A Thousand Brown Hills Turn Green: This is how Rwanda became a global leader in forest landscape restoration

In Africa, Rwanda is the Land of a Thousand Hills, but are these hills still healthy and productive?

This is the story of how a small east African country took the unprecedented initiative to restore the functionality of lands that had lost the ability to support people and biodiversity.

Border to border commitment

In 2011, the government of Rwanda pledged to restore two million hectares by 2020 under the Bonn Challenge. Today, the finish line is on the horizon.

Demonstrating global leadership, Rwanda is making good progress on its restoration commitments and has already restored more than 700,000 hectares of degraded land.

The people of Rwanda aspire for a greener future. Let’s take a look at where the story begins.

A landscape overwhelmed

In Rwanda, a rapidly growing population with livelihoods dependent on subsistence agriculture and energy extraction has put a lot of pressure on the country’s natural resources.

Between 1984 and 2002, pressure to cultivate new lands forced farmers up steep hillsides. This unsustainable practice rapidly increased erosion and depleted soil fertility. Heavy sediments clogged waterways and negatively impacted downstream users such as hydroelectric plants.

The FAO estimated that as much as 40% of the cultivated land in Rwanda was at risk of severe erosion and required anti-erosion investments – even before cultivation began. However, due to the economic situation of many farmers, the investment needed to adopt erosion prevention measures was out of reach.

At the same time, urbanization expanded by an incredible 300% between 1990 to 2016. This created a heavily concentrated demand on natural resources, and an increase in impermeable surfaces and changing water regimes.

Coupled with other factors including unchecked mining and timber felling, landscape degradation was reaching a tipping point. Ensuring a healthy future for people and the environment was in jeopardy.

It was time to act.

Rwanda embraces a new approach

The forest landscape restoration (FLR) approach was gaining international momentum around this time, and offered the potential to help address and reverse degradation and put the country back on track.

Rwanda set out on an ambitious journey to incorporate FLR into its national development strategies. The approach became intertwined with the socio-economic transformation goals of the Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategy and Vision 2020, and provided a roadmap to achieve 30% forest cover by 2020.

The country took additional steps to develop or revise policies that directly supported restoration, such as the Green Growth and Climate Resilience Strategy, National Forest Policy, Organic Law on Environment Protection, and Strategic Plan for the Transformation of Agriculture.

With a strong policy framework now in place, Rwanda’s border to border restoration agenda was well positioned to:

  • increase agricultural productivity;
  • improve food security and rural incomes;
  • increase resilience to climate change;
  • improve water supply; and
  • reduce vulnerability to landslides and other disasters.

Taking the Bonn Challenge

Thanks to Rwanda’s strategic vision and forward-thinking laws and regulations, the country became one of the early adopters of the Bonn Challenge – a global effort to bring 150 million hectares of the world’s deforested and degraded land into restoration by 2020, and 350 million hectares by 2030.

In 2011, Rwanda was the first country in Africa to pledge to restore land as part of the challenge. Later, the country demonstrated its leadership through the highly successful African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative or AFR100, a regional platform of the Bonn Challenge.

Although, not a large country, Rwanda set the ambitious goal of bringing two million hectares of deforested and degraded land into restoration by 2020.

By utilizing forest landscape restoration as a strategy to reverse widespread degradation and harness the power of ecosystem goods and services – such as water and improved agricultural productivity – Rwanda garnered donor support as well as private investment to fulfill its border to border pledge.

Where and how to restore?

Experts from the Department of Forestry and Nature Conservation worked in partnership with IUCN and the World Resources Institute, alongside other stakeholders, to conduct a national stocktake using the Restoration Opportunities Assessment Methodology (ROAM).

ROAM is a framework that identifies the landscapes where restoration is not only most urgent, but where the benefits are immediate and success is most likely. The result is a short list of feasible interventions to restore degraded and deforested land.

Between 2012-2014, Rwanda’s landscapes were rigorously assessed to find the best opportunities to achieve the “border to border” restoration strategy. The ROAM process concluded that to maximise potential, Rwanda would need to:

  • transform agriculture to agroforestry – mainly on steep sloping land;
  • convert poorly-managed eucalyptus woodlots and plantations into improved silviculture, and rehabilitate sub-optimally managed woodlots;
  • hrough better spacing, erosion-control and fire prevention techniques;
  • restore deforested land through the protection and rehabilitation of existing natural forests; and,
  • restore deforested land through the establishment or improvement of protective forests on important and sensitive sites.

Agroforestry is the way forward

If you expand the map above, you will see that the greatest opportunity for restoration in Rwanda is through new agroforestry with 1.1 million hectares identified as potentially suitable. Agroforestry interventions incorporate trees into agricultural landscapes, including lands used for cultivating crops and pastures for raising livestock.

To make these interventions a reality, Rwanda:

  • improved coordination among agencies, and better aligned mandates;
  • improved delivery of high quality planting stock;
  • matched farmers’ preferences to the FLR interventions on offer; and
  • initiated early action in priority landscapes and mobilized innovative finance and resourcing packages.

All of these steps also required investments in education and outreach to communicate the value of restoration to the wide range of stakeholders willing to participate in local, regional and national restoration programs.

Investing from border to border

With a strong policy framework in place and the assessment of opportunities for forest landscape restoration complete, it was time to act.

From the eastern semi-dry areas near Akagera National Park to the western part of the country including Gishwati-Mukura National Park, 80 restoration projects (some projects span multiple districts) have been implemented nationwide since 2011.

Since 2011, Rwanda has also quadrupled domestic investment in landscape restoration. As of 2018, a combined domestic and international investment of US$ 6.7 million made nearly 35% of the country’s two million hectare restoration ambition a reality.

Where does the money go?

Much of this investment has been concentrated in the west and central hills, though most districts across the country have embraced restoration in some capacity.

Where is the most restoration happening?

Nyagatare in the east as well as districts along the Congo-Nile in the west have seen the most number of hectares restored. This is because the Western Province is characterised by steep slopes and receives much more rainfall compared to the eastern and central regions. Rough terrain and high precipitation makes the region highly vulnerable to degradation through soil erosion when there is not sufficient vegetation cover.

This is just half (with minor edits) of a beautiful, interactive article that appeared on the IUCN website. See the full, beautifully-illustrated version of the article here.

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