THE BLOG

Naming Our Gorillas: Conserving Our Environment, Empowering Our Communities

22/06/2013 20:33 BST | Updated 21/08/2013 10:12 BST

This weekend in Rwanda's Virunga National Park, communities will gather to give names to the 12 mountain gorillas born in the last year. It may seem strange to name gorillas but for Rwandans, the ceremony we call Kwita Izina is both a celebration of a conservation success and a focal point for the country's commitment to preserving our environment.

In 2005, Rwanda made protecting our gorillas a national priority. We coupled tough anti-poaching measures with an innovative scheme to directly share tourism revenue with the local community to encourage them to play their full part in conserving our wildlife and the habitat they need.

The results have been remarkable with a 26 per cent increase in the number of mountain gorillas within our borders. When our gorilla population makes up well over the half the world's total, this is a stunning success. We are immensely proud that 161 mountain gorillas have been named since the first Kwita Izina was held eight years ago.

This success also brings financial benefits for our country. Our gorillas attract thousands of visitors from around the world. I am not at all surprised. There is nothing on earth as adorable as a new born gorilla or as spell-binding as a close encounter with a full-grown silverback. The experience helps explain why our tourism industry is growing so strongly and now generates over US$281 million annually.

But Kwita Izina is also a symbol of how Rwanda has set about wider environmental challenges such as tackling climate change. We are a low producer of greenhouse gases and our extensive forests make us a carbon sink. But this does not, of course, protect us from the impact of climate change. Nor do we believe it absolves us from action to combat it.

Since 1970, our average temperature has risen by 1.4 Celsius, which has led to increased rainfall intensity and an associated rise in flooding, landslides and soil erosion. Population growth and urbanisation are adding to these environmental pressures and, in the long-run, to climate change itself.

So we have set ourselves an ambitious goal to build a climate resilient low carbon economy by 2050. We are putting in place programmes to curb our biggest sources of GHG emissions in agriculture, energy and transport. These include geothermal power generation, integrated soil fertility and sustainable land management, high density walkable cities, a robust climate-proof road network and agro-forestry which allows wood for social protection without deforestation.

Let me give you just one small example of the changes we are making. As in many parts of Africa, plastic bags were once a scourge throughout Rwanda. They littered the landscape, clogged up waterways and killed cattle and fish. So in 2008, the same year UN Habitat gave Kigali the Scroll of Honour award for its urban conservation model, we banned them outright. Countries across the world are now looking to copy our example.

Delivering a green economy is a great deal harder than it sounds. It requires discussions about food security, employment creation, inclusive growth and equality, resource scarcities and industrial growth. The costs of such an approach are sometimes more evident than the long-term dividends. This can be tough to justify in an economy that is only beginning to take off.

But we have recognised that success requires us to empower communities and ensure our citizens own the environmental cause. How can we ask citizens to stop poaching or cutting down trees, for example, if they don't have an alternative income? So our first priority in planning environmental initiatives is how will this affect local communities? How can we get them on board? We actively involve them in deciding the best way to deliver on our ambitions.

Each country is, of course, different and solutions must be tailored to each society. But todays's Kwita Izina ceremony underlines the fact that they work much better when the community has ownership of the process and the results.