You can see the toll poor farming practices have taken on Rwanda's landscape in the misty green hills of the northwest. Sixteen-year-old Christian Gahire sits on the wet grass and squeezes milk from a cow into a foaming pitcher, surrounded by old tree stumps.
Gahire explains that his uncle cut down the forest here to grow crops on the steep hills. But without the trees, the soil on the hills began to erode. So his uncle planted grass instead, and turned the hill into pastureland for cattle.
It's a common story here.
This farm used to be part of the vast Gishwati forest, home to creatures like chimpanzees and golden monkeys. But now it's just hill after hill of green grass, with only an occasional tree. Almost 95 percent of the forest is gone.
"If you look at the forest you can see how it has been degraded," said Madeline Nyiratuza, a coordinator with the Gishwati Area Conservation Program of The Great Ape Trust.
Legacy of Genocide
Nyiratuza stands on a hill overlooking a small patch of remaining forest. She says the deforestation in this part of Rwanda is a legacy of the genocide in the 1990s.
"These farms, which are surrounding the forest, have been created after 1994 genocide, when people who came back to Rwanda from DRC cut down the forest to plant crops and raise their animals," Nyiratuza said.
After the genocide, the government allowed refugees to come back to Rwanda and settle in the country's natural reserves, like the Gishwati forest.
But Rwanda's deforestation problem didn't start then. The country's natural resources have been ravaged for decades. Starting in the 1970's, much of the Gishwati was cleared for tea and timber plantations, and commercial cattle ranches.
Then in the 1980's and 1990's, the country's population grew faster than food production. That led to destructive farming practices that exhausted soil and local ecosystems all over Rwanda.
All of this deforestation has had a big human cost. In northwest Rwanda alone, heavy rainfall in deforested areas has caused floods that have killed close to 100 people in recent years. Erosion from the floods has also destroyed crops and brought famine to tens of thousands of people.
But the government is finally starting to reckon with the problem.
"Our country is very vulnerable with regard to land erosion, with regard to land degradation. So the very source that people have to depend on is at risk," said Stanislas Kamanzi, Rwanda's Minister of Natural Resources.
Kamanzi says the government recognizes that a weak environment is a serious economic threat. So earlier this year, the government announced a new plan to restore the country's landscape.
It's called the Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative, and the ambitious goal is to reverse the degradation of Rwanda's soil, and restore watersheds and forests from one border of the country to another by the year 2035.
Kamanzi says the plan is aimed at making sure Rwandans can continue to support themselves by farming.
"For those farming activities to be sustainable, you need productive land. And our land can be productive if only it's protected, it's conserved," Kamanzi said.
The Rwandan government is working with the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the UN Forum on Forests to figure out the details and implement the massive restoration plan.
But it's based on the understanding that trees and forests not only provide habitat for animals, they also help build and retain soil, and hold and filter water.
Kamanzi says the ultimate vision is to restore working ecosystems across Rwanda.
"The Rwanda we are contemplating in the years to come will look more or less like an afforested area, while under the canopy you're having all the types of crops people need for their wellbeing," he said.
Changes Already Underway
You can see an example of the vision behind the restoration plan less than an hour south of the country's capital.
The Bugesera district is a dry and drought- prone place. In the last decade, some droughts have been so severe that international organizations have had to step in with food aid. But the environment is becoming a priority here, and it's easy to find newly planted trees.
Along the main road, tall trees shade rows of coffee and cassava plants.
Paul Kalimba, who owns some of the trees, tears a branch off a bush, crouches down and pokes it into the ground, demonstrating how he planted the trees as saplings just three years ago.
Local authorities gave him the saplings, and paid him to plant them.
Kalimba says people around here are happy with the trees, because there weren't enough before. He says it's very important, because he believes the trees have brought more rainfall.
It's a small success, so far. But the Rwandan government hopes its Landscape Forest Restoration Initiative will replicate this scene across the entire country, from the dry plains of Bugesera, to the wet hills of the northwest.
Supporters acknowledge there will be big challenges. But, if it works, Rwanda will look very different, and perhaps be a healthier and more prosperous country, a quarter century from now.
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