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The Republic of Rwanda has had one of the bloodiest histories of any modern nation. Under administration by a harsh Belgian colonial authority in the early 20th century, a minority ethnic Tutsi population was kept in place to rule over a majority ethnic Hutu (and lower class Tutsi) population. In 1959, the Hutus overthrew the ruling Tutsi king, setting off a slaughter that resulted in the deaths of several thousand Tutsis and forcing another 150,000 thousand into exile. Rwanda’s independence from Belgium in 1962 did little to check the ethnic cleansing. In 1990 the children of exiled Rwandans formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front and launched the country into civil war. Some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus became the victims of genocide in April 1994.
Although the ethnic cleansing was technically over by July of that year, some two million Hutus fled to Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda, and what was then Zaire. Although most refugees have returned to Rwanda, which is the most densely populated country in Africa, around 10,000 Rwandans remain in open rebellion in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Open elections have created a new government that has instituted political reform, and Rwanda has received substantial assistance from the international community, including acceptance into the Heavily Indebted Poor Country program. Nevertheless, the situation in Rwanda remains volatile.
More than 40 percent of Rwandan land area is arable, and 90 percent of the population is engaged in agriculture, generally subsistence, with coffee and tea providing most foreign exchange revenue. Most families farm about two-and-a-half acres each and have learned to use a number of methods to make the land as productive as possible. Natural resources include gold, tin ore, tungsten ore, methane, and hydropower; but these resources are not capable of making Rwanda economically sufficient. Women were particularly affected by the war, and the population as a whole is still suffering. With a per capita income of $1,300, Rwanda is ranked 201 of 232 countries in world incomes. Sixty percent of Rwandans live below the poverty line. The United Nations Development Progamme’s Human Development Reports rank Rwanda 159 of 232 countries on overall quality-of-life issues.
Rwanda is a landlocked country with 1,390 square kilometers of inland water resources. The terrain is mostly savanna with grassy uplands and hills that give way to mountains. Elevations range from 950 meters at the Rusizi River to 4,519 meters at Volcan Karisimbi. The climate is temperate with two distinct rainy seasons from February to April and from November to January. While temperatures tend to be mild in the mountains, frost and snow are possible. The entire country is subject to periodic droughts. The Virunga mountain chain, which is located in northwestern Rwanda along the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is volcanic.
One of the major reasons for the fragility of Rwanda’s population of 8,648,248 is the susceptibility to preventable diseases. Rwanda has a 5.1 percent HIV/AIDS adult prevalence rate, and 250,000 Rwandans are living with this disease that had killed 22,000 people by 2003. Recent studies have estimated that 8.6 percent of urban workingage women have developed HIV. Some 23 percent of Rwandans do not have sustained access to safe drinking water, and 59 percent do not have access to improved sanitation. As a result, the population has a very high risk of contracting food and waterborne diseases such as bacterial diarrhea, hepatitis A, and typhoid fever as well as malaria, a vectorborne disease. Consequently, Rwandans experience a lower-than-expected life span (47.3 years) and growth rate (2.43 percent), and a higher-than-expected infant mortality (89.61 deaths per 1,000 live births) and death rate (16.09 deaths per 1,000/ population). Rwandan women produce an average of 5.7 children each. While literacy rates are higher than those of the poorest African countries, 35.3 percent of adult females and 23.7 percent of adult males are illiterate.
Because land is at such a premium in Rwanda, the poor have made their homes in forests, destroying ecosystems and indiscriminately cutting down trees to use as fuel. Deforestation is occurring at a rate of 3.9 percent each year. Agricultural mismanagement has led to overgrazing, soil exhaustion, and soil erosion. The country is also experiencing an energy shortage. The loss of wetlands has made land areas more vulnerable to flooding and sedimentation and has adversely affected biodiversity.
Even though the government has protected 6.2 percent of land area, the encroaching human population and widespread poaching pose great threats to Rwandan wildlife. In the Nyungwe National Forest Reserve, for instance, the buffalo and forest antelopes have disappeared, and only six elephants are left. In all of Rwanda, nine of 151 identified mammal species are endangered, as are nine of 200 bird species. In 2006, a study by scientists at Yale University ranked Rwanda 89 of 132 countries on environmental performance, above the comparable income and geographic groups. The overall score was reduced because of the poor showing in environmental health.
The Ministry of Lands, Environment, Forestry, Water, and Natural Resources has the responsibility under the Organic Law on Environment Protection and Management to develop policies and strategies, oversee environmental impact assessments, and implement and monitor all environmental laws and regulations. In 2005, the government announced the creation of the Rwanda Environmental Management Authority to take on major responsibility for environmental protection. Sustainable development through poverty reduction was identified as the number one goal of a new program that targeted women and young people as major participants in instilling environmental responsibility.
Rwanda participates in the following international agreements on the environment: Biodiversity, Climate Change, Climate Change-Kyoto Protocol, Desertification, Endangered Species, Hazardous Wastes, and Ozone Layer Protection. The agreement on the Law of the Sea has been signed but not ratified.
- Central Intelligence Agency, “Rwanda,” World Factbook, www.cia.gov;
- Timothy Doyle, Environmental Movements in Minority and Majority Worlds: A Global Perspective (Rutgers University Press, 2005);
- Kevin Hillstrom and Laurie Collier Hillstrom, Africa and the Middle East: A Continental Overview of Environmental Issues (ABC-CLIO, 2003);
- Valentine Udoh James, Africa’s Ecology: Sustaining the Biological and Environmental Diversity of a Continent (McFarland, 1993);
- United Nations Development Programme, “Human Development Report: Rwanda,” hdr.undp.org.