A New Dawn in Rwanda

ICF President Dr. Rich Beilfuss recently returned from a three-week field visit to advance ICF’s Africa Program in three important “crane countries” — Uganda, Rwanda, and Zambia. Following is part two of Rich’s field notes, highlighting wetland restoration and conservation activities in Rwanda. Read Rich’s field notes from Uganda and Zambia.

As Kerryn Morrison, ICF’s African Crane Conservation Program Manager, and I drove across the border from Uganda, I was thrilled to experience Rwanda for the first time. Rwanda is the 20th African country I have worked in for ICF, and I take joy in learning about the unique cultural, political, and ecological characteristics of each country I visit. Rwanda is the most densely settled country in Africa (with one of highest population densities in the world). The steep volcanic slopes of the Albertine Rift Valley are 100% blanketed with terraced agricultural plots from top to bottom — it’s a scene more reminiscent of the Nepal foothills than most of Africa. Everywhere you look, impoverished farming families are crouching over at back-breaking angles to till and weed these plots. The forests have long since been cut down, some replaced by eucalyptus plantations, and erosion of these fragile, nutrient-rich slopes is everywhere in evidence. With agricultural productivity in decline, and a rapidly increasing population, the conservation and human development challenges here are daunting.

The steep slopes of the Albertine Rift Valley are blanketed with terraced agricultural plots (left),
and many valley bottom wetlands are converted to tea plantations (right).

Two major exceptions to this transformed landscape lie in the north of Rwanda. One is Volcanoes National Park, which protects magnificent highland forests of the Virunga Mountains, the richest biodiversity hotspot in Africa and home to the world’s only Mountain Gorillas. We are all deeply indebted to the dedicated wildlife scouts of Volcanoes and neighboring national parks in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, who risked their lives to protect the gorillas through the reign of Idi Amin in Uganda, the Rwandan genocide, and now prolonged civil war in DR Congo.

Mountain Gorillas in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda.

The other is the 1200 hectare Rugezi marsh, a spectacular acidic peatland that serves as a headwater source for the White Nile and one of the most important sites for Grey Crowned Cranes. Most of the valley bottom wetlands of Rwanda have been converted to farm plots or large tea plantations, but Rugezi Marsh has been spared by its unique geology: the outlet of Rugezi cascades over a spectacular waterfall that is directed through a hydro electric scheme into Lake Burera, and from there drains through another hydroelectric scheme into Lake Luhondo. These hydroelectric schemes generate more than a third of the country’s electricity. In the early 2000s drainage canals were dug to convert Rugezi Marsh into agricultural plots, and the steady year-round outflows naturally released by the peatland, so important to hydropower generation, were replaced by rapid storm runoff and decreased dry season levels.

Alarmed about the potential impact of these drainage works on national energy security, the Government of Rwanda declared Rugezi as Rwanda’s first Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention and banned all agriculture and other development activities (learn more about the Ramsar Convention and its impact on crane conservation in the May 2012 issue of The ICF Bugle). Rwandan Environment Management Agency (REMA) removed all people from the wetland and the planted a 20 meter buffer zone of trees extending around the entire wetland to mark the limits of settlement and agricultural activity.

Rugezi is the focus of our conservation efforts in Rwanda. Our key partners include Sam Kanyanibwa and Claudiene Nsabagasani of the Albertine Rift Conservation Society (ARCOS) and Marshall Banamwana of Kitabi College of Conservation and Environmental Management. I first met Sam, now Executive Director of ARCOS, at our 1993 African Cranes and Wetlands Workshop held in Maun, Botswana. Sam was the first conservationist to sound an alarm for Grey Crowned Cranes, noting they were in steady decline in Rwanda during the 1980s. Grey Crowned Cranes were considered to be a common and thriving species across East Africa at that time, but we soon learned that this impression was false. By the late 1990 it became clear that the species was declining in many Africa countries, and this year Grey Crowned Cranes likely will be formally listed as “Endangered” based on their precipitous population decline (about 80%) and the contraction of their range. About 100 Grey Crowned Cranes occur at Rugezi, and its importance is ever-increasing as the remaining valley bottom wetlands of Rwanda (and East Africa) are converted to agriculture.

Rwanda team members, Claudiene Nsabagasani of the Albertine Rift Conservation Society, Kerryn Morrison,
ICF/EWT African Crane Conservation Manager, and Marshall Banamwana of Kitabi College of Conservation and Environmental Management.

