In 2017, communities engaged in the forestry business in districts such as Gakenke, Gicumbi, Rulindo and Rwamagana were facing uncertainty of growth as they had been witnessing low production due to years of uncontrolled forest degradation and limited skills in forestry management.
Smallholder private forest landowners say that they used to harvest poor quality trees owing to poor forest management and poor tree species.
They also counted losses due to forest fires that were caused by some farmers in the areas.
Vedaste Ndacyayisenga a resident of Coko sector in Gakenke district told Business Times that he woke up to find his two hectares of forests ablaze in the middle of 2017.
"We realized that a person who was tilling her land intentionally burnt grass near the forest and the fire ended up damaging the whole forest. It was few days after buying that forest at Rwf2 million," he said.
The farmer is one of about 60 farmers whose 29 hectares were caught by fire in Gakenke District leaving counting losses.
"I was expecting to harvest trees worth Rwf300,00 but I counted losses due to the incidence. I was also expecting to cut grass from that forest to mulch my 500 coffee trees but I had to spend over Rwf120,000 buying it from other people," he said.
Besides forest degradation activities, the production per one hectare was still relatively low due to poor forest management.
According to the latest National Forest Inventory report, over 68 per cent of Rwanda forest plantations are owned by private owners and are often poorly managed and overexploited.
The report documents vulnerability of small size private woodlots which consequently makes them unattractive to good management with a business orientation.
According to Vincent Nsabuwera , a forestry expert working with the project to restore the degraded land , the forests landowners in the area were harvesting between only three and five cubic metres of wood per one hectare yet there is potential to harvest between 60 cubic metres and 300 cubic metres.
One cubic meter of harvested wood can be sold at Rwf10,000 according to farmers.
He explained the inventory found out that if trees are degraded or harvested at a young age no trees will be available for commercial purposes by 2022.
"Today the forests at harvesting age provide only 2.2 million cubic meres of wood needed for biomass energy out of 5.9 million cubic metres of wood required every year. This shows that forests are degraded to the extent that it affects wood supply and related business," he said.
According to an audit Commissioned by National Industrial Research and Development Agency (NIRDA) in 2019 wood processing industry has significant gaps in terms of raw materials and wood products due to poor forestry management that leads to low wood production.
In 2017, Rwanda imported articles of pulp, paper and board worth $34.7 million.
New model to double production
The forest production is expected to double thanks to the new approach in forest management that is being piloted on 276 hectares in the affected districts before being scaled up.
Private Forest Management Units have been formed through eight model cooperatives of private smallholder forests across the country and are expected to positively impact sustainable supply of wood, water regulation and soil erosion.
Nsabuwera said that the approach will reduce destruction on private smallholder forests in order to significantly increase the overall forest resource productivity for Sustainable forest management.
It also aims at supporting landscape restoration and watershed management.
The cooperatives will also be linked to market once trees reach harvesting stage and trained on modern techniques of wood production.
"There are other investors who want to partner with the cooperatives to harvest and use tree leaves to produce pellets to be used fuel for cooking. They have since proved that two Kilogrammes of pellets can save one sack of charcoal," he said.
Jean Pierre Mugabo, the Head of Forestry Department Unit at Rwanda Water and Forestry Authority said that after restoring the degraded forests, they will be handed over to the model cooperatives for sustainable management through the signed performance contracts.
"They have to protect the forests from degradation. We have trained them on needed skills, how to increase forest production.
High cost of restoration
The cost of restoration, he said, is very high considering that one hectare requires about Rwf1 million.
Rwanda has pledged the restoration of two million hectares of degraded land across the country by 2020.
"Therefore it requires to work with farmers' cooperatives in the community and other stakeholders to sustainably protect forests and restore those that are degraded. For instance, last year we restored 300 ha, this fiscal year we will restore 600 ha in those four districts," he said.
Government targets 30 per cent forest coverage of total national surface from the current 29.8 per cent.
Jonas Habamisi, the president of a forest management cooperative known as Twite Ku Mashyamba which loosely translated to, 'let's protect the forests' said that besides increasing forest production they are planning on starting a beekeeping project in the forest plantations.
He added that they smallholder also start tree nurseries as a business.
"We will also be using grass inside the forests to use as mulch around our coffee trees. We have committed to sustainably conserve and manage our forests away from fires, poachers and grazing," he said.