Forging Stronger Bonds Between Rwanda and AUNE

Jean-Pierre Kabuyenge is a biology professor at the National University of Rwanda who is spending a month at AUNE as a visiting scholar. He was invited by the Department of Environmental Studies and faculty member Beth Kaplin.

Learn more about Jean-Pierre here.

Here, he talks about his plans for his time at AUNE and the environmental problems in Rwanda that he hopes to help address.

AUNE: What do you hope to do while you’re at AUNE?

Jean-Pierre: One of the most important things will be to get to know the university, because it’s an important part of our biology department at the National University of Rwanda (NUR), which has developed a master’s program in conservation science with the help of Beth Kaplin. We just finished the first year of the program.

Second, I will be working with various persons involved in environmental studies and I’ll also get to know the staff, so I can talk about our university and look at cooperation between AUNE and NUR. I want to move forward our MOU (memorandum of understanding) and to figure out our long-term cooperation.

I will also get involved in some activities with the Department of Environmental Studies, especially getting to know the methods for collecting data. We need these tools for decision making, because in Rwanda these skills are rare and can be very useful to NUR and to our country, where environmental and climate change is an important issue. And I also want to improve my English.

My dream is to someday get a PhD in environmental studies from AUNE.

AUNE: How did you revise the curriculum in biological sciences in order to introduce conservation biology and then create a master’s program in conservation biology?

Jean-Pierre: We had a problem because the number of students in the biology department was decreasing. The students’ perception was that the only careers open to them were as teachers, which they consider low-paid and with few opportunities. With the introduction of the conservation biology master’s program, it helped very much to bring in the conservation aspect – we’re now focusing more on botany, zoology and conservation. It will open up more opportunities for students to study and become more involved in something besides teaching, such as research and environmental awareness, and with NGOs working in conservation.

From NUR, there are two additional students doing master’s degree work at AUNE. That’s one of the core aspects from our cooperation— AUNE can participate in staff development because there are very few conservation biology staff in Rwanda.

AUNE:What environmental problems does Rwanda wrestle with?

Jean-Pierre: One problem is that the country has a high density of people – the highest in Africa. We have to protect our remaining protected areas and other natural resources so we can use sustainably the resources that are there. [Rwanda has four protected areas, including three national parks, that cover ten percent of its territory.]

We are raising knowledge of the environment and telling people that their lives depend on sustainability. More people are organizing cooperatives, becoming involved in reforestation, and managing resources, and this is something that is encouraging.

There are other issues in Rwanda, all related to pressures on natural resources and protected areas. Those areas are being reduced continuously and they must be protected at all costs. Rwanda has a chance to hold the mountain gorillas whose homeland crosses the boundaries of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Mountain Gorillas
Rwanda is very good at protecting mountain gorillas. They were almost extinct, but their numbers are now growing. But their living space is very much reduced as more gorillas are driven to the mountains, especially from other countries where they are poached. There is lots of tourism to see the gorillas and this makes people more and more aware that the species needs protecting.

Another issue is the remaining forests, like Nyungwe Forest National Park in the southwest of Rwanda and Burundi. They are being destroyed in Burundi because of politics and tea plantations. We need more educated people and to counsel decision makers so that wise and thoughtful decisions can be made.

Another thing we would like is community-based conservation. There is government regulation from the top down but punishing people doesn’t stop resource abuse, because of the poverty. But if, on a local level, you can show that cooperation could increase tourism and if the revenue from that tourism could go to schools, health care and roads, you could change the option from destroying to knowing that the reserves have something to bring to the improvement of their lives. If people get income, it will change fundamentally their perception of the protected area.