Emmanuel Sibomana, 22, lives in about 50 metres away from Mukura montane rainforest, an extended arm of Gishwati-Mukura National Park.
The only “business” he has known is mining. According to Sibomana, his parents, as well as 90 per cent of the local male population, have until recently engaged in mining of Coltan and Cassiterite. Unfortunately, this was illegal mining.
“I have been doing this job since I was 13. But the government asked us to stop illegal mining because it destroys the park by causing landslides. Of course, it was very difficult to take it in at first,” the soft-spoken Sibomana says.
Faustin Ndikumwenawe, a former illegal miner and a resident of Mukura Sector, Rutsiro District, said he used to earn about Rwf150,000 per month from mining.
Even though he acknowledges that it was a risky business, he says he would earn a lot of money compared to his current temporary job.
Ndikumwenawe is one of the hundreds of people, hired by RDF Reserve Force, from communities living around the Park—including former illegal miners—to rehabilitate the natural forest in Gishwati-Mukura National Park. Some of these people have formed cooperative groups to be efficiently supported in their income-generating activities.
Each person earns about Rwf30,000 per month, working half-day in a forest to refill the abandoned mines with soil before planting natural biodiversity.
“After working here in the morning hours, I go and work on my farm too. I am earning from both fronts,” Ndikumwenawe said.
“The only challenge most of us (former miners) have is lack of start-up capital to do other businesses; even farmers don’t have enough seedlings. Hopefully, the government will send us seedlings soon because this place is fertile, especially for Irish potatoes, wheat and maize,” he explained.
Last February, a law was adopted to transform Gishwati-Mukura montane rainforest into a single national park, making it the fourth national park in the country.
This paved way for environmentalists to start devising means to restore the forests through; conservation of biodiversity; increasing forest cover, promotion of climate change adaptation efforts, along with with combating land degradation among others.
About 130 hectares of land on the outskirts of the forest would be expropriated to allow free movement of animals within the park.
However, despite the projected long-term economic and ecological benefits, this has sort of created a dilemma between two conflicting-yet-significant sectors in mining and conservation.
The most ‘affected’ community is that of people who have grownup doing illegal mining.
Progress so far
Last May, the Minister for Natural Resources, Vincent Biruta, said the country was working hard to restore its forests and protect its landscapes using a multidimensional approach to ensure a bright future for generations to come.
But, judging by the testimonies from Niyonsaba and Ndikumwenawe, if efforts to restore the park are to have a lasting impact, the guiding principle should be that the government seeks ways to sustainably address the economic needs of the communities surrounding Gishwati-Mukura first to be able to reach both the economic and ecological goals.
Patrick Nsabimana, the coordinator of Landscape Approach to Forest Restoration and Conservation (LAFREC), acknowledges that restoration of Gishwati-Mukura National Park is placing the communities that lived in and around the park at the centre of its conservation efforts.
LAFREC Project will support 125 community projects to improve their living conditions.
He said by investing in local residents to protect the park, livelihoods have improved, forest coverage is growing and wildlife numbers are on the rise. LAFREC, a five-year, $9.5 million initiative, will see almost 4,000 hectares in and round the park rehabilitated and managed sustainably, he said.
“Honestly speaking, as much as we earned a lot of money from illegal mining back then, the exercise was risky. Many people died. Some would be killed by colleagues fighting for minerals, others died in accidents. But now, we are earning money in an organised manner because we are working to rehabilitate the park,” Niyonsaba says.
He added that once the park starts receiving tourists, community members hope to get a share of the revenues.
Besides employing about 700 people, including former illegal miners – to carry out the restoration of buffer zone plantations around Gishwati-Mukura National Park, planting of primarily natural forest in micro-catchment protection strips – the project is also supporting beekeeping and silvo-pastoralism .
Silvo-pastoralism is a form of agro-forestry system consisting of trees as well as pasture and animal components whereby forestry and grazing of domestic animals is combined in a mutually beneficial way.
Despite efforts to rehabilitate the national park, people are still who are carrying out illegal mining especially in Murura sector, Rutsiro District.
Cutting down trees has also hampered the conservation efforts in the park so far.
Standing in the middle of Mukura, you will literally see countless open abandoned mines. They are as deep as they can get and during rainy seasons, some of the mines cave in.
Olivier Ndagijimana, an agronomist hired by the Reserve Force to coordinate the implementation of the rehabilitation and restoration of Gishwati-Mukura National Park, says that, over 14 hectares of abandoned mines will be refilled with soils and plants within three years.
Ten hectares out of the planned 14 have so far been refilled with soils, stones and natural vegetation.
Ernest Karangwa, the Mines Inspector in charge of the Western province at the Rwanda Natural Resources Authority (RNRA) says that despite some improvements in abiding by the legal mining rules, more efforts were still needed.
“We saw several illegal mines which we never expected to see at this time, especially after meetings with miners themselves,” said Karangwa.
In some areas around the park, where coltan and cassiterite are still in plenty, the government is asking miners to adopt modern mining techniques that have relatively less impact on the land and do not expose the area to landslides.
Pacifique Rangira, the site manager of Rwanda Allied Partners (RAP), one of mining plants next to Mukura-Gishwati park, told The New Times that they have “tried” to implement what the law requires.
Article 438 of the penal code stipulates that any person who undertakes illegal research or illegally carries out commercial activities in valuable minerals, shall be liable to imprisonment of up to one year or/and a fine of up to Rwf10 million.
The New Times understands that Rwanda National Police’s Environmental Protection Unit (EPU), together with REMA, LAFREC and the Rwanda Mining Association, have joined efforts to sensitise people living around Gishwati-Mukura National Park to fight illegal mining and environmental degradation activities in and around the park.
The origin of Gishwati-Mukura National Park
Turning Gishwati-Mukura forest into a national park is part of the country’s broader plan to expand the total forest cover to 30 per cent of the country’s total surface area.
So far, forest cover stands at 28 per cent of the country’s surface area.
The idea to transform the reserve into a national park was first mooted in 2007.
The new national park, traversing Ngororero and Rutsiro districts in the north-west of the country will cover a total surface area of 3,558 hectares—Gishwati reserve (1,570 hectares) and Mukura reserve (1,988 hectares).
The Government has also dedicated an area covering 992.48 hectares as a subsequent buffer zone to deter human encroachment.
The natural forests were originally earmarked as forest conservation zones in 1933.
However, over the past decades, the forest area was nearly depleted largely due to resettlement and farming in the aftermath of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
Subsequently, soil erosion, landslides and floods would later take their toll on the natural habitat.
Initially, the reserve was estimated to cover 250,000 hectares but had reduced to 28,000 hectares in 1980s.
The new national park will give tourists a chance to see a wide range of fauna and flora found in the forest.
The tourist attractions in the area include four species of primates; the eastern chimpanzee, the golden monkey, the blue monkey, and the mountain monkey, more than a dozen species of East African chimpanzees, red river hog, the black-fronted duiker and the southern tree hyrax.
The forest reserve has over 60 species of trees, including indigenous hardwoods and bamboo.
For the local population living in the surrounding areas, turning Gishwati-Mukura forest into a national park will benefit them through creating off-farm jobs in the form of tourist guides and business opportunities in crafts, entertainment and hotels.
In 2013, the Abertine Rift Conservation Society (ARCOS), a regional organisation working for biodiversity conservation, found that Mukura Forest resources and its ecosystem services are worth more than $1m per year. Another research by scientists from Drake University, USA had earlier estimated the value of ecosystem services provided by Gishwati forest to be $3m a year.