Forests and Rwanda’s Future

Researchers with the Great Ape Trust/Earthpark Gishwati Area Conservation Program recently observed a newborn chimpanzee baby, the fifth born since we began work in Gishwati Forest in early 2008.This small but steadily increasing group of apes now numbers 20. As the chimpanzee mother Gihozo cradles her infant protectively, she may be unaware of the bigger picture.
Benjamin B. Beck
Benjamin B. Beck

Researchers with the Great Ape Trust/Earthpark Gishwati Area Conservation Program recently observed a newborn chimpanzee baby, the fifth born since we began work in Gishwati Forest in early 2008. 

This small but steadily increasing group of apes now numbers 20. As the chimpanzee mother Gihozo cradles her infant protectively, she may be unaware of the bigger picture.

In the animal world, births are signs of health – sick or highly stressed animals are unlikely to reproduce and raise their young successfully. 

But as welcome as babies are, hungry mouths will soon outstrip food resources. This is especially true in the tiny Gishwati Forest and this is one reason why we are working so hard to expand the forest and connect it to Nyungwe National Park.

For the hundreds of thousands of Rwandans who live around Gishwati and downstream on its rivers, the relationship between healthy forests and quality of life is clear.

Most are subsistence farmers, toiling in small fields (less than a hectare) to eke out enough to feed their families.

The Gishwati Forest serves these farmers, by absorbing and slowly releasing rainwater, preventing loss of topsoil, and preventing sometimes-disastrous landslides.

The forest filters and purifies septic tank discharge and agricultural runoff. It produces organic material that enriches soil and recycles vital soil nutrients.

Without the forest, as topsoil is washed away and loses nutrients, artificial fertilizers must be applied in an expensive and losing battle to maintain fertility.

The effects of deforestation are also felt miles downstream because unchecked soil erosion caused by poor agricultural practice turns rivers coffee-brown.

The result is that hydroelectric and water-dependent factories (like the brewery in Rubavu) must close for months each year to clean the mud out of equipment.

Further, as native trees and animals disappear, ecotourists are less likely to visit and spend money.

The existing Gishwati Forest pumps almost $3,000,000 (USD) annually back into the Rwandan economy in the form of “ecosystem services.”

Of course this must be balanced against the value of crops that could be grown and the lumber that could be harvested if the forest were cut.

But as attractive as these profits are to a mother seeking to feed and educate her children, experience tells us they are one-time or non-sustainable profits.

We are seeking ways to convert some of Gishwati’s hidden and long-term value into tangible payoffs for Rwandans.

The local employment and spending that the Gishwati Area Conservation Program provides is a big step in this direction.

We are also hoping for approval by the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) of our plan to begin ecotourism at Gishwati.

His Excellency President Paul Kagame often emphasizes the environmental and economic importance of native forests – he is one of the few world leaders that really understands. 

As he has so eloquently stated, “We are creating a ‘forest of hope’ that transcends the restoration of biodiversity – it is about the people of Gishwati and improving their lives in harmony with nature.

We are determined to reverse the history of human-induced environmental abuse in the Gishwati area, and this program is an opportunity for members of the global community to build partnerships with Rwanda and address these important challenges.”

Minister of Environment and Natural Resources Stanislas Kamanzi is to be admired for leading Rwanda’s current drive to increase forest cover to 30% of Rwanda’s surface area.

But we must keep in mind an important distinction between native forests, and exotic or agro- forests. Only native forests like Gishwati support biodiversity.

Forests of pine, acacia, eucalyptus, and fruit trees provide useful wood and valuable foods, but they don’t preserve Rwanda’s unique biological heritage, and they are not as effective as providers of ecosystem services. 

Rwanda needs both, and we urge the Minister to support forest restoration using native trees in appropriate places, and wood- and food-producing trees in others.

If Gihozo and her baby had a say, they’d want to see many hectares of native trees planted between Gishwati and Nyungwe, for their benefit and the benefit of the people of the region.

Benjamin B. Beck, PhD
Director of Conservation
Great Ape Trust/Earthpark