Official Government Wires

New images show 99% destruction of Giswati forest

Kigali, June 10 (RNA) - Satellite images released by the U.S. space agency NASA show nearly complete destruction of Gishwati Forest between 1986 and 2001 - coming just weeks after illegal squatters angrily uprooted up to 70,000 planted trees in the forest in question, RNA reports.

Overall only 600 hectares of Gishwati's original 100,000 hectares of forest remain - a loss of 99.4 percent of its cover, according to NASA's Earth Observatory. The forest is located in north-western part of the country.

The news also comes as delegations from countries in the region are in Kigali to map out measures to protect the vast forests that are disappearing at a very fast rate due to war, displacement and population explosion.

According to the UN's environment agency UNEP, Gishwati's forests were largely intact in 1978, and substantial forest cover still remained in 1986.

"But in the 15 years that elapsed between these images-a time that spanned the country's tragic genocide-wave after wave of refugees arrived in Gishwati Forest and began clearing it, often for subsistence farming", say Michon Scott and Rebecca Lindsey from NASA.

By 2001, only a small circular patch of native forest remained-1,500 acres of the forest's original 250,000.

Deforestation of the forest reserve is largely the result of subsistence harvesting and cultivation by refugees in the aftermath of the country's 1994 genocide. The tree cutting was also driven by the need for food, medicine, charcoal, and timber, especially for commercial products. Government forced the relocation of these settlers but that has turned out to be a nightmare.

Last month, when government officials visited the area and gave the residents an ultimatum to leave, the villagers responded by uprooting some 70,000 trees that had been planted as part of the country's reforestation programme. More than 200 million of trees have been planted across the country on a massive campaign.

"Large tea estates and plantations now occupy the (Gishwati) park", says NASA.

"The loss of so many trees in a rainy, mountainous country has had severe environmental consequences. In addition to tremendous loss of biodiversity, the region experiences soil erosion and degradation and landslides." write Scott and Lindsey.

Conservationists are now working to restore a corridor of native forest between Gishwati and Nyungwe Forest National Park, in southern Rwanda. The initiative would provide connectivity for wildlife - including chimpanzees - to move between forest areas.

The latest voice to the plight of Gishwati is not alone. President Kagame has been at the forefront of a protracted battle to have thousands of the squatters moved to allow gazeting it as a protected area, but to minimal success.

Available estimates suggest that Rwanda had 634,000 hectares of forest cover in 1962 but that by 2004, only 200,000 hectares was still standing - blamed on careless human activity. Soil erosion has also been causing the loss of 500 tons of soil per hectare annually, according to government, which says is headed for "uncontrollable" ecological disasters.

A new report released Wednesday in Germany by the UN and a network of organizations finds that climate change is already contributing to migration and displacement globally.

All major estimates project that the trend will rise to tens of millions of migrants in coming years. Within the next few decades, the consequences of climate change for human security efforts could be devastating, the researchers said.

The exact number of people that will be on the move by mid-century is uncertain. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimates that there may be 200 million environmentally-induced migrants by 2050.

From 2000-2005, West and Central Africa lost 1.36m ha of forest cover per year, or a total of 67,800 sq km. More than 300 million people in Africa already live with water scarcity, and areas experiencing water shortages are likely to increase by almost a third by 2050, the report says.

Although the Sahel (North Africa) has seen a "greening" since the mid-1980s drought - at 2.6 percent, the region still has the second highest population growth rate in the world after Central Africa - in which Rwanda is located.

This population growth combined with climatic trends and land degradation, according to the report could lead to: declining per capita production for the agriculture, including animal husbandry; shortage of fuelwood; declining rainfall in some regions with consequences for rain-fed and irrigated agriculture; food shortages and famines in drought years; movement to urban areas or to more fertile farming areas, such as recently opened areas in the Savannah zone owing to the eradication of river blindness.

ARI-RNA/Inv./ 10. 06. 09/ 10 : 00 GMT


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