Once home to populations of Chimpanzees and Golden Monkeys, the sloping terrain of Rwanda's Gishwati Forest has in recent decades suffered severe environmental degradation - made worse by extreme weather events.
Land slides, floods and torrential rain have claimed lives, demolished human settlements, and destroyed thousands of hectares of forest and farm land. A United Nations-led project and a generous funding allocation from the Government are bringing hope to the region.
In an effort to reduce the vulnerability of local communities and the ecosystem to climate change impacts, the Government of Rwanda - guided by a UN pilot project that mapped and developed a comprehensive plan for land suitability and use - has allocated USD $25 Million to relocate human settlements from Gishwati to safer zones.
The Climate Change and Development Project - Adapting by Reducing Vulnerability (CC DARE) - is jointly implemented by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) with funding from the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Using small funds for targeted short-term activities, that do not exceed a six-month period, the programme helps countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and small island states integrate climate change adaptation into national development planning and decision-making. Demand-driven, CC DARE is designed to complement and strengthen ongoing and planned adaptation and risk management activities, based on national priorities.
UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, Achim Steiner, said, "Integrating adaptation into national development policies can strengthen the ecosystems and thus the economy against the impacts of climate change. Rwanda is setting an early and a positive example of how Africa can address current and perhaps more importantly future climate vulnerability while also assisting towards meeting the poverty-related Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)".
Like other forests, Rwanda's Gishwati Reserve - a protected area in the north-western part of the country - provides key ecosystem services, including the maintenance of soil quality, limiting erosion, stabilizing hillsides, modulating seasonal flooding, and providing a habitat for biodiversity.
Up to 1978, the reserve's forests remained largely intact. But images released by NASA last year revealed Gishwati has lost approximately 99.4% of its forest cover. Only 600 Hectares of the original 100,000 hectares of forest remain.
According to a UNEP Post-conflict study, Rwanda's post-colonial civil war caused mass dislocation of entire communities. In the 15 years that spanned the genocide, waves of refugees fled the fighting and settled in wetlands and forests. The land was cleared for subsistence farming. As a result, the health of the ecosystem was severely compromised.
Director General of Rwanda Environment Management Authority, Dr. Rose Mukankomeje, said, "Overcoming the degradation of the Gishwati Forest has been at the heart of Rwanda's national development efforts. The revision of the Land Suitability and Land Use Map Plan by UNEP-UNDP CC DARE programme is a huge national success story that has paved the way to building future benefits. The allocation of USD $25 Million is part of the national effort to build on CC DARE's work in rehabilitating the Gishwati Forest, making it less vulnerable to climate change impacts."
Danish Environment Ambassador, Margit Thomsen, pointed out that the Climate Adaptation programme was launched to meet a demand for fast financing and technical advice to assist African governments meet the economic and social development challenges aggravated by climate change. She said, "The aim was to build up national experience from small, innovative model-projects addressing adaptation to climate change while paving the way for scaled up programs. The Danish Government, having provided a total of 8 million USD to the program, is pleased to note that the program is now well under way in 11 African countries. The success of the program in Rwanda through its generation of additional funds for scaled up programs is exemplary and will serve as model for CC DARE cooperation in other countries. On behalf of the Danish Government, I wish the Government of Rwanda a successful continued collaboration with CC DARE."
Risk studies conducted by the UNEP-UNDP team conclude that if further erosion to the Gishwati forest is to be avoided, 43% of the terrain - around 2844 hectares - should be used for pasture, forest plantation and fruit tree plantation. Among the 2844 hectares, 1393 hectares will be preserved and invasive human activities will not be allowed. The remaining 1451 hectares will be used for fruit tree plantation.
Rehabilitation efforts will maximise Rwanda's chances of playing a bigger role in global carbon trading through the establishment of new carbon sinks in Gishwati.
The Land Use Plan, developed by the project, outlines agroforestry techniques to maximise carbon sequestration - or the process of depositing carbon from the atmosphere. For example, soil fertility replenishment and diversification of farming is recommended in low risk areas, while the planting of indigenous trees is recommended for moderate to high risk areas.
Technical manuals were also developed to help local government and communities better manage forest resources. The manuals provide detailed information on land use, such as, field validation for carbon sequestration, land suitability for planting high-value cops, soil resilience, sustainable farming systems, bridging food security critical periods, and strategies to cope with climate variability.
The success of the CCDARE project has helped Rwanda leverage other funds such as USD $15.9 Million from the UNFCCC Least Developed Country Fund and UNDP, among other sources. It is also paving the way for innovative action towards climate change adaptation in Africa's most densely populated country.