Building capacity related to Multilateral Environmental Agreements in African, Caribbean and Pacific countries (ACP MEAs 3)

Interview with our coordinator in Kigali: "We must act NOW to protect, restore, rehabilitate and rebuild"

ACP MEAs 3 Rwanda National Coordinator Grace Uwamwezi is a passionate environmental scientist with a degree in Environmental Health, a Master's in Environmental Governance and 13 years' experience with international organizations that focus on environmental management, sustainable agriculture and livestock development in Africa. She says urgent action is needed to avoid deforestation and land degradation.

GU: I grew up looking at the beautiful rivers and mountains of my country, which is also called the Land of 1 000 Hills. Around the time that I was 15, I became aware that so many natural resources were being degraded due to a growing population, deforestation, and rising GHG emissions. That captured my attention, and I realized there is a need to act urgently. That is the main reason that I am very passionate about what I do today, especially with ACP MEAs 3 as it promotes sustainable farming that preserves biodiversity while feeding people in a healthy and nutritious way.

Prevention is better than curing

I always keep in mind that in terms of the environment, it is better to prevent degradation than to try to restore it after the fact. So for example there are ways to grow food that can prevent loss of biodiversity, and this is what we do as part of ACP MEAs 3 when we talk to farmers about agrobiodiversity, agroecology, agroforestry, and Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques. 

We also talk to them about using traditional knowledge for food security. For example, planting home or kitchen gardens with local varieties that are disappearing such as bananas, sorghum, vegetables, yams, and medicinal plants for people, crops and livestock. This ensures diversified and nutritious diets for people, creates habitats for pollinators, and builds up and preserves a biodiverse gene bank at the household level. 

It is very important to give farmers evidence that these alternative systems work. So with ACP MEAs 3, we brought on board a host farmer family whose land will be used to demonstrate good agricultural practices under the guidance of a team comprised of an agronomist, an environmentalist, a forest and cash crop officer, a veterinary officer and a socio-economic affairs officer.  

Each member of this team will set indicators and interventions for the host family to implement. The aim is to improve their nutrition and livelihood in a way that also conserves biodiversity and builds resilience to climate change. Thus, the host family can become a role model for sustainable agriculture. 

Currently we are also implementing Phase 1 of a pesticide management training programme in a district called Musanze. In this first phase the focus is on how to reduce the use of chemical pesticides and also how to manage them correctly by using the IPM principles: healthy seeds in healthy soil, crop rotation, preserving natural enemies of pests, timely action in case of pest attacks or disease outbreaks, and using botanical pesticides and recommended chemical pesticides and doses at the right time.

Overall the farmers seem really appreciative of the knowledge we are sharing with them on how to practice agriculture in a sustainable way that is not destructive of the environment. 

What the farmers say

The farmers have accepted the changes being implemented by the government, which is currently promoting the intensification of food crops such as beans, cassava, Irish potato, maize and wheat. Crop intensification entails using high doses of chemical pesticides, and the farmers worry about the fact that they don't know which of the chemicals are highly hazardous pesticides (HHPs) and which are not. 

Another issue they brought up is that they worry about protective equipment: they want to be provided with PPE and to be trained in pesticide management, because it's something they really don't understand very much.

When we talk about agroforestry, the farmers say they want be involved in choosing tree species that are adapted to the local environment, and they also want training on how to prepare and manage tree nurseries as well as planted trees. 

Usually, every year at district level, the nurseries and the choice of trees are entrusted to the private sector. This seems not to please the farmers: they say that sometimes the trees distributed to them don't correspond to their agro-ecological zones and their preferences. The following species are the most preferred by farmers: Alnus acuminata or Andean alder, Grevillea robusta or silk oak, and Markhamia lutea or Nile trumpet tree. They are all evergreens, and they do well on our farms.

The time to act is now

Increasing human activities and some bad agricultural practices caused by the use of HHPs and other agricultural inputs are killing off biodiversity, depleting the soil and degrading the environment. 

Even the farmers themselves have noticed that biodiversity and ecosystem services are decreasing on their land, and they claim that this is posing a risk to their agricultural production.

However the farmers cannot act alone to solve these problems. Without putting biodiversity and management of ecosystem services at the center of our planning, policy and programme implementation at all levels, we cannot achieve the SDGs.  

This is why I say we all need to act NOW in a holistic way to protect, restore, rehabilitate and rebuild our degraded environment and its biodiversity. And we must do so by meeting the needs of the current generation without compromising those of future generations.