Remember Rwanda? - A special report by James Gasana

Posted: 6 January 2003

Author: James Gasana

The Rwanda genocide of 1994 seemed inexplicable at the time. But a study of links between extreme environmental degradation and the enormous violence that occurred between Hutus and Tutsis could have important implications for stressed populations in other regions. Here, James Gasana, Rwanda's Minister of Agriculture and Environment in 1990-92, and Minister of Defence in 1992-93 shows how half a century of rapid population growth, land degradation, inequitable access to resources, political power struggles, famine, and betrayal, led to an ethnic bloodbath.

Mugunga campWomen cooking on lava flow at Mugunga camp near Goma, DR Congo© Lucien Niemeyer/LNS Art

Before the end of the 1950s, it was the Tutsis who dominated Rwanda, both sociologically and politically. Tutsis constituted only 10 to 15 per cent of the population, but they owned most of the arable land and accounted for more than 95 per cent of the chiefs and 88 per cent of the bureaucracy.

In 1959, however, a revolution by the Hutu peasants of southern Rwanda brought the Hutu to power and resulted in a redistribution of land to previously landless people. Many of the Tutsi aristocracy fled to neighbouring countries, particularly to Uganda, from which they launched counter-attacks against the Rwandan regime in the 1960s.

The Hutu, enforcing a one-party regime in which the Tutsi had no voice, lived from then on with the spectre of counter-revolution. The hostilities between the two groups were exacerbated by the Cold War, as the Communist countries helped arm the counter-attacks of the Tutsi refugees, while the Western countries provided support to the the Hutu regime.

In 1973, under pressure from both internal dissent and external attack, the regime was toppled by a coup d'état. Major General J. Habyarimana, supported by a northern faction of the army, took control from the southern-based group that had progressively assumed power after independence in 1962. Habyarimana was to hold power for the next 20 years, but under increasingly difficult conditions. It's the story of those two decades that explains the otherwise incomprehensible events of 1994.

Population explosion

The story begins with a country undergoing a population explosion that was to increase it from 1,887,000 people in 1948 to 7,500,000 in 1992-making it the most densely populated country in Africa. Most of the people were poor farmers, and in the 1980s, many of the poor got even poorer, as a result of what I call "pembenization"-from the Swahili word "pembeni," or "aside," as used in the Rwandan expression "gushyira i pembeni"-"to push aside."

One of the root causes of pembenization was, ironically, the land tenure programme established by the 1959 revolution as a means of giving the peasants a more equitable share in the country's assets. The revolutionaries did not foresee what would happen as children inherited their parents' land and divided it up equally. With the population expanding, the inherited pieces-many of them very small to begin with-got smaller.

At the same time, the land holdings of the elite who were in power got larger, as wealthy northern Hutus and their allies spent much of the 1970s and 1980s accumulating land for their own estates. Of course, this further reduced the amount of land available for peasant farmers. Many of the peasants moved to marginal land-to steep slopes and acidic soil, where crops barely grew. By 1989, an estimated 50 per cent of Rwanda's cultivated land was on slopes of 10 degrees or higher. Slopes this steep eroded severely when tilled, and the cycle of poverty worsened.

By 1990, the erosion was washing away the equivalent of 8,000 hectares per year, or enough to feed about 40,000 people for a year. Moreover, because demand for land outstripped supply, virtually all the cultivatable land (other than that being hoarded by the elite) was being used, and there was little opportunity to let fields lie fallow and regenerate. As a result, soil fertility declined faster yet.

Disappearing trees

Of course, as population grew, the demand for energy increased as well. Rwanda has been heavily dependent on biomass for energy-either wood or crop waste. Most of the energy in those years was provided by firewood. But with more people trying to get more firewood from smaller pieces of land, the country's trees were disappearing at an increasing rate. Deforestation on the steep-sloped lands made the ground more exposed to running water, and increased erosion still more.

