Kigali, July 10 2009

In Africa the pursuit of socioeconomic objectives has too long been seen as separate from protecting our environment

For far too long in Africa, as on other continents, the pursuit of socioeconomic objectives has been viewed as separate from the urgent obligation to protect our environment. Striking the right balance between these two imperatives is not something that can be postponed, as neglecting conservation jeopardises the attainment of sustainable development.

We in Africa are witnesses to the alarming disappearance of biodiversity — rich wetlands and rainforests, and the accompanying loss of indigenous species and natural habitats.

But we have also seen the reverse — where resettlement of human and livestock populations from fragile habitats have led to the resurgence of original ecosystems that in turn has multiplier effects on socioeconomic sectors that generate wealth.

Reforestation efforts in parts of our continent, including in Rwanda have shown that, with the right approach, we can undo severe environmental degradation. Replanting trees limits soil erosion, stabilises hillsides, modulates seasonal flooding and protects downstream water resources from siltation. Where this action has been pursued aggressively in Africa, it has proved the point that development and protection of our environment need not be hostile to one another.

In Rwanda, no case illustrates this argument better than the rehabilitation of the Rugezi Wetlands, located in the northern part of our country. An area rich in biodiversity, especially rare bird species, it is also a key source of water supply for Rwanda’s economic infrastructure needs. The wetlands feed two big lakes, Burera and Ruhondo, and drive hydropower generation at Ntaruka and at Mukungwa downstream. The importance of the Rugezi Wetlands goes beyond Rwanda’s borders. This reservoir is a key supplier to Lake Victoria and the White Nile and, therefore, affects the livelihoods of the Nile Basin population from Rwanda to Egypt.

In the past human and livestock populations that settled near these wetlands caused a loss of ground cover that resulted in lower water levels. The damage to this habitat was so severe that the birds migrated and electricity generation effectively ceased, seriously affecting Rwanda’s power supply. However, corrective measures are bearing fruit. The removal of cattle and the restocking of indigenous plants have produced a resurgence of the ecosystem. Not only is the biodiversity of the area recovering, the hydro dams that lay idle because of low water levels are driving power generation .

Rwanda and the rest of the developing world rely on natural resources. Neglecting conservation and failing to mitigate climate change will adversely affect our tourism, proving that there can be no effective development strategy without an equally effective conservation agenda. That is why we must involve environmental challenges in the broader development dialogue and agenda. The forthcoming Copenhagen meeting is an opportunity for Africans and other citizens of the developing world to participate actively in the global discourse on climate change and to offer innovative solutions to our development and environmental challenges, which must be addressed together, not separately.