Why Rwanda was chosen to champion global biodiversity

Russ Feingold during the interview. / Sam Ngendahimana

Rwanda is one of the few countries in the world that have been approached by Campaign for Nature, a global initiative working to raise awareness of threats facing natural resources, to serve as a champion or model nation on biodiversity protection.

The campaign, which was launched in 2018, among other goals, seeks to call on countries to adopt best practices in the protection of natural resources with a target of protecting 30 per cent of global natural resources by 2030. The campaign hopes Rwanda could inspire other nations through sharing its experience.

The New Times’ Collins Mwai, spoke to the brains behind the initiative, former American Senator Russ Feingold, who was also President Barack Obama’s Special Envoy to the Great Lakes.

Below are excerpts:

The last time you were in Kigali, you were here as President Obama’s special envoy to the Great Lakes. What’s your new role?

I am here with an initiative called Campaign for Nature. It is a nongovernmental organisation based in the United States with a purpose to promote bio-diversity specifically a new commitment called the 30 by 30 programme.

Scientists are telling us that we are facing an unprecedented loss of bio-diversity and estimated that up to a million species could be going extinct. And that is not only bad for the species but also bad for human beings.

Fortunately, concerned stakeholders set up an initiative to try and mitigate the problem.

Given Africa’s biodiversity and the threat to biodiversity in Africa, there cannot be much progress without the commitment of people in the continent.

Fortunately, there are a few countries that are already very serious about this, such as Rwanda. Of all countries on the continent, this is where we came first.

That is because the organisation is pointing towards a critical meeting that will be held in China in October 2020.

The Convention of Bio-diversity, which bring together countries from across the world, has a major meeting every 10 years. The next edition will be held in China in 2020.

At that point, what we want to have is a commitment from all members that they will protect 30 per cent of all natural lands and biodiversity by 2030.

So what we are trying to do is to put together certain nations that can be considered model or champion nations that are leading the way. Rwanda is one of them. Rwanda has always taken the lead in environmental, conservation and biodiversity initiatives under the leadership of President Kagame. Others include Costa Rica, and France.

We think that Rwanda should be one of the champions and have been holding meetings with a number of leaders and officials in the environmental and other areas.

This could work well with the tourism promotion initiative as well as conservation efforts. Rwanda can help bring other countries onboard in regards to the protection of biodiversity as well as the African Union and other bodies.

What are some of the major threats in the East African region?

Experts say that, across the region, major threats include deforestation. I have been talking to some leading experts who show that de-forestation has huge effects on water resources.

Agriculture, much as it’s a positive practice, if not well done can lead to enormous  (negative) impacts. Overfishing is another practice that should be observed in the region. The effects of climate change, over exploitation of natural and mineral resources in the region could also be a threat to diversity. At the moment, water and forestry resources seem to be under most threat.

What would you say about the level of awareness on the status quo and impending threat?

The level of awareness is high, we have had meetings and interactions with officials in Rwanda across multiple sectors. Their level of insight is high. There is confidence and understanding in the region that can be replicated across the African continent.

What are some of the approaches that the campaign is seeking to promote?

We need to preserve forests that we have. We need to maintain them for biodiversity and stop the loss. We also need to restore areas that have been degraded. We need investments in restoration and to connect areas. We also need to raise awareness, there was a report that came out in May that showed the state of biodiversity and what that means to our survivability, it showed that all of us have a role to play, from ordinary farmers to global leaders. We are at a crisis point and we need the efforts and involvement of everyone.

What are some of the local practices that you would like replicated elsewhere in the world?

You have to ensure local communities get benefits from these resources as is the case in Rwanda where local communities get a share of the tourism revenue. That should be replicated across Africa and elsewhere in the world. It is these communities that are doing the most and leaving close to the resources that we ought to ensure are taken into account. It is their livelihoods that are at stake and of their only choice to survive would be to encroach on the resources, then we need to take that into account.

Often, such initiatives fail because they are designed abroad and only involve local communities during implementation. How is this going to be any different?

If communities do not see a benefit and are not involved in the conservation and protection process, then the resources are not adequately protected. Communities have to be adequately involved in the process if it’s to have an adequate impact. It is difficult to do that when you have a global process. It’s important to have a commitment from global leaders on the local involvement, consultation and resources access. When people came in, there should be adequate consultation on what extent the locals will be involved and that the intervention is tailored around the local community.

Financial resources will ultimately determine the impact of the campaign, what’s your approach in mobilising resources?

The Campaign for Nature has commissioned a study to determine how much will be required to protect 30 per cent of the planet. That will enable us to know how much we need and what the cost implication will be and where the money will come from. 

For biodiversity, there has not been adequate discussion on financing in the past. It has always been about policy interventions and little about funding. This time we are trying to find financing for the work.

We are trying to talk to donors and wealthy nations to increase their funding for diversity programmes. We are also trying to talk to philanthropists in the efforts. We are also trying to bring corporations on board, they have benefited over the years at times by depleting resources and it’s important to ensure that they are also involved in the process.

We have to first talk of the size of the financing and then mobilising money and ensuring that it gets to the places that it needs to get.

What do you think of Rwanda’s technical expertise in line with these ambitions?

We have had a series of meetings with people in local agencies and they have a lot of skills and what they have been able to do with the skills is incredible. The technical expertise is present across all levels and has been used to deliver on the country’s ambition in the aspect. Of course, there is room for improvement but, so far, the skillset is impressive.

The level of skills at the moment also shows the intention to learn the latest skills that are required in the future. It’s another reason why Rwanda is a model country for the initiative.

What will be the benefits to Rwanda?

Businesses often decide where to be located after considering a number of factors. One of them is resources and quality of life. Creating this kind of natural environment will encourage more tourism which the country is promoting as well as enhance the reputation of Rwanda across the world. At the moment, Rwanda is known for its accomplishments and this will be more progress on to add to the list.