28 May 2009

Rwanda: Minister Condemns Recent Violence in Gishwati

Kigali — The Minister of Environment and Natural Resources Stanislaus Kamanzi has condemned the recent violent protests by residents in Ruhango Sector against the government's plan to relocate them from Gishwati Forest.

Kamanzi's condemnation follows last week's demonstrations which left over 70,000 trees uprooted and destroyed by furious residents who were resisting the eviction.

According to residents, the evacuation was unfair and a major setback to their agricultural activities maintaining that the new area was too small and barren.

"I was so surprised when I heard what Ruhango residents did. The protest took place very few days after my visit to the area. I called for a meeting and discussed with residents about the government's plans and the importance of conserving Gishwati Forest," Kamanzi said on a phone when contacted.

The government has always maintained that the over-exploitation of Gishwati Forest was solely responsible for the humanitarian disasters that have happened in the western province that included landslides and floods that last year left thousands homeless.

The minister described Ruhango resident's actions as indiscipline and primitive.

"I had done my best to explain to them the importance of the good work that various organizations are doing to save Gishwati forest which is almost being eaten-out by human activities."

He said that the last time he was there they had screamed at him asking why the government was favoring trees to citizen, an attitude he described as primitive.

Kamanzi said that residents were acting in total disregard to the importance of environment conservation and prefer continuous encroachment on the delicate parts of the forest which the government will not accept.

"The 152 families to be relocated are near river Sebeya one of Lake Kivu inlets, and their continuous agricultural activities have not only affected the forest but also the nature of the environmentally important river," he explained.

Asked if the government had done any preparation in Bitenga where the families are expected to be taken, Kamanzi said that preparations were underway.

"We are not even evicting these people, we are simply relocating them to an environmentally friendly area and we are currently constructing houses in Bitenga for all the 152 families. Relocation will not take place before we are done with the construction," he stressed.

He called upon residents to understand the government's plan which he said was meant to conserve Gishwati so as to restore ecosystem services in form of improved water quality, reduced soil erosion and flooding, fewer landslides and increased sequestration of carbon.

Kamanzi said that police in the area was conducting investigations to identify the ringleaders and a number of residents have been held in connection with the violent protests.

Meanwhile, the governor of the Western Province, Celestine Kabahiza has said that tough measures will be taken against any one who will continue frustrating government's efforts to preserve the endangered forest.

"The demonstrations were very unruly and violent. Residents directly attacked PAFOR workers. If it wasn't the police's intervention, some would have been killed," he said.

PAFOR is the Forestry Management Support Project, which is undertaking the restoration of the forest.

Gishwati is a natural forest that extends to three districts of Rubavu, Rutsiro and Nyabihu, all in the Western Province.

Once the second-largest indigenous forest in Rwanda, Gishwati extended 1, 0002 km (100,000 hectares or 250,000 acres) in the early 1900s but by the late 1980s, it was about one-fourth of its original size.

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