Local official sees another side of the world in Africa

Sean C. Morgan

Of The New Era

A Sweet Home Ranger District scientist spent a couple of weeks in Rwanda this summer as part of a team assessing environmental threats and opportunities for U.S. foreign aid programs.

“The purpose of the trip was to do an environmental threats and opportunities analysis for U.S. AID,” said Lance Gatchell, a hydrologist with the district who also serves as a Sweet Home planning commissioner.

U.S. AID, Agency for International Development, distributes foreign aid; but under federal law, before aid can be given, a bio-diversity and tropical forests assessment must be completed “to make sure anything this country is doing with this money is not negatively impacting the tropical forests or the biodiversity of this country.”

Every five years, a team visits nations receiving aid and conducts the assessments, Gatchell said. U.S. AID has an office in Rwanda, staffed mostly by Rwandans, with a few Americans.

“They’re the people we worked with,” Gatchell said. He was joined by four other team members, including a consultant from Vermont, another from Washington, D.C., and representatives from Uganda and Rwanda, to complete the assessment and develop recommendations.

The team had two weeks in June to look at the whole country and all of the environmental problems it may face, he said.

“I spent most of the time in the capital city in meetings,” Gatchell said. Most of that time was spent interviewing Rwandan officials.

The team spent two days on field trips, one day traveling east and another traveling west from the capital city, Kigali, which is located near the center of the small country. Gatchell said he didn’t get to travel to the northern or southern regions, which he thought was too bad because the north is most well known for its mountain gorilla, one of the most endangered and most protected creatures in the wild.

The gorilla was being destroyed by poachers, who would cut off the gorillas’ hands and sell them for millions of dollars as ashtrays, Gatchell said.

The land is old, he said. “One of the most amazing things about the natural landscape there is it escaped the recent Ice Age. The diversity that’s evolved there is exceptional.”

Giraffes and zebras are common, he said, and the land boasts more than 900 kinds of orchids. It’s one of the biodiversity hot spots of the world, with tropical African mountain forests to savannahs and hilly areas with wetlands and streams.

Traces of the 1994 genocide are all but forgotten except through memorials.

“The people definitely were united, every one,” he said. There is no longer such a thing as the Hutus and the Tutsis. Rwandans were given cards randomly identifying them as one or the other by the Dutch in the 1930s in an attempt to create an elite class to rule the country. A Hutu radio program sparked a genocide against the Tutsis in 1994.

The violence left more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus dead until Tutsi rebels defeated the Hutu regime and ended the violence in July 1994, according to the CIA World Factbook. Hutu refugees fled to neighboring Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zaire. Since then, most have returned to Rwanda, while several thousand have remained in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire, and formed an extremist insurgency bent on retaking Rwanda.

“It’s been a horrible part of their (history), and they’re done with it,” Gatchell said. The nation’s Genocide Memorial Center is a reminder and among the places he visited while staying in Kigali.

“They’ve done an incredible job educating people that we’re all the same people,” he said. “The people were really friendly, happy and open.”

Gatchell enjoyed getting a taste of Rwandan culture too, he said. “It was really neat to be able to go to the fancy, traditional restaurant.”

Food included chicken, lamb, goat and potatoes in a variety of curries, he said. Rwanda has a lot of Indian influence, along with French, which meant a lot of buffets and a croissant for breakfast.

The life and landscape in Rwanda, east Africa, were completely different from when Gatchell worked in Morocco while serving in the Peace Corps, he said. He also has worked in Micronesia and Indonesia.

Rwanda has three national parks, which include a volcanic caldera not unlike Crater Lake. Only instead of water, it is the world’s largest peat bog.

“Some of the destinations are so coveted and guarded, they go for $2,000 per night to visit,” he said. The tourist element has helped save some of Rwandan parkland.

Parts of a national park on the savannah were turned over to returning refugees, who collected firewood and hunted monkeys in the park after they resettled.

The people living on the edges of the park were using the resources the National Park was trying to preserve, he said. The park now charges visitors, and a percentage of the fee is now given to residents on the edges of the park “to show them it’s in their best interests not to destroy the park. It seems to be working. It’s working so much that, five years later, that’s no longer a significant threat in the country.”

The issue was raised in the 2003 assessment.

Gatchell said he’d like to return.

“Overall, it was great. I’d go back in a heartbeat,” he said. “I want to go back and do their watershed inventory.”

His time there was intense as his team tried to get through meetings with all of the different agency heads and environmental groups, he said. They had one day off. The rest of it was focused on environmental issues.

Gatchell and his team identified a number of threats to the nation’s ecosystems.

Among them, “population pressure was on the top of the list on all resources,” he said. Population pressure leads to everything from deforestation to starvation. Wetlands are drained to grow food, and Rwanda is draining wetlands the same way the United States did in the 1920s and 1930s.

Rwanda is the headland for the Nile River, and those wetlands are critical to the Nile. Acting as a sort of sponge, the Rwandan wetlands gradually release water into the Nile.

Drained off in ditches, he said, the Nile gets too much water or not enough water during the year, he said. “They’re trying to address it through agricultural practices and trying to implement laws to protect wetlands.”

Rwanda doesn’t have a clean water act or endangered species act, he said. “They don’t have the fundamental regulations that keep humans from destroying their own environment.”

Gatchell’s team is recommending that Rwanda pass a clean water act and a forest protection act.

“It’s a challenge for everybody not to destroy their wetlands, now that we know how important they are,” he said. “They’re a critical part of ecosystems.”

His team also recommended a complete watershed and wetland analysis of the nation to keep track of what it is doing.

Climate change also is an issue because the Rwandan environment is so fragile, Gatchell said. Some of the nation’s land-locked lakes are affected, and the Sahara to the northwest of Rwanda continues to grow.

Among its other environmental problems, Rwanda needs to treat water used to clean coffee beans, he said. The water used to clean the beans is acidic and deadly to fish when it reaches the streams. It’s a simple method of treatment, but to get it in place either requires a law or outside funding to build treatment facilities to protect Rwanda’s streams.

Pilot projects funded by outside sources are demonstrating how to do the treatment, he said.

Rwanda’s coffee industry is so important and the coffee so good, that the Rwandans have the equivalent of wine-tasting events for their coffee, Gatchell said. Winners receive a gold medal, and Rwandan coffee commands upward of $50 per pound.

“It was better than any other coffee I’ve ever had,” he said.