Rwanda has the largest tropical mountain forests in Africa, which is home to closed canopy forests, bamboo thickets, and open flower swamps. Rwanda’s forests have historically played an important role in the economy and livelihoods of its people. In 2020, the forestry sector contributed to about 6% of Rwanda’s GDP and supported the agriculture sector, Rwanda’s main economic activity . Forests also provide around 86% of the domestic primary energy source for cooking, and form the basis of the country’s tourism opportunities.
According to a recent assessment by the GoR, 30% of forest area in Rwanda is under forest cover (Rwanda Forest Cover Mapping Report 2019), and is made up of plantations, natural mountain tropical forests, wooded savannah, shrubs and bamboo stands. The main forested districts in Rwanda are Nyaruguru, with 55% of its land occupied by forests (55,759 hectares), followed by Rusizi district, with 53% of its land being forests (48,255 hectares) .
Between 2009 and 2019, approximately 105,713 hectares were deforested in Rwanda (15.7% decrease in forest cover), while 139,674 hectares have been reforested (20.7% increase in forest cover in 2019) .
Amongst economic sectors, agriculture is the biggest driver of deforestation in Africa . In addition, Rwanda suffers from a strong dependence on the consumption of wood for the manufacture of charcoal. Household fuelwood consumption for cooking and lighting is estimated at 2.7 million tonnes per year, with charcoal accounting for around 50% of the total fuelwood used, implying an overexploitation of already sparsely populated forests .
Further, privately planted trees represent a large proportion of the country’s forests, but rarely deliver their full potential due to a mismatch between species and user-sites, limited management, and premature cutting . Public plantations have a very narrow species range, low stand, and stagnant growth due to fire damage and illegal logging with limited management and protection.
Key policies and governance approach
Rwanda’s National Forest Policy, implemented in 2004 and revised in 2018, has an ambition of making forestry one of the bedrocks of the economy and aims at ensuring a national ecological balance with sustainable benefits for all segments of society. Key governance areas of the Forest Policy include strong institutions, sustainable forest management, private sector participation, woody biomass energy, forest ecosystem conservation, participatory forest management, agroforestry and trees outside forest development .
Recently, Rwanda has partnered with the private sector to ensure the efficient management of the state-owned forests. The Ministry of Environment launched the first Private Forest Management Units in 2019 to safeguard individual forests and boost forest harvesting as a strategy to maintain and manage woodlots effectively. So far, 23,456.15 hectares (equivalent to 38.4% of state forests) are now managed by private investors through long term concession agreements .
In addition, Rwanda has also developed several sector plans to guide the implementation of the forestry sector, the main ones being the Strategic Plan for the Forestry Sector, the Forestry Investment Plan, the National Forestry Research Strategy and the National Agroforestry Strategy. The National Agroforestry Strategy (2018–2027) will support mainstreaming agroforestry as a key intervention into rural development .
Successes and Remaining Challenges
Major drawbacks to forest restoration in Rwanda are the growing population and the encroachment of farmland on forests. The situation is compounded by the huge demand on biofuels for energy, estimated at 85% of the current energy mix. While significant efforts are made to electrify the country, the demand for firewood remains high.
Despite continuing population and land pressures, in 2019, Rwanda reached its goal of increasing forest cover to 30% of total land area one year ahead of plan, and is now aiming to fulfil its Bonn Challenge commitment of bringing 2 Mha under restoration by 2030 .
The Government of Rwanda has invested in afforestation and reafforestation through an annual forest planting season. For instance, Rwandans planted 25 million trees during the 2020/21 Forest Planting Season in an effort to expand and restore forests and contribute to the global effort to address climate change. Rwanda’s monthly community service, known as Umuganda, is a home grown initiative that has provided the opportunity for people to engage in planting trees to increase the country’s forest coverage as well as protect the environment in their local area .
In addition, in 2015, the Government of Rwanda and its partners, through the Global Environment Facility, launched the Landscape Approach to Forest Restoration and Conservation (LAFREC). This project has resulted in the restoration of the heavily degraded landscape of Gishwati-Mukura (Fig. 1), a major success for Rwanda improving both productive and environmental values.
Initiatives and Development Plans
Rwanda has established Tree Seed Centres in Gatsibo and Huye districts to increase the availability of high-quality seeds. The centres will promote improved woodlot management, efficient charcoal production, alternative energy and, importantly, improved seed quality. The centres will build on Rwanda’s reforestation successes, and support efforts to scale up agroforestry across the country .
In cooperation with the GEF and UNDP, Rwanda has also launched an ambitious landscape restoration project to restore the natural forests of Amayaga in the southern province of Rwanda and benefit 1.3 million Rwandans. The project aims to advance the restoration of degraded forests in the region, whose landscape covers more than 0.14% of Rwanda's national natural forests .
Goals and Ambitions
Rwanda’s Bonn Challenge commitment is to bring 2 Mha under restoration by 2030. The country also aims to reduce household dependency on the use of firewood for energy to 42% by 2024 .
Fig. 1 Satellite image of Gishwati in 2006 and 2019 showing the major change in landscape in 13 years
- Rwanda should promote alternative sources of energy for cooking and modern fuel cooking technologies to reduce biomass energy consumption for domestic purposes, which is still estimated to be around 86%.
- The impacts of climate change will negatively affect the quality of Rwanda's forests, biomass and biodiversity; therefore, it is recommended that choices on reforestation, species-site mapping, forest rehabilitation, and forest conservation are fully climate informed.
- Encourage interagency coordination, and public-private and community partnerships in the planning and management of forest resources.
- Transition from a high dependence on biomass energy to a cleaner and reliable adequate supply of commercial energy at an affordable price to people is likely to remain a grand challenge for the Government of Rwanda. A massive investment in energy supply and infrastructure is needed.
 NISR, "Seasonal Agricultural Survey: Season A 2021 Report," NISR, 2021.
 Ministry of Environment (MoE), "Rwanda Forest Cover Mapping.," Kigali: Republic of Rwanda (RoR), 2019.
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 RWFA, "Forest Investment Program for Rwanda," Rwanda Water and Forestry Authority (RWFA), 2017.
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 REMA: Green Amayaga project, [Online]. Available: https://rema.gov.rw/index.php?id=106.
 GoR, "Seven Year Government Programme: National Strategy for Transformation (NST1) - 2012-2024," Government of Rwanda, 2017.