond hope” that it was just two short years ago.
The message is clear – Gishwati, if left to grow, will prevent landslides, reduce flooding and provide cleaner drinking water. If Gishwati is allowed to grow – so will the local economy.
And the 14 chimpanzees that live in this tiny pocket of Rwandan rain forest might just survive.
The hundreds of children who gathered last month at Kinihira School learned these lessons and now they have become the teachers.
The best and brightest from the surrounding schools met for a competition in poetry, song, dance and drama.
They created a theme that was simple and direct: Let’s combine our forces to conserve the Gishwati Forest Reserve.
For four hours last month these students performed and informed, educated and enlightened the several thousand other students and villagers who took in this wonderful experience.
It was a special day in a special place. My heart was touched by Rwandan school children. The Forest of Hope is in good hands.
The author is is director of communications for Great Ape Trust based in Des Moines, Iowa, USA.