Site icon Conservation news

In Burundi, one-time combatants who razed forests now raise seedlings

Burundian soldiers in a nursery.

Burundian soldiers in a nursery.

  • In 2018, Burundi launched a vast national reforestation program to boost the country’s dwindling forest cover, which will run until 2025.
  • Burundi has just 6.6% of its original forests remaining, the legacy of a brutal civil war in which forests weren’t spared the violence inflicted by either side.
  • Today, the formerly warring factions are working together on the reforestation project that has been hailed as a fantastic initiative, especially as the planted trees are varied.
  • However, key civil society stakeholders in nature conservation are calling for these efforts to be followed by awareness-raising campaigns among local populations and communities, to protect seedlings that have already been planted.

In 1993, the democratically elected president of Burundi, Melchior Ndadaye was assassinated in a coup. At the time, the country’s democratic institutions were still only three months old. The incident set off long-simmering ethnic tensions, leading to what would become a decade-long civil war.

“We ate whatever we found on our path. We knocked down trees here and there for cooking. The forest hid us and fed us during the civil war,” said Ndayuwundi Joseph, a war veteran and now a member of a local reforestation committee in central Burundi.

During the war, much of the country’s forests were destroyed. Today, only about 6.6% of the original forests remain, according to the Burundian Office for Environmental Protection (OBPE).

‘When two elephants fight, it is the trees that perish’

A Burundi saying goes “when two elephants fight, it is the trees that perish.” This adage highlights the war that Burundi has experienced, when the forests perished amid the conflict.

Today, communities are working on reforestation alongside the Burundian military and police in an act that’s more than just symbolic. They represent large communities that use a lot of wood for cooking. Many former warring factions today have joined together, integrating veterans to make up security and defense groups.

“What I saw in the ’90s was terrible,” said Barampama Laurent. “Soldiers burned the forests searching for the rebels. The rebels in turn used the forest to hide. The forest was their home and their source of food … All of this was destroying the environment.”

Laurent and about 20 other people are community members of Shoots and Roots Burundi, who maintain tree nurseries to grow the seedlings used in the tree-planting campaign.

People carrying firewood collected from from forests in Burundi. Image by Fabrice Mbonankira/ Kalu Institute via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Getting the mountains ‘dressed’

In 2018, the government launched a tree-planting campaign called “Ewe Burundi Urambaye!” which literally translates as “A well-dressed Burundi!”

Prime Minister Allain Guillaume Bunyoni expressed concern about the pressure on nature caused by human activity.

“Before, all we saw was banana plantations, fruit trees, oil palms,” he said. “Now, we see none. The mountains are bare, which is causing the flooding that puts our infrastructure at risk.”

The ultimate objective of the project, he said, is not only to fight climate change but also to raise awareness and mobilize the entire population to take part.

“The project is yours. There is no sustainable development in a country where the environmental sector is ridiculed,” Bunyoni said. “You must take ownership of it, as it will protect your viable land against erosion, and make it more fertile.”

At least 150 million trees planted

Since the start of the campaign four years ago, at least 150 million trees of various species have been planted across the country, over an area of 50,000 hectares (123,600 acres).

Prime Niyongabo, the army chief of staff, who oversees the coordination committee and the execution of the tree-planting project, the first phase was to organize “censuses of all the non-reforested state areas,” followed by establishing “nurseries and verifying the types of trees to be planted.”

Some species, such as eucalyptus, have been ruled out because they pose a threat to small rivers once planted along them.

Destructive activities

According to local media reports, some of the plants have been uprooted by unidentified people, especially in eastern Burundi.

According to Radio Isanganiro, in a report from a few months ago, at least 50 hectares (124 acres) of the project plantations have been burned or affected by destructive activities by unidentified people.

But for forest activist Leonidas Nzigiyimpa, winner of the 2019 Wangari Maathai “Forest Champions” award, raising awareness among local populations is also crucial, along with planting trees.

Deforestation for agriculture in Burundi. Image by jane boles via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

According to Nzigiyimpa, local communities must play a fundamental role in planting and protecting trees, even though the trees are planted in public spaces.

There are people who for the most part “have not yet understood the importance of preserving forests, who think that these are useless spaces that must be cultivated and valued in another way,” he said.

Nzigiyimpa even proposed sanctions against anyone caught destroying planted trees.

Additional measures

Additional measures laid out in a presidential decree have the specific objective of helping people to solve certain essential needs or to develop income-generating activities.

They will also make it possible to reduce obstacles to local development, but above all to acquire the knowledge and skills to restore and/or preserve the management of environmental resources.

Another activist has suggested there needs to be a change of mentality. Faustin Ndikumana, president of a local anti-corruption NGO, said the project needs good governance above all.

For him, these measures should be “accompanied by an improvement in governance, good management of public affairs as well as concrete awareness-raising actions to foster a change of mentality.”

The initiative is good, but it still lacks support measures, Ndikumana added.

Meindert Brouwer, an ecology writer and researcher, said “reforestation in Burundi is very important.” Brouwer, best known for his conservation publications, in particular his latest work, Central African Forests Forever, said the “analog forestry” policy adopted by Burundi — which replicates the plant diversity found in a natural forest rather than focusing on planting as many trees as possible — is important.

“How reforestation happens is especially important. Analog forestry is a good method of reforestation,” Brouwer said. “A forest with several different trees is better than a forest with only a few tree species.”

Banner image: Burundian soldiers in a nursery.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s French team and first published here on our French site on Dec. 31, 2021.