In 1991, we estimated that annual tree growth would allow for about 1.9 million cubic metres of wood to be cut. Yet, actual wood consumption by then had reached nearly 4.5 million cubic metres. This heavy overharvesting had yet another impact on farm output: with the firewood supply diminishing, people were forced to increase their reliance on straw and other crop residues for fuel. That meant the residues were no longer going back into the soil. The loss amounted to approximately 1.7 tons of organic matter per hectare each year.

The compounding of all these factors led to a disastrous shortfall in food production. Two-thirds of the population of Rwanda was unable to meet even the minimum food energy requirement of 2,100 calories per person per day. The average person was getting just 1,900 calories-becoming gradually weaker and at the same time more desperate. Nor were there any readily available alternatives to subsistence farming. By the end of the 1980s, the unemployment rate for rural adults had reached 30 per cent.

Famine and war

Throughout the 1980s, the worsening of the rural situation, especially in the south where most of the poor farmers lived, had generated increasing resentment against the Hutu government, which was accumulating wealth for its mostly northern elite. It's important to keep in mind that the peasants and the people in power were both mainly Hutu, so this resentment was an economic, not ethnic, concern. At the end of the decade, however, with internal strife splitting the Hutus, the Tutsi-led rebels in Uganda judged that this would be a good time to declare full-scale war against the regime.

By 1990, then, the Rwandan peasants were being stricken by both starvation and war. In an interview with Radio Rwanda, representatives of a peasant association named Twibumbe Bahinzi declared:

"There is a generalized famine in the country, that is difficult to eradicate because it is only the cultivators-pastoralists [peasants] who are bearing its impacts while the 'educated' [the elite] are enjoying its side effects. Those who should assist us in combating that famine are of no use to us.... It will require no less than a revolution similar to that of 1959.... On top of this there is war. Even if the cultivators-pastoralists can still till the land, it is very difficult for them to work in good conditions when they have spent the night guarding the roadblocks, and are not sure that they are going to harvest...."

Rich and poor

In retrospect, this statement confirms that even under the added stress of war, the peasants did not at this point consider ethnicity to be the issue. It was still an issue of rich and poor, or north and south.

In 1991, with divisions among the Hutus getting worse, president Habyarimana was forced to abandon the one-party rule and allow a multi-party government. But he continued to hold on to the presidency. Some of the splinter groups tried to weaken him by recruiting bands of disaffected youths based in the south, who mounted a sporadic uprising and perpetrated acts of vandalism aimed at destabilizing the regime. The groups were called Inkuba, or "thunder," and Abakombozi, or "liberators."

The splinter group leaders spurred on these youths by linking their deprivation to the accumulation of land by the northern elite and its allies. It wasn't that simple, of course. There were other factors, including a collapse in the world market for coffee in the 1980s, which dropped the value of Rwandan coffee exports from $60 per capita in the late 1970s to $13 by 1991. But the political targeting evidently succeeded. A study of the patterns of Inkuba and Abakombozi acts of violence shows that these acts occurred most frequently in the areas with lowest income, most often in places where daily food energy intake had fallen below 1,500 calories per person.

The Hutus in power, fearful of losing their government positions and properties, also recruited young men for their protection. A youth wing of the governing party, the Interahamwe, was organized to protect the politicians and their lands from the opposition youths and from the large numbers of squatters who had fled their impoverished hillsides. In some cases, the Interahamwe "re-liberated" land that the youth groups of the opposition parties based in the south had seized or occupied.

A million refugees

Habyarimana worked hard to deflect the peasant opposition, personally lobbying farmer representatives to rally the peasant movement to his side and to abandon their rhetoric about rural poverty. He accomplished this by promising them that their concerns would be addressed, and by letting his supporters help them to deflect their anger from the elite Hutus to the attacking Tutsis.

By 1991, the Uganda-based Tutsi army was making that strategy easy for Habyarimana, as it was targeting Hutus in its guerrilla attacks. By now, thousands of Hutus were fleeing the war and the famine, and had become "internally displaced persons" (IDPs) gathering in refugee camps. The Tutsi rebels were more than happy to treat the camps as military targets.

