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FOR PEAT’S SAKE – FINDING FODDER IN RWANDA’S RUGEZI MARSH

Lara Jordan, Drakensberg Coordinator, EWT’s African Crane Conservation Programme ACCP, laraj@ewt.org.zaAdalbert Aine-omucunguzi, East African Regional Manager, EWT’s (ACCP), AdalbertA@savingcranes.orgDaniel Munana, Rwanda Field Coordinator. danielm@savingcranes.org

One of the most densely settled countries in Africa is also home to some of the most impoverished communities, in which subsistence farming is how much of the human population survives. The Rwandan landscape is made of steep volcanic slopes, and where there once were forests, the slopes are now blanketed with terraced agricultural plots. The nutrient-rich soils that once fed the forest have become eroded, and the agricultural productivity for the families surviving on the denuded slopes is in decline. Rwanda is home to over 100 Endangered Grey Crowned Cranes, a species that has suffered a population decline of 80% across Africa in the last 40 years. Within these steep embankments is the 6,735-hectare Rugezi Marsh, which is the headwater to the White Nile, and this acidic peatland is one of the most important Grey Crowned Crane sites.

Rugezi Marsh is the source of the hydroelectric scheme into Lake Burera and supplies a third of the country’s electricity. The government of Rwanda, concerned about the increased usage of the irreplaceable peat landscape, declared the wetland Rwanda’s first Site of International Importance under the Ramsar convention. The Rwanda Environment Management Agency (REMA) removed all the inhabitants of the marsh and planted a 20 m buffer zone of trees extending around the wetland. Within this boundary, no agricultural activity is allowed.

Rugezi Marsh 6735 Ha of peat wetland, irreplaceable and vital for the surrounding communities of cranes and communities

Rwanda has a zero-grazing policy around Rugezi Marsh, and yet almost every community household has a cow that needs fodder. This need impels community members to enter the marsh illegally to harvest fodder, resulting in the overharvesting of vegetation from the marsh and the disturbance of breeding Grey Crowned Cranes, thereby reducing nest survival. Erosion on the slopes also impacts negatively on the marsh and the catchment and reduces the ecosystems’ functioning and life-giving water supply.

In response to these problems, the ICF/EWT/Kitabi College partnership, in collaboration with the Burera District Authorities in 2018 started a project introducing Napier Grass as a means to support the feeding of the communities’ cattle and protect the steep agricultural slopes to reduce erosion. The authorities provided two areas as nurseries for the project, where the grass was grown to feed livestock. Napier grass was chosen because of its fast maturity rate, hence an ability to meet community fodder requirements in a short time. The Burera district’s department of Agronomy has worked closely with us over the last 18 months and bought into our strategy and vision once we had presented the communities with their new fodder.

Cutting back the fodder (Napier Grass) for community distribution

This month, we were invited to a celebration where the local Rwandan authorities thanked the International Crane Foundation/Endangered Wildlife Partnership, Daniel Munana, and our partners Richard Nasasisa at Integrated Polytechnic Regional College, Kitabi College; and Dr Olivier Nsengimana and his Rwanda Wildlife Conservation Association for the dedicated effort to conserve the Rugezi Marsh Rwanda. The authorities acknowledged us as a great and dedicated partner who has made an incredible impact in the area by supporting 2,489 households to plant Napier Grass on their private land to feed their livestock, instead of harvesting vegetation from Rugezi Marsh. These households have also protected hillslopes from erosion hence conserving soil and water. There was also an improvement in their cattle’s milk production, leading to increased household income.

Distribution of hoes to grow Napier Grass for those community members that have joined the Conservation Agreements.

It is now compulsory for every community farm to have Napier Grass planted on the terrace lines to provide livelihoods, fodder, and improve soil and water conservation. Because the authorities are enforcing it through key deliverables in their Key Performance Areas, we expect long-term sustainable benefits for the whole ecosystem and its crane and human inhabitants.

Fodder Restaurant
Collection of fodder seedlings by the community for their livestock

In return for the Napier Grass provided to them, community groups committed to patrol Rugezi Marsh and report any illegal activities, including crane capture, to the government authorities. This commitment, coupled with patrols carried out by our partner, Rwanda Wildlife Conservation Association, crane capture cases have reduced to zero, and Grey Crowned Crane numbers are on the rise. In the first year of monitoring, there was zero breeding success due to the illegal trade of the birds. This year, we have seen many pairs fledge chicks, demonstrating the importance of the outcomes of this project, particularly our successful collaboration with the communities.

We want to thank our funders who have made it all possible: MacArthur Foundation for the earlier years, and more recently the CEPF and the Stiftung Feuchtgebiete (German Foundation for Wetlands).