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Global Ideas

Saving critical wilderness areas in Rwanda's forests

The forests of the Congo Basin are still exceptionally intact. But with this unique ecosystem threatened by political unrest in the region, a series of projects aims to ensure they stay that way.

The Virunga mountain range

The Virunga mountain range consists of eight major volcanoes

The landscape around Gisenyi in western Rwanda, on the border to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is breathtakingly beautiful. Mount Nyiragongo towers majestically over the city, which is contiguous with the city of Goma across the border in DRC.

But Mount Nyiragongo is an active volcano, known for its devastating eruptions. Eight years ago, Goma was largely destroyed by lava.

Time and again, locals here have rebuilt their devastated city in the aftermath of such eruptions, despite risks posed by the still-hot lava and the frequent earth tremors that occur in the wake of the eruption. They see the volcano as both a blessing and a curse.

Located inside the Virunga National Park north of Goma and Lake Kivu, and just west of the border with Rwanda, its fertile land has made it one of the most densely populated regions on the entire continent. It also boasts virgin forests that are home to some unique flora and fauna, as well as the world's last remaining population of mountain gorillas.

Alternatives to illegal logging

After the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled over the border to Goma. Today, the city is home to many former victims and perpetrators who are seeking refuge here from Rwandan justice. What they have in common is the fact that they are all trying to "put down roots in an ecosystem that is not their native one," as Johannes Kirchgatter from the World Wide Fund for Nature, or WWF, in Germany puts it.

The Nyungwe rainforest

The Nyungwe rainforest is home to rare mountain gorillas

The flow of refugees has resulted in a major population increase in the region, which has proved to be a heavy burden on existing fuel-provision structures. The roughly one million people who live here depend mainly on firewood and wood charcoal for cooking and heating. Much of the logging activity in the Virunga National Park for the sale of timber and charcoal is controlled by rebel militia groups, which earn an estimated $30 million a year.

In order to put a stop to this illegal exploitation of resources by the charcoal mafia, the public needs alternatives that are affordable and sustainable.

Outside the protected areas of the national park, the WWF is therefore overseeing a project to establish, maintain and exploit legal plantations for the production of fuel wood. It also subsidizes the manufacture of energy-efficient ovens that consume 30 percent less fuel than previous ovens used hitherto.

The organization also trains rangers who work to clamp down on illegal loggers. The project is already proving constructive, and helping to financially weaken the militias by providing the public with an alternative source for their fuel needs.

An important wilderness

A wood felling operation with trucks in a forest in DRC

In DRC, militias fund their activities with illegal wood trade

The funds are partially provided from the International Climate Initiative, and Kirchgatter hopes they can be put to good use across the entire Congo Basin. Its tropical forests are a haven for elephants, gorillas and other rare wildlife.

According to the WWF, the Congo Basin home to one-quarter of the world's tropical forests and a mosaic of ecosystems – rivers, forests, savanna, swamps and flooded forests – which are teeming with life. These forests regulate local climate and the flow of water, protect and enrich soils, control diseases and safeguard water quality. Reaching all the way to the Atlantic coast, they also make up one of the most important wilderness areas left on the planet.

The WWF is planning to join forces with NASA next year to establish the exact size of its surface area using an optical remote sensing technology known as LIDAR, which can detect subtle topographic features such as river terraces and river channel banks, and measure the land surface elevation beneath the vegetation canopy. The technology will allow researchers to establish forest density and even the precise amount of chlorophyll contained in different tree species.

With data provided by LIDAR, researchers will also be able to divide the Congo Basin into zones, isolating which areas are made up of primary forest and are therefore most in need of protection, and which areas could best be exploited by local populations. The ultimate goal is to identify 15 percent of the Congo Basin as a protected area and thereby help preserve the habitats of species such as forest elephants, bonobo apes and various types of rare flora.

Another project, run by the World Resources Institute, is putting the systems in place to implement effective strategies to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (known as REDD.) It is spearheading an innovative new project aimed at quantifying degradation and the greenhouse gas emissions in the forests of the Republic of Congo, and developing new methods to measure and monitor forest degradation.

The region will also be able to earn carbon credits by engaging in green carbon sequestering activities. Ideally, REDD could deliver millions of dollars to impoverished communities in the Congo Basin in carbon credits, providing a powerful incentive to protect this land of great value to the planet. But given that DRC is one of the most corrupt nations in the world, negotiations are far from straightforward.

Prioritizing needs of people and nature

A scientists examining plantlife

Preserving natural habitats in the Congo Basin is of global benefit

Nonetheless, Johannes Kirchgatter can already point to some successes, such as WWF programs in the Lac Tumba region in the western Congo Basin, some 1500 kilometers away from the Virunga National Park. The region harbors a rich assemblage of terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity, and is an important provider of vital ecosystem services, including carbon sequestration, freshwater supplies, flood mitigation, and non-timber products for both subsistence and commercial use.

In WWF projects, locals are taught about land use planning; protected area management and species conservation; community-based natural resource management; and livelihood improvement.

The WWF hopes that 14,000 square kilometers of local forest can be preserved as a protected area and a further 65,000 square kilometers farmed sustainably. Given that the population is set to double in the next two decades, such measures are crucial. But these valuable ecosystems will only survive if environmental priorities can be reconciled with the needs of local populations.

Author: Carl Gierstorfer (jp)
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn

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