31 Aug 2017

Making environmental conservation gainful for local communities in Burundi

Improved fireplaces have reduced pressure on Kibira National Park © ABN
Improved fireplaces have reduced pressure on Kibira National Park © ABN
By Jude Fuhnwi

Burundi is a small, densely populated country in East Africa with a hilly topography interposed with seasonal and permanent wetlands in the low-lying areas. The population density estimated at 420 persons per square kilometer of arable land is the root cause of environmental threats in the country.

Pressure on land has caused people to cultivate on shallow, infertile and easily eroded hillsides. Agricultural intensification in low-lying wetlands has added to siltation from surrounding hillsides to degrade these ecologically valuable areas. Much of the forest cover has been cleared off for timber and fuelwood and replaced by farms. The remaining natural resources and flora are found largely in the national parks of Kibira and Ruvubu, and in some protected areas of forest reserves spread throughout the country which have not benefited from continuous or effective management in recent years.

The Kibira National Park in north-western Burundi occupies about 40,000 hectares of land that extends from the border with Rwanda and has the only montane forest in all of Burundi. However, parts of this forest are under pressure from a range of activities carried out by locals. Felling of trees and cutting of bamboo for firewood by people in communities around Kibira, poaching and bushfires continue to damage the forest. Erosion is also common on the hills that overlook the Mpanda and Gashishi River.  Unsustainable harvesting of medicinal plants and overgrazing are leaving a bare landscape in parts of the montane forests and degrading surrounding areas. The impact of climate change is also a real problem for people in Burundi, including those communities around Kibira National Park that have witnessed the depletion of their natural resources.

In response to the persisting threats to their environment, plants and animal species in the country, BirdLife International’s partner in Burundi, the Association Burundaise pour la protection de la Nature (ABN) is working closely with a local volunteer group to sustainably preserve the remaining natural resources, rehabilitate degraded areas and improve the living conditions of people living near the Kibira National Park.

Community tree nurseries are a key part of Association Dukingiribidukikije's work © ABN

The local group known as Association Dukingiribidukikije was created in 2012 by local volunteers with the aim of protecting their environment as well as seek local solutions to some of the problems facing their communities like poverty and domestic conflicts. BirdLife recognizes communities as champions for the conservation of nature and engage them through Site Support Groups (SSGs) in key priority conservation areas. At the Kibira National Park, these volunteers through their local group, Association Dukingiribidukikije have worked diligently with BirdLife’s partner ABN to protect and maintain the natural environment.

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“The Association Dukingiribidukikije has worked closely with us to provide answers to the environmental problems. They planted 150, 000 grevillea plants on landed estates to prevent soil erosion and members of this association also helped people to build 2,000 efficient fireplaces in their homes to reduce the frequency of women going into the forest in search of firewood,” said Joseph Bizimungu, acting Chief Executive of ABN.

This local group also raises awareness about the importance of the Kibira National Park and activities that threaten its conservation. Members of the group have benefited from training and sensitization sessions, after which they generated and shared information with members of their community about the importance of preserving the Kibira Park.

Growing trees to support reforestation and agroforestry farming in communities © ABN

Many people living in and around Kibira do not have reliable sources of food and income to support themselves and their families, but the national park presents opportunities to reduce poverty and improve their livelihoods. The Association is aware of this and promotes sustainable income generating activities in the communities. They have introduced local farmers to agroforestry technics particularly the planting of fruit trees and helped communities to build and maintain beehives for the production and commercialization of honey.

“I look at the orange trees that I grow from seeds and see benefits in two or three years from now; when people will come to buy one fruit tree for US$30 to US$50,” said Bosco Hakizimana, president of the Association Dukingiribidukikije.

He says reforestation has reduced soil erosion significantly and the livelihoods of communities have greatly improved.

“Modern beehives that we introduced have helped us to produce up to 180 kilograms of honey this summer, which means an increase in our financial resources,” Bosco added.

The activities of Association Dukingiribidukikije have greatly influenced perceptions in local communities around the Kibira National Park about conserving biodiversity and many people in the area are now aware of the importance of conserving their natural environment.