US groups roll out strategy to induce Gishwati forest’s rebirth

IOWA- The African nation of Rwanda is teaming with Iowa organisations to reforest a huge area that is home to 15 endangered chimpanzees, a budding ecotourism business and one of the continent’s boldest conservation plans.

IOWA- The African nation of Rwanda is teaming with Iowa organisations to reforest a huge area that is home to 15 endangered chimpanzees, a budding ecotourism business and one of the continent’s boldest conservation plans.

It’s an unfolding story of recovery for a nation wracked by genocide in 1994.
The unusual partnership between Rwanda and Iowa was born when the nation’s ambassador to the United States, James Kimonyo, had dinner at the home of Des Moines businessman Ted Townsend.

 The deal was sealed after Townsend met Rwandan President Paul Kagame at the Clinton Global Initiative, an annual gathering in New York City of a worldwide brain trust organised by former President Bill Clinton.

Townsend, who made a fortune manufacturing meat-processing equipment, founded the Great Ape Trust of Iowa and Earthpark, a proposed tourism and education facility that would feature a man-made indoor rain forest. The two Iowa organisations are working with the Rwandan government on the reforestation project.

By the end of this year, the Iowa organisations and Rwandan colleagues will be beginning work to restore the rain forest in Gishwati, Rwanda’s first national conservation park. The short-term goal is to add 500 acres of forest.

At one time, Gishwati forest spanned 250,000 acres.

By the late 1980s, clearing for farming had cut it to less than 65,000 acres. When refugees returned after the 1994 Genocide that killed at least 800,000 Rwandans, more land was cleared. The forest shrunk to 1,500 acres before early reforestation efforts brought it back to 2,500 acres.

There is more at stake than possible jobs for Rwandans and the growth of the chimp population in the northwest corner of that country, said Benjamin Beck, Great Ape Trust’s conservation director.

Deforestation has caused massive mudslides, leading to the deaths of a couple of dozen people and the loss of as many as 300 homes. Two major rivers have silted in, forcing hydroelectric plants to shut down periodically for cleaning.

Trees would have helped prevent that erosion, Beck said.

“The government and people of Rwanda realize that the loss of ecosystem services has a real price tag,” he added. “We aren’t talking about some abstract idea of ecosystem conservation here.”
Peter Clay, a caretaker at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, previously worked in Rwanda for Dian Fossey’s gorilla conservation organizations.

Clay said the Rwandan government, not US interests, are driving the reforestation work.
“The national government is 100 percent behind returning Gishwati to its previous state,” Clay said.

The Rwandan government has said ecotourism will be a major part of the country’s economic growth this decade. Restoring the forest and reestablishing a northwestern chimp population that can sustain itself are important to that effort, Rwandan President Kagame has said.

Rwandans make an average of $230 a year, many of them by growing tea, coffee and potatoes and producing livestock, cheese and milk. By contrast, Iowa’s per-capita income is approximately $32,000 a year.

Many Rwandans in the Gishwati area live on land they do not own in the federal forest. Much of the area has no electricity or running water.

Beck said farmers will be compensated for the loss of their acreages, and they may be able to find work planting trees, working as ecotour guides, or in construction at the park.
“Our greatest challenge will come from how we equitably compensate them,” Beck said of farmers who could be displaced by the forestry work.

Kagame has warned the growing line of foreign investors pursuing business opportunities not to come to Rwanda expecting cheap labour, said Al Setka, an ape trust spokesman. The country is trying to establish a strong economy with a better standard of living.
Starbucks and Google both are negotiating deals with the Rwandan government.

Townsend led an Iowa team that visited Rwanda in November and December to begin work on the reforestation project.

Beck said the field station manager, probably a Rwandan, should be hired by the end of March. The facility - either a new building or an existing one - could be operating by the end of the year.

The Iowa organisations have a budget of $150,000 a year for the work in Rwanda.

Des Moines Register


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