NASA has released satellite images of the Gishwati Forest in Rwanda that reveal stunning destruction between 1986 and 2001. Refugees who have made their homes in the Gishwati Forest after the 1994 genocide have cleared and cultivated it for survival, leaving only 600 of the forest's original 100,000 hectares, a loss of 99.4%.
"According to UNEP, the reserve's forests were largely intact in 1978, and substantial forest cover still remained in 1986. But in the 15 years that elapsed between these images—a time that spanned the country’s tragic genocide—wave after wave of refugees arrived in Gishwati Forest and began clearing it, often for subsistence farming," wrote Michon Scott and Rebecca Lindsey on NASA's Earth Observatory site. "By 2001, only a small circular patch of native forest remained—1,500 acres of the forest’s original 250,000."
The Gishwati Forest has been the setting for recent violence, stemming from the government’s plan to relocate the refugees in Ruhango Sector. In May, furious residents tore down 70,000 trees in protest of the eviction. They say the area they would be moved to is too small and barren to support them.
The Rwandan government maintains that over-exploitation of the Gishwati Forest is solely responsible for the humanitarian disasters of recent years including landslides and floods.
Rwanda’s Minister of Environment and Natural Resources, Stanislaus Kamanzi, called the refugees “primitive”.
"I had done my best to explain to them the importance of the good work that various organizations are doing to save Gishwati forest which is almost being eaten-out by human activities."
NASA says the loss of forest has a number of significant environmental impacts including soil erosion and degradation and a tremendous loss of biodiversity.
Conservationists are currently working to build a corridor of native forest between the Gishwati Forest and the Nyungwe Forest National Park so that displaced wildlife, including chimpanzees, can find new homes.