Oxford University, 5 July 2009

  • Your Excellency, Mohamed Nasheed, President of the Republic of Maldives;
  • Lord Patten , Chancellor, University of Oxford;
  • Sir David King, Director, Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford;
  • Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen:

This Forum on Enterprise and the Environment, with its specific focus on climate change, could not have come at a more opportune time.

Our environment deserves urgent and greater attention with concrete actions on the part of the whole global community.

From the African perspective, the call for action to save the environment is critical because our continent remains the most vulnerable landmass to the effects of climate change.

The main challenge for us in Africa is to become more active in the global discussion on the environment, and become part of the solution – we have tended to leave environmental discourse and practices to international agencies, experts, and specialists.

In this respect, I thank the organizers, especially Sir David King – a good friend of Rwanda – for this opportunity to talk to you tonight on our country’s development and environmental challenges.

Part of the reason why Africa remained on the margins of environmental debate is that it was a continent in different kinds of crisis for much of the recent past; the good news is that most countries in Africa are now enjoying peace, stability, democratic governance, and a measure of economic growth and development.

Before the current economic crisis, Africa’s emerging markets were becoming a reality, characterized by stock markets able to attract considerable global financial investment.

In this broader context, Africans are recognizing the fact that because we still largely depend on natural resources for sustaining livelihoods, our socioeconomic fortunes are inseparable from the better management of the environment.

If you endanger the latter, you fail to achieve the former.

We fully realize this in Rwanda – I will shortly illustrate how past conflicts, ill-informed policies, and demographic pressures combined to lead to severe environmental degradation.

We have confronted these realities in the past decade, and achieved positive results that are proving to our people that progress in both environmental management and development is not adversarial but symbiotic.

The principal challenge facing us is the creation of adequate capacities in public and private sectors to adopt better technologies for pursuing our development needs without harming the environment.

Our postcolonial history up to 1994, as some of you might be aware, was ridden by conflict that led to mass dislocations of our population internally and externally.

During these conflicts, governments could not manage human movements – thousands freely settled in vital environmental reserves such as wetlands and rainforests.

In these circumstances, the environmental roles that such natural systems play, including the regulation of downstream water courses and resources, became severely compromised.

Poor response to demographic pressures in the 1970s and 1980s had similar impact – this resulted in land invasion and illegal human and livestock settlement in important biodiversity areas.

Bad policies compounded these problems – in this case, the government at the time pursued a deliberate course of settling people in sensitive eco-systems thereby becoming the main agent for ecological degradation.

I would now like to illustrate the devastating impact of the noted policies and actions in Rwanda using two examples.

Agricultural reclamation and settlements almost dried up one of Rwanda’s key water sources – the Rugezi Wetlands.

The importance of the Rugezi Wetlands goes beyond our borders – this water 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 Rwanda considerable local biodiversity was lost.

Further, the extreme fall in water levels in downstream lakes impacted Rwandans in one form or another, most notably in power-generation as this reservoir supported hydropower generation of two key stations that ceased to operate at the height of this crisis.

The shortfall caused by the degradation of Rugezi Wetlands proved doubly expensive – we had to spend sixty-five thousand US Dollars daily to use a polluting alternative source, diesel, to generate supplementary power to meet our nation’s needs.

Another example is the case of the Gishwati Forest – a combination of bad policies and illegal clearance of this reserve introduced livestock programs that resulted in drastic loss of forest cover.

Like other forests, Gishwati Reserve served key environmental roles, including the maintenance of soil quality, limiting erosion, stabilizing hillsides, modulating seasonal flooding, and protecting downstream water resources from siltation.

The loss of much of this forest’s cover led to severe climatic disasters; for instance heavy rains and floods late last year destroyed over two thousand hectares of crops, almost two thousand houses, and over one hundred schools in the vicinity of the reserve.

Important infrastructures including the highway that links us to neighboring countries were seriously damaged.

We simply could not continue with business as usual.

I am happy to state that we have been implementing policies to reverse the decades-long degradation of our environment.

In the case of the Rugezi Wetlands, resettlement of human population, removal of cattle, and tree planting has seen the resurgence of this national asset with multiplier effects on other socioeconomic sectors.

Not only is the biodiversity recovering, so is the economic infrastructure that had previously ceased to operate.

Today the hydropower plants supported by the Rugezi marshland are operating at nearly full capacity, reducing by half the use of diesel generators.

Other low carbon sources are soon coming on stream, including methane gas, solar, and hydropower that should enable us to phase out diesel generators altogether – and increase our energy supplies.

The Gishwati Forest is also being rehabilitated – this task is among our topmost national priorities.

Once again Rugezi Wetlands hosts a rich biodiversity especially in rare birds; the Gishwati Forest used to be home to chimpanzees and golden monkey – and should reclaim this status again.

We have learnt some important lessons from these experiences– including the fact that not only government officials, but the population at large has to buy into the reality that the environment is a critical element for their subsistence, and that they have a stake in conservation.

This is absolutely critical – and it is in this sense that in Rwanda we are ensuring that, for example, tourism receipts earned from nature reserves are shared by nearby communities.

That is the most effective way of persuading these communities that it pays to protect the environment.

We see the restoration of our ecosystems as a means to further enhance a high-end tourism strategy that is environmentally friendly – which should enable us to diversify away from the Gorilla-tracking that has been driving this industry.

I should note here that this strategy is serving us well – it has led to a dynamic tourism sector that is a key earner of foreign exchange for our country.

Because of our complex and troubled history, we are latecomers in building a strong human capital base, including the scientific and technological knowledge required to address our developmental and environmental challenges.

Creation of a critical mass of professionals, technicians and artisans in all fields remains a particularly tough task.

We need scientists, researchers, better-informed public servants and innovative entrepreneurs to appreciate that ecosystems perform important ecological functions and constitute socioeconomic opportunities.

Low-carbon economies are sustained by dynamic and creative entrepreneurs ready and able to adopt new technologies.

The challenge in Rwanda is to foster a stronger business community so that it can become a more effective vehicle for technology transfer.

We continue to make progress in improving our investment climate for Rwandan businessmen and women and foreign investors.

I trust that this forum on enterprise and environment will consider the case of developing countries that have a dual challenge of fostering their private sectors and promoting a low-carbon economy.
Let me end my remarks by sharing with you that Africa is determined to act as an equal partner to address climate change.

We look forward to the Copenhagen Meeting and to solutions that should emerge from it.
In preparation for this forthcoming summit, we have been engaging continentally.

For example, earlier this year, Rwanda hosted an African Ministerial conference that brought together Finance and Environment ministries to discuss the financing opportunities and challenges around climate change.

Resolutions from that meeting are being taken up in various preparatory workshops that should lead to a stronger African voice at Copenhagen.

The key message is that Africa should commit itself to ensuring that the environment remains at the centre stage of our development discourse and good practice.

In this respect, we look forward to the invaluable counsel that will certainly emerge from this Forum on Enterprise and Environment, and appreciate the organisers and our hosts tonight at Oxford University for an excellent meeting.