FEATURE: One woman’s heroic efforts to restore more than just Rwanda’s forests
As her nation emerged from crisis, and in the face of great personal tragedy, Rose Mukankomeje took the initiative to bring Rwandans together to protect their natural resources and, in the process, restore communities devastated by conflict.
She is one of five individuals from around the world honoured this week with the Forest Heroes Award by the United Nations Forum on Forests for their efforts to sustain, protect and manage this vital natural resource, and inspire positive change.
Rose was unable to attend the award ceremony in Istanbul, Turkey, as she was taking part in numerous events taking place this week in Rwanda to mark the 1994 genocide, during which nearly one million people, mostly ethnic Tutsis, were massacred by Hutu militia and government forces over a period of just 100 days.
She was studying in Europe when the genocide occurred, and when she was able to return to her country, she discovered that her parents and all of her brothers and sisters had been slaughtered.
She then set out to find her nieces and nephews, going from one orphanage to another, greeted along the way by child after child who longed for a family of his or her own. There were thousands of children who needed a home in the wake of the genocide, and Rose became a single mother to 24 foster children.
“The country suffered a lot,” Rose said, speaking to the UN News Centre from her home in the Rwandan capital of Kigali. “After the genocide, the social structure of the country was completely destroyed.”
Also completely destroyed, she said, was the country’s forests, which is where many people fled and hid during the genocide.
According to a post-conflict assessment by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) that was released in 2011, the genocide and the conflict that preceded it caused “significant” environmental impacts that will extend many years into the future.
“The main damage has been caused by massive population displacement and resettlement of returnees leading to potentially irreversible losses, including considerable reductions in the surface area of national parks, forests and other vegetation cover as well as encroachment on wetlands,” stated the report, which proposed a package of almost 90 projects to help the country accelerate its sustainable development agenda.
That same year, in 2011, Rwanda received a UN-backed award for its national forest policy. It is only one of three countries in Central and Western Africa to achieve a major reversal in the trend of declining forest cover and is on course to achieving its goal of forest cover of 30 per cent of total land area by the year 2020, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which sponsored the award.
Rose, a biologist by training, has devoted her life to the protection and restoration of Rwandan forests. She is currently Director General of the Rwandan Environment Management Authority (REMA).
One of her most successful initiatives is public awareness for environmental management, through Umuganda – a community project in which everyone goes one day a month to clean up the environment and plant trees. It is a unique home-grown solution that ensures that the growth of forests in Rwanda supports livelihoods and benefits the rural poor.
“After the genocide we tried to find ways to bring people together, to prepare nurseries, to plant trees… this is our way of healing,” said Rose, adding that this showed that, even after conflict and genocide, people can come back together and work with each other.
Rose also drew attention to the need to protect critical ecosystems like wetlands by encouraging farmers to adopt sustainable agricultural techniques. Her work helped to improve the livelihoods of people without compromising Rwanda’s rare and vulnerable ecosystems. She also worked to ban plastic bags throughout the entire country.
“This woman has so much energy… She never stops. She has project after project. And I would say that that’s one of the characteristics of a Forest Hero,” said Jan McAlpine, the Director of the UN Forum on Forests Secretariat, who herself spent part of her childhood in Rwanda.
Despite the gains made by the country, Rose noted that there are a number of challenges. “Most importantly, Rwanda is developing very quickly… and the challenge is often a lack of alternative livelihoods for people who depend on forests.
“When you ask people to protect the environment, including the forests, to take care of the trees, we need to find alternatives sources for things like firewood.”
She credits Rwanda’s environmental successes to the passion of its people. “This passion is turned into vision. This vision is translated into policy. Then policy is translated into programmes. At the same time, people are committed to make a difference. We need to help our communities but the environment has also suffered a lot due to the conflict.
“After the genocide, people want to contribute in a meaningful way to the reconstruction of the country… people who want to move from conflict to a better life.”