Rwanda seeks to control public and private forests

Monday March 13 2017

Charcoal making in Nyamagabe District, Rwanda. PHOTO | CYRIL NDEGEYA

Charcoal making in Nyamagabe District, Rwanda. The number of households using firewood as the main cooking fuel had increased marginally from 88.2 per cent to 83.3 per cent over the past five years. PHOTO | CYRIL NDEGEYA 

By Johnson Kanamugire

Plans by the Rwandan government to bridge the widening supply-demand gap for wood have run into challenges due to scarcity of land and competing national priorities.

The country’s forest resources have come under increasing pressure from a growing population and overdependence on wood biomass as a primary source of energy.

The Ministry of Natural Resources says the existing supply gap has led to overharvesting of trees for fuel wood while another $100 million is spent on wood imports and products annually.

“These are pertinent issues we are seeking to address by changing the way we manage our forests. The devised strategies mostly focus on improved management frameworks, and diversification of tree species to enable the wood-based industry contributes to the economy,” said Amini Mutaganda, the head of the Forestry Department at the Rwanda Natural Resources Authority.

While a majority of the country’s tree resources are privately owned, Mr Mutaganda said the government is considering introducing a new forest policy to ensure centralised management irrespective of ownership to maximise production.

“The framework awaits Cabinet approval, but we want to have all forests managed on behalf of the owners,” he said.

Despite recent reforestation initiatives having boosted forest cover to 29.3 per cent in 2015, little was done with regard to boosting production in a bid to spur the solid wood industry. For instance, while the estimated supply of woody biomass in 2015 for energy, construction and timber wood stood at 2.7 million tonnes, the demand was 4.5 million tonnes.

Alternative cooking fuels

The gap is said to have led to the loss of about 50 per cent of production forests in the past two years, and 80 per cent in the past five years through overharvesting for charcoal and firewood.

Despite strict harvesting regulations imposed on owners and farmers of tree farms, the effects of overcutting have been felt in forests across different parts of the country particularly in Kigali City and its environs, which have fewer tree resources compared with other provinces.

Industry players told Rwanda Today that the supply and demand gap could further widen in the long run due to a growing population and slow uptake of alternative cooking fuels. The number of households using firewood as the main cooking fuel had increased marginally from 88.2 per cent to 83.3 per cent over the past five years, according to the latest integrated household living conditions survey.

Ministry of Natural Resources figures show the annual demand for woody biomass is more than double what is currently available. More than 70 per cent of the country’s trees resources are privately owned while government forests and district forests are at 28 and two per cent respectively.

Apart from limited space for new tree farms, low forest productivity has been blamed on dominance of particular tree species like Eucalyptus which, besides not giving average yields, are not suitable for quality timber and wood products.

Businessmen find the locally produced timber to be of low quality, which is why they resort to imported timber and finished wood products.

While the government considered addressing the gap by creating new tree farms across the country, a 2014 Forest Landscape Restoration Opportunity Assessment showed this could happen at the expense of other key national priorities.

“Expansion of the area under tree farms is only possible if other national priorities like those related to agriculture and food security are sacrificed,” says the analysis.

This implies that tree planting in farmlands and agro-forestry are the only remaining possibilities for the government to address major challenges facing the wood industry.

Teams carrying out forest cover mapping  had said the government could get over 140,000ha for tree farms around Akagera National Park as well as agro forestry on steeper sloping land in the North and Southern Provinces.

In the past, the government has signed partnerships with a number of local and international companies involved in wood industry development but their impact on the sector’s performance is yet to be documented.