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Published on : Monday, April 11, 2016
Perched on the steep slopes of Rwanda’s hilly north, Rubaya village used to suffer from soil erosion caused by heavy rains, which were washing away the most fertile soil, and sometimes even houses or large chunks of the hills. This was affecting the community’s agricultural productivity, pushing it into poverty.
Yet since 2010 a profound change has taken place here, transforming the village into an inspirational model of how to integrate economic development with environmental sustainability, how to reduce poverty through reducing vulnerability, and how to make the environment everyone’s business, including those in central government.
UNEA-2: Delivering on the 2030 Agenda
Sustainable Development Goals
Sustainable Development Goal 1: No Poverty
Watch a video from Rubaya village
In May this year, countries will meet in Nairobi for UNEA 2 – the world’s de facto “Parliament for the Environment” – to discuss how the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) can deliver environmental action that benefits the health and livelihoods of people. Projects, such as the one in Rwanda, will help in finding an integrated approach to act on environment, economy, health and inequality – a crucial element of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Ms. Muhawenimana Solange, the young leader of Rubaya’s cooperative says that since the village adopted a more holistic approach to environmental sustainability “we are getting more crops, yields are bigger and we live in better houses.”
Soil erosion impacts significantly on people’s livelihoods as agriculture generates 80 per cent of employment in Rwanda, covers 90 per cent of national food needs and contributes over 30 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Rwanda’s economy and its people depend heavily on natural resources: land, forests, waters and wildlife, as they provide the basis for farming, fishing, household energy and tourism. At the same time, these resources are under increasing pressure from a growing population, unsustainable use, soil erosion, deforestation and climate change.
The result is a steady decline in economic opportunities and well-being among poor and vulnerable groups and the achievement of national and global development goals. “We need no reminder that our planet’s biodiversity is under serious threat due to pressures from population growth, massive deforestation, climate change, pollution, and the unsustainable manner of exploiting our natural capital” said Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame.
Since 2005 the joint Poverty Environment Initiative (PEI) of UNEP and UN Development Programme (UNDP) has supported the Government of Rwanda to solve these challenges and to enhance the contribution of sound environmental management to poverty reduction.
Unsustainable use of natural resources is expensive
The first step was the “Economic Analysis of Natural Resource Management in Rwanda”, a PEI-supported study, which has demonstrated the economic costs of environmental degradation. The analysis found that the deteriorating state of Rwanda’s environment was causing the poverty to increase, livelihood opportunities to decline and provincial health budgets to inflate. The soil loss rate of 15 million tonnes per year was costing Rwanda two per cent of its GDP annually. This was equivalent to a reduction in the country’s capacity to feed 40, 000 people every year.
The PEI research has helped the Rwandan Government to adopt policies to reverse soil erosion. For example, the first Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategy introduced a specific target on soil erosion control and promoting sustainable agricultural practices through village level interventions. Rubaya residents were soon to experience these interventions first-hand.
Making the environment everybody’s business
In 2009, Rwanda’s Environment Management Authority (REMA) and partners, including PEI, launched the initiative that has transformed Rubaya into a model for pro-poor sustainable development. Adopting innovative technologies, including rainwater harvesting systems, use of biogas residue as fertilizer, tree planting for climate proofing and terracing, caused the agricultural productivity to shoot up. Excess production is now being sold in the market, generating an annual income of $26,000 for the womenled cooperative that manages the initiatives.
The provision of clean water and energy from rain harvesting and biogas has dramatically improved the quality of life of women and children who no longer have to spend hours on lugging water from far-away wells of foraging for firewood. Instead, they can pursue more productive activities, including school work.
Mrs. Solange proudly says that “before at this site, the poor people were the poorest among the poor but if you see them now, they look better off. Living conditions are better.” Today all district development plans in Rwanda include the objective to establish at least one green village, such as Rubaya. Works have already started in Muyebe village, with support from REMA and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA).
Rwanda’s experience can serve as a model of how green policies can bring about radical change on the ground. At the upcoming UNEA countries will exchange such experiences in the hope to scale them up and adapt to local conditions elsewhere. An environmental forum with a universal participation of 193 UN countries, UNEA is the perfect opportunity to make local success stories global.