During our visit, we had the pleasure of hosting three program leaders from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which is a major supporter of our efforts at Rugezi. The MacArthur Foundation invests deeply and strategically in the Albertine Rift, supporting also ARCOS, Kitabi College, and various forest conservation measures, including the forest gorillas, for many years. Our project marks the first time the MacArthur Foundation has supported wetland conservation in the Rift, a new landscape connection from mountain to marsh. Together, we traveled the length of the wetland, following its natural drainage path from south to north. We viewed the southern end of the marsh from the bluffs above – here the wetland is deeply inundated due in part to a rock dam that was erected across one of its outlets, and we can see vast expanses of floating peat. We spot a pair of Grey Crowned Cranes flying low over the marsh. Development pressure on the marsh is relatively low here, as the deep water precludes most activity.

Rich (far left) with Stephanie Platz (Director for Strategic Planning), Jorgen Thomsen (Director of Conservation
and Sustainable Development), and Elizabeth Chadri (Program Officer for Conservation and Sustainable Development)
from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, a key supporter of ICF’s field activities in Rwanda.

In the central parts, the marsh is easily accessible and a long, low berm is used by local people to traverse the marsh. The spongy peak surface bounces under our feet, and water flowing through the marsh has a stunning “blackwater” appearance from dissolved peat tannins – closely resembling our sphagnum bogs here in Wisconsin. The wetland vegetation is rich, diverse, and teeming with bird life, including the rare and Endangered Grauer’s Swamp Warbler for which Rugezi is the global stronghold.

Native wetland vegetation, including tall stands of papyrus, is reclaiming abandoned agricultural plots in Rugezi Marsh.

The north end of the marsh is recovering from the aborted agricultural development.  Here, the future of the marsh likely hinges on the sustainable production of goods and services.  New expanses of papyrus are re-colonizing here, and give us hope for a large-scale papyrus restoration effort similar to what Jimmy Muheebwa accomplished across the border in Uganda.   A variety of products are produced from papyrus in this region—baskets, roofing materials, and floor mats, for example—and we see great potential in developing a cottage industry here in conjunction with conservation efforts.  In June, Marshall and Claudiene will travel across to exchange ideas with Jimmy and his team.

Rugezi offers a tremendous opportunity for ecotourism, especially in conjunction with visits to the picturesque waterfall that cascades down from the marsh outlet to the idyllic Lake Burera far below, and to the mountain gorillas of the Virungas that tower above us to the north. Perhaps the most important service provided by Rugezi is its role in sequestering carbon in the fight against global climate change. Long-term commitments to conserve these vast expanses of peat may provide an important opportunity for generating sustainable support for marsh conservation and restoration through the global carbon markets.

In addition to saving critical marshlands like Rugezi, the future of Grey Crowned Cranes here depends on our ability to stop the global crane trade. As we saw across the border in Uganda, crane trade appears to be rampant in this region and none of the crane pairs we observed in Rwanda had chicks. Many of these captured cranes likely stay in Rwanda—prominent hotels and wealthy families in Kigali and other parts of Rwanda have cranes in their possession as a kind of status symbol. Claudiene is undertaking his Master’s Degree on the crane trade in Rwanda, and we hope to gain new insights and solutions from his efforts. A national awareness campaign here, and in Uganda, is in the works.  Learn more about ICF’s Africa Crane Trade Project.

The Flame of Hope at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center

Perhaps the most striking aspect of our visit was in witnessing how Rwanda has come to terms with the brutal genocide of 1994. Our trip marked the 18th anniversary of the “100 days” when more than one million people were massacred in an uprising that many of us still find unfathomable. I visited the Genocide Memorial in Kigali. It is an intensely emotional experience to share this memorial with grieving Rwandan families that travel across the country to place flowers on the mass graves that lie beneath us. As we have come to learn, very painfully, the roots of the massacre were deep in the colonial history of Rwanda, and the outside world knew what was happening as the genocide unfolded and did nothing to stop it. There were many unsung heroes at that time that saved people at great risk to themselves—such as Paul Rusesabagina who was famously portrayed in the movie Hotel Rwanda—but not enough to prevent the tragedy. The genocide will not be forgotten in Rwanda, but people are learning to forgive and move on. Ethnic groups are never referred to in the country – everyone is a Rwandan – and “A New Dawn” is the national slogan. We look forward to a productive partnership with our Rwandan colleagues to conserve this remarkable land.