Q&A with Dr. Rose Mukankomeje Director General of Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA)
World Environment Day is very important in Rwanda. Every year, we celebrate by taking an entire week before the day, our National Environment Week, to raise awareness about environmental issues. During this time, Rwandans from all walks of life come together to ensure a cleaner, greener and brighter outlook for themselves and future generations, both here and across the globe. This year’s celebrations included a national essay competition for students on the importance of environmental protection which produced many impressive entries. We also organised a neighbourhood clean-up across the country.
It’s especially nice to stop and think about how our efforts here in Rwanda fit into a larger global scheme for environmental protection. We know it’s not enough as a country to think about preserving what we have – the international community has to work together.
Rwanda has been recognized for its environmental protection policies. What has the country done to gain such recognition?
Environmental awareness informs all our policies and decisions and so protecting our country’s natural resources is fast becoming second nature to all Rwandans, and we have worked well together to protect our environment. A great example of this collective effort is the ban on plastic bags in the country and the continued enthusiasm and work of Rwandans to uphold it. Instead, Rwandans use only biodegradable bags made from materials like cotton, banana and papyrus. The difference this has made is clear; you can see it just walking down the street. The city is clean, fresh and has a certain vibrancy to it that comes from everyone’s efforts to keep it beautiful.
We’ve also been working hard to protect critical ecosystems like wetlands, in places such as Rugezi, Kamiranzovu, Akagera and Rweru-Mugesera, by encouraging farmers to adopt sustainable agricultural techniques. These techniques include terracing watersheds to control erosion, managing tree nurseries, and constructing springs as water sources. Our aim is to help farmers increase agricultural productivity and improve their livelihoods without compromising Rwanda’s rare and vulnerable ecosystems. In addition, we continue to encourage schools and teachers to inspire their students about the importance of being environmentally conscious in their daily lives, as well as try to contribute to bigger nature protection or conservation schemes.
The United Nations General Assembly declared 2011 the International Year of Forests. As home to Nyungwe Forest, one of the largest mountainous rainforests remaining in Africa, what is Rwanda doing to promote sustainable forest management?
We already have a legal framework in place that protects our National Parks such as Nyungwe Forest and we enforce these laws very strictly. More importantly, however, we are getting the people who live in the area to start protecting the forest. It’s a community effort. We are working to eradicate poverty from the area and show people they don’t have to exploit the forest to make a living. Instead, we are providing them with alternative solutions for economic prosperity, alternative energy sources, and alternative building materials.
People used to go into the forest to gather firewood or wood for construction. Now, through a project funded by the Global Environment Facility, called ‘Strengthening Biodiversity in Mountainous Forests’, we’ve given people machines to make hydrofoam bricks and tiles; so that they can build homes and businesses without wood. This is improving settlements and creating jobs, since of course they aren’t making these bricks for nothing. It’s happening in every sector around Nyungwe Forest. We’ve also organized co-operatives outside the protected area. One focuses on beekeeping. This way, people don’t go into the forest to find honey; they have it from their own beehives. Another type of cooperative that we’re supporting near Nyungwe is basket making. We helped the community plant sisal, a plant that yields strong fibre that can be woven into the beautiful baskets for which Rwanda is famous.
How will you ensure the government remains innovative and consistent in environmental protection?
We will continue to ensure that the environment remains a top concern in all our decision and policy-making, from those about education to those about the national budget. We don’t think that simply passing environmental protection laws and enforcing them is enough and so we have developed guidelines for a Strategic Environmental Assessment, which assesses every government policy or program, and an Environmental Impact Assessment to help us consider the environmental issues lurking in any government project.
All choices have consequences, so every new project related to land use and water supply is subject to an Environmental Impact Assessment where we analyse carefully what effect a project will have on both the environment and the people of Rwanda. For example, the government is working to make sure that all Rwandans have adequate housing. However, we have to make sure we don’t encroach on fragile ecosystems or compromise bio-diversity when we build these homes.
How are Rwandans being encouraged and supported to make effective use of their land and water supplies?
Irrigation and access to water are top priorities. At a local level, we’ve been installing rainwater harvesting tanks, especially in the dryer parts of the country and so far we’ve installed tanks in 20 schools and many households. In addition to this, the Ministry of Agriculture is compiling a list of best irrigation practices so that we can encourage their use in Rwanda.
We believe that all Rwandans need to feel ownership over the protection of their environment. To that end, we conduct regular environmental awareness raising programmes. A feeling of ownership will lead to a commitment to protection. This ownership and commitment starts with the top leadership of the country, and legislators must continue to set an example by caring deeply for the protection of Rwanda’s rich environment.
How do Rwandans benefit from the bio-diversity and high standards of environmental protection in their country?
We are truly lucky to have a country like this. We can look around and see how beautiful our surroundings are, see how green our hills are. By protecting it, both we and our future generations will be able to enjoy its beauty. On top of this, a healthy and clean environment is good for our own health and makes life better for everyone.
Of course, there are added benefits to biodiversity conservation. For example, our ecosystem attracts many tourists each year. The revenue from this then goes back into the country’s development, which of course includes protection of its environment.
Finally, what would you say is one of the easiest ways anybody can take part in protecting their country’s natural environment?
There are so many ways that people everywhere can do their bit. You can start from simple things like cleaning up litter. You can also show restraint in your daily habits. Buy or take only what you need, not what you want. For example, when you are shopping, even if you can afford it, buying more than you need can lead to waste. States and industries must keep these principles in mind as well. When fishing or mining, take only what you need today, so as not to deplete resources unnecessarily.
What’s most important though, is that we all need to change our mindsets. We shouldn’t think only of ourselves or our households, but of the global community. Everything each of us does matters, and affects our neighbours. We all need to act for the global good.