Aissa Munyentwari, a resident of Maswa II Village, Rubona Cell, Rukumberi Sector in Ngoma District, has seen Rukumberi, his birthplace, over the years, register highs and lows in terms of the environment.
Once adorned with lush green hills, Rukumberi has been decimated, so much so that these hills have are now swathes of brown dirt-covered valleys.
As the population kept increasing in the area, natural trees were cut down, and the deforested land turned into farms both for grazing and cultivation.
Over the years, there has been little or no effort to plant more trees.
A resident carries a grafted avocado tree on Tree Planting Day in Rukumberi Sector, Ngoma.
This, according to Munyentwari, could explain bouts of droughts that have ravaged the area over the past few years,
“Areas that have forests do not face droughts of similar magnitude,” he said.
In 2016/2017, Rukumberi was hit with the worst drought in recent history, which led to food shortage, according to district officials.
It is not just Rukumberi, as several areas in Eastern Province are grappling with effects of deforestation, mostly Kirehe, Kayonza, Ngoma and Nyagatare.
According to Jean Pierre Mugabo, the Head of Forestry Department Unit at Rwanda Water and Forestry Authority, the entire province needs concerted efforts because they have fewer forests than any other province in the country.
Reforestation in this region has been made a priority, according to Mugabo. In budgetary allocations for the financial years 2018/2019 and 2019/2020, 70 per cent of the national budget on forestry was earmarked for Eastern Province.
According to Ngoma District mayor, Aphrodis Nambaje, the current forests cover in the district is 12.7 per cent, which he said “a lower level” than the national target of 30 per cent by 2020.
In Ngoma District, forests owned by residents are on 5,605ha, those owned by the Government are on 2,652ha, while the forests in the proprietorship of the district are 334ha.
In 2019/2020, the district plans to plant agroforestry trees on 30.5ha in Karembo Sector and 456.6ha in Rukumberi, and 7,792 fruit trees are expected to be planted in the whole district.
On Tree Planting Day this year, that was marked this past weekend, some 80ha were planted in Rukumberi, 80 per cent of them being agroforestry and the rest were fruit varieties.
The district is also considering the idea of planting decorative and yet “very” productive tree varieties around lakes Birira, Sake, Mugesera and River Akagera, especially palm oil.
Ngoma also looks to increase and strengthen plantation of jack-fruits; another popular, productive and “special” fruit variety in the district, with Rukumberi being one of the areas where it is viable.
Meanwhile, besides the drought and the resultant food shortage, deforestation has exposed areas like Kirehe District to frequent disasters heavy and windy rains which have led to the loss of property and animals.
Fatina Mukarubibi, the Permanent Secretary of Ministry of Environment, said they are in talks with the local leadership in the province to drive up the forest coverage.
“We are going to work together, to establish a special programme of planting forests in this eastern region, especially in this (Ngoma) district,” she said, adding that shortage of rainfall in the region could be attributable to little forest cover.
She said climate change has greatly affected the province, which directly affects the national economy as a whole.
“We are going to work on this problem, and it has already started, and we hope that in years to come the problem will have been permanently solved,” she stated.
The Minister for Agriculture and Animal Resources, Gerardine Mukeshimana, who challenged every household to have at least three fruit trees in the backyard to boost nutrition, insists that people need to be more serious with preserving the young trees.
“We often plant trees during Umuganda (communal works) with a high level of participation of citizens and leaders, but only a handful of them make it past one year,” she said adding that “the trees we plant should not be eaten by goats or other livestock.”
Verediane Mukakayibanda, a resident of Rukumberi believes that the government “should seriously punish and fine people who graze their cattle or goats in other people’s young forests.”
There is also cooking fuel problem among many rural residents who still rely on using firewood and charcoal, Agriculture Minister said this is not a proper way of preserving the forests, which bring the rain that farmers rely on.
“Even if one is not able to access technologies like biogas, we encourage to use economical stoves (rondereza), to cut down on the usage of charcoal and firewood,” Mukeshimana said.
There is optimism among the residents of Rukumberi and they show willingness to plant as many trees as possible, and with the Government committed to promote its reforestation, they expect to see a greener home area and as more productive farms as before.
Government last month announced the country had achieved the target of having 30 per cent of forest cover, ahead of the year 2020 which had been the set year during which to achieve the target.
According to statistics from the Ministry of Environment, private forest plantations make up 67 per cent of all forest cover across the country while state-owned forests cover 27 per cent while the rest is owned by districts, private institutions with 2 per cent and 3 per cent respectively.
State-owned forests occupy 65,000 hectares without considering national parks.