The Government is set to dole out 6,000 hectares of fertile land in Gishwati to residents in Western Province as part of broader efforts to boost welfare and protect the forest.
The move will ensure maximum exploitation of the fertile part of the rain forest, while protecting the risky zone, officials said.
Gishwati, originally a natural forest until 1951, was deforested in the 1980s through farming and in the 1990s during the resettlement of people following the Genocide against the Tutsi.
Gishwati straddles Rubavu, Nyabihu and Rutsiro districts.
Encroachment, deforestation, grazing and introduction of small-scale farming resulted in extensive soil erosion, flooding, landslides and reduced water quality–until 2007 when government banned the activities to allow the restoration of the forest and biodiversity.
However, an ad hoc committee appointed by Prime Minister Pierre Damien Habumuremyi, early this year, says they want to maximise the fertile part of Gishwati, while conserving risky zone.
A seven-member team chaired by Lt. Gen. Fred Ibingira, the Chief of Staff Reserve Forces, on February 13, was tasked with the exercise.
The taskforce, whose members were largely picked from institutions linked with land issues, including the Ministries of Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Local Government, is supposed to have completed the exercise by June.
Pathon Muvara, the spokesperson of the taskforce and deputy registrar of Natural Resources Authority for Western Province, said the team started by sensitising the residents about the redistribution plan so they can participate in it.
The team is currently making the definite list of the beneficiaries, and surveying the available land.
Muvara said the list under scrutiny is a departure from the previous one prepared at grassroots level, which included more than 5,000 families. The land to be distributed is more than 6,000 hectares.
Once the second-largest rain forest in Rwanda, Gishwati extended 10,002km in the early 1900s. But by late 1980s, the forest was about one-fourth its original size. Today, Gishwati total surface area is 18,368 hectares.
Eugene Barikana, director of Cabinet in the Prime Minister’s office, said the move will give poor residents farming and grazing land.
He dismissed fears that the giveaway would compromise conservation efforts, saying it is being distributed in such a way that it will be properly used.
“We trust the committee in charge because it has great experience in land issues,” Barikana said.
Beneficiaries include families with grazing areas in Gishwati who were barred from carrying out farming activities in 2007; families living on public land, and those with trees they cannot harvest.
The project will create farming, agricultural and forestry zones.
“Terracing, for instance, adds value to land. It would be unfair if some families can harvest massively while others with small plots are subjected to hunger,” said Muvara.
Beneficiaries will indicate whether they want land for farming or grazing, which Muvara said is important since it addresses disorderly exploitation of the available land.
Beneficiaries of the redistribution exercise are mainly Rwandans who particularly were repatriated from DR Congo by 1995 and did not have enough land from Nkamira and Bigogwe sites where some of them had been resettled.
Some of them went on to settle in parts of Gishwati, where in 1951, a World Bank project had started to create grazing zone.
Muvara said since then, government intervened to help the new settlers find alternative land for fear of the dire consequences on Gishwati. As such, the residents were relocated to nearby areas such as Mukamira and Mutobo sectors.
Some residents remained in parts of Gishwati, which were considered less risky in terms of environmental concerns. But over the years, more and more people encroached on the forest reserve.
Now the government has moved in again and expects to resolve this issue together with the locals.
“We are many people here and the land we have to share seems to be smaller than what we used to have, because some parts of Gishwati will be preserved,” says Silas Mbonimpa, a resident of Bigogwe sector in Nyabihu district.
But Esdras Masengesho from Bigogwe sector, is optimistic the redistribution exercise will help address land problems in the area because many have been facing pockets of hunger since farming was banned there six years ago.
Another concern the residents cited is that those who bought land in Gishwati from others will not be considered since it is public land.
“Why should someone say that they had bought public land? This does not arise at all,” said Jabo Paul, the executive secretary of Western Province.
In 2008, government, in collaboration with Great Ape Trust of Iowa and Earthpark, announced that the Gishwati Forest Reserve was selected as the future site of the Rwanda National Conservation Park, one of Africa’s most ambitious forest restoration and ecological research efforts ever.
This is the second major land redistribution exercise in five years, after a similar campaign was successfully conducted in the Eastern Province in 2008.