By the time a cease-fire took place in 1992, the IDP population had reached 500,000. But the cease-fire was short-lived, as the plane crash that killed Habyarimana on April 6 1994, immediately reignited the war. By 1993, the number of refugees had reached 1 million, and by the end of the war about 100,000 had died. It was during this post-assassination period that the worst of the genocidal acts occurred.Rwandan orphansRwandan orphans, Mugunga camp near Goma, DR Congo© Lucien Niemeyer/LNS Art

The internally displaced persons, rather than finding themselves taken in and protected by fellow Hutus whose districts they had fled to, found themselves resented. There were too many of them, and they put impossible strains on traditional hospitality. Where population pressure had become increasingly unbearable on the farms, it became worse around the refugee camps, with IDPs adding heavily to host populations. As the war escalated, food energy dropped to 1,100 calories per person. And while the IDPs were increasingly resented by their fellow Hutus (the host populations, too, were now hungry), they were increasingly attacked and killed by invading Tutsis.

Mass exodus

In the two years before his plane was shot down, the embattled Habyarimana and his political enemies both took political advantage of the Hutu refugees' desperate circumstances. IDP children and teenagers, with no schools to occupy them and often no parents to guide them, became the principal recruiting base for the Interahamwe militias-the ones bent on sabotaging and destabilizing the regime.

At the same time, as the Tutsi invaders drove more Hutus from their homes, and killed more of them as they fled to the camps, the IDPs also provided a base for Habyarimana's retaliation against the Tutsi, and enabled him to reclaim some of the support he'd lost in the rich-poor conflict. For many of the Hutu IDPs, the harsh reality was that they were forced to choose between two warring camps: the camp of those who wanted them to die before voting, and the camp of those who wanted their votes before they died.

When the presidential plane crashed, it in a sense prefigured the crash of Rwandan society. Extremist Hutu politicians seized on the shock and fear of the moment, using the presidential guard and the Interahamwe, comprising mostly the Hutu youths from IDP camps near Kigali, to perpetrate the murder of rival Hutu politicians and the mass slaughter of the Tutsi. Their efforts to turn back the Tutsi failed, and by mid July 1994, the Tutsi-led RPF had taken over. Following this takeover, more than 2 million Hutu refugees fled to neighboring countries, including 1.2 million to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The mass exodus, predictably, had a devastating environmental, social, and political impact on the DRC.

Four lessons

In the report I wrote for the IUCN's Task Force on Environment and Security, I suggested that four lessons be learned from this tragic chapter in Africa's history:

  • First, rapid population growth is the major driving force behind the vicious circle of environmental scarcities and rural poverty. In Rwanda it induced the use of marginal lands on steep hillsides, shortening of fallow, deforestation, and soil degradation-and resulted in severe shortages of food.

  • Second, conserving the environment is essential for long-term poverty reduction. Consequently, it is essential for the long-term elimination of links between environment scarcity and conflict. In the long term, this is possible only if Rwanda adopts a bold population policy with aggressive family planning programs aimed at reducing the country's fertility rate. The pressures that produce conflict can also be reduced by adopting more sustainable forms of agriculture, based on techniques that improve soil fertility and increase fuel wood production.

  • Third, to break the links between environmental scarcities and conflict, win-win solutions-providing all sociological groups with access to natural resources-are essential. The winner-take-all model results in a society gripped by fear, which too easily is exploited by unscrupulous politicians, leading to ethnic enmity and violence.

  • And fourth, to prevent a bipolar ethnic conflict of the kind that ravaged Rwanda will require a rethinking of what national security really means. Certainly, it means placing human and environmental security ahead of the security of ethno-political regimes.

Latest census: Preliminary results of the population census in Rwanda, undertaken in August 2002, show that the population has reached 8.16 million - a growth if just over one million since the previous census taken in 1991. This relatively low (12 per cent) increase reflects the serious effects of the 1994 genocide.

This is a slightly shortened version of an article which first appeared in World Watch magazine (Vol 15, No. 5 2002), published by the Worldwatch Institute. It is based on a report for IUCN's task force on environment and security. © 2000 Worldwatch Institute; reprinted by permission.