Following the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, the new government let small groups of displaced and returnees to settle around the Gishwati forest in current Rubavu district, Western Rwanda.
By 1999, a total of 10,184 families comprising of 42, 913 persons were settled. They found the forest terribly destroyed, and they also added more destruction.
About 20 years later, Gishwati Forest was today added to the list of UNESCO’s World Network of Biosphere Reserves. The move is culmination of radical decisions taken over the past two decades to restore the forest.
Biosphere reserves are sites destined to reconcile the conservation of biodiversity and human activity through the sustainable use of natural resources. One of their objectives is to give rise to innovative sustainable development practices. New reserves are designated every year by the International Co-ordinating Council for the MAB Programme, a body with a rotating elected membership of 34 UNESCO member states.
The journey of Gishwati reaching this point has been long, and painful for some whose livelihoods had to be erased by a determined government, the same one that allowed them to settle there in the first place. Thousands has waited in vain for promised compensation to date.
In mid 2009, satellite images released by the US space agency NASA showed that Gishwati forest had been destroyed to 99.4% level. This happened between 1986-2001.
Back in 1978, Gishwati forest was 100,000 hectares. NASA’s images showed just 600 hectares were left.
It is in February 2000 that government took the decision to relocate all the families from Gishwati forest. Ministers visited the region countless times to convince the settlers to leave.
At the same time, an ambitious reforestation program was launched. Nine years later government pumped $25m into restoring Gishwati and other forests.
Gishwati forest was merged with neighboring Mukura natural forest to create Gishwati-Mukura National Park in 2016, reaching more than 1.9 hectares of forest cover. Since then, government submitted the Park for the UNESCO recognition.
With this recognition, it means the Park and neighboring region will follow a strict three-function system.
All sites that are on the UNESCO list operate under what is called the “Seville Strategy”. It lays out the establishment of three zones for each biosphere: a strictly protected core area, allowing for the conservation of landscapes, ecosystems, species and genetic variations; a buffer zone around the core area for education and research; and a transition area surrounding the buffer zone for communities’ sustainable economic activities.
Speaking on the UNESCO designation, Belise Kariza, Chief Tourism Officer, Rwanda Development Board said in statement: “As Rwanda’s newest national park, the Gishwati-Mukura landscape is incredibly beautiful and rich in unique and valuable biodiversity. Rwanda has been working to protect and restore the area by investing in nature based solutions and forest landscape restoration.”
“I commend the efforts of all partners whose tireless work has led to the biosphere reserve status we celebrate today. Conservation not only preserves our natural heritage for future generations, but also plays an important role in fostering ecotourism as a pillar of economic development.”
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