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Rwanda’s ‘Tougher’ Forest Bill Stirs Public Debate

A bill governing forests and trees which is awaiting parliamentary adoption, is proposing stricter provisions, including outlawing the harvesting of ‘immature trees’. This could lead to a reduction in firewood and charcoal production and use, as well as wooden construction, according to some members of the public.

The bill seeks to replace the law governing the management and utilisation of forests, which was enacted in 2013. The new draft law widens the scope to also capture the management of trees and adds the dimension of tree planting, agroforestry, and planting trees along rivers, lakes, roads, and urban settlement areas, among others.

Among other provisions, the bill prohibits harvesting, use, and sale of immature trees (poles) unless approved by the ministry in charge of forests for ‘particular reasons’. Pole means an immature tree, with a diameter of less than 20 cm, as per interpretation in the bill.

Under the bill, a person who uses poles without a permit commits a fault, and is liable to an administrative fine of between Rwf500,000 and Rwf3 million, while a person who trades poles is liable to an administrative fine of Rwf3 million.

The Coordinator at Rwanda Climate Change and Development Network (RCCDN), Faustin Vuningoma, told The New Times that prohibiting people from cutting their immature trees, yet they have to cook but lack any other source of cooking fuel to be able to do so, will have a negative implication on them.

“If the bill does not provide for alternatives [to firewood and charcoal], it will impoverish Rwandans through paying fines [imposed on cutting immature trees for cooking],” he said.

“This is a very sensitive bill that touches the lives of people, such that there is a need for adequate consultations before Members of Parliament put it to a vote,” he said, pointing out that citizens should have a say about it since it is not only providing for State forests but also individual trees.

“As environmentalists, we need such a bill [which is intended for greater forest and tree protection] … But, it should have provisions/articles that protect residents, such that its enforcement does not oppress them,” he said.

Though Environment Minister Jeanne d’Arc Mujawamariya said residents will – through the carbon market – benefit from revenues generated from forest and tree capacity to sequester (absorb) carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, Vuningoma said that residents needed to use trees for various purposes in line with their welfare, including small trees being utilised to protect bananas from falling down, especially in case of wind.

“Will you let your banana fall down [because of lack of support], not construct a livestock shed, go without firewood because you are waiting for money to be generated from carbon trading,” he wondered.

If a resident cuts an immature tree from their own farm for use to support their bananas, they should not be penalised, unless they cut it from State forests or other residents’, he suggested.

Abbias Maniragaba, a climate expert and a consultant in inclusive green economy, told The New Times that the draft law was in line with Rwanda’s plan to increase tree cover and size as it is entering the carbon market.

“If a tree is small (immature), it will not capture a lot of carbon,” he said, indicating that “as a tree grows, it reaches a level where it generates profit for us.”

Steven Ntwari, a resident of Nyagatare District, told The New Times that residents must not be subjected to seeking permits for harvesting their own trees that they often need to use for various purposes.

“A resident grows eucalyptus for construction of a house or a kitchen. Telling them to request a permit any time they want to harvest it would be a demanding requirement,” he said.

Reliance on firewood and charcoal remains a hurdle

Vuningoma indicated that cutting trees in Rwanda has underlying factors, including that most Rwandans – about 90 per cent – depend on firewood and charcoal as cooking fuel.

According to the Fifth Rwanda Population and Housing Census 2022, the main sources of energy for cooking used by private households are firewood (76 per cent), charcoal (17 per cent), and gas (5 per cent), at the national level.

Currently, Minister Mujawamariya said, the government is investing efforts in the use of cooking gas among residents, including the expansion of storage facilities to ensure enough availability and supply of this cooking fuel to reduce reliance on firewood and charcoal.

On the use of cooking gas, Vuningoma said the cost is prohibitive as some residents cannot afford it due to limited financial means.

Maniragaba proposed that the government should provide incentives to lower the cost of cooking gas and encourage its use, “such that people will realise that charcoal is costlier than cooking gas and automatically switch to gas.”

Source : New Times