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From 4th-6th June 2007 Journalists from 16 African countries (East and Central Africa) gathered in Kigali Rwanda to address environmental challenges in their respectve countries and to forge a way forward. The international conference for African network For Environmental Journalists ANEJ was organised by UNEP and funded by EU. Pius Sawa Murefu, attended the conference and here is the speech by Rwandas President Paul Kagame, who officially opened the conference on June 5th.

"To improve our joint efforts in this worthy cause, we need to reflect on a number of issues:

First, are we African governments individually and collectively paying enough attention to the environmental challenges that our continent faces – as part of the broader global effort?

Are we currently building adequate infrastructure, systems and human capacities to manage and anticipate Africa ’s environmental challenges in a manner that allows for ownership and relevant action?

Second, are our business communities joining this fight, by among other actions investing in innovative technologies that are less harmful to the environment?

Third, do our media establishments at present constitute viable channels for analysing and disseminating data and information on the environment for timely public consumption?

Capacities in the three sectors mentioned above are fundamental to addressing the continent’s environmental challenges.

the recent publication of the latest report on the state of the environment by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)makes it clear that the least developed parts of the world, especially Africa are the most affected by climate change. IPCC makes some dire projections on the basis of the current global environmental trends.

For example, Africa ’s temperatures will increase by at least 2.5 percent by the year 2030 – a change which will adversely affect the continent’s drylands and wetlands alike. While the former will get drier, the latter will become wetter, thereby severely worsening food security on our continent.

Rising temperatures and erratic rain falls – phenomena that are already evident, will hurt people by the millions, and significantly destroy animal habitats and biodiversity, which already exist in precarious circumstances.

The reality is that our continent finds itself, as is often the case, on the receiving end of a global challenge, that is largely not of our own making.

This is because heavy industrialisation of the affluent countries of the north is primarily responsible for present day environmental degradation including climate change.

We in the developing world, especially in Africa , have the right to ask the following question: why should we suffer from the continued excesses of the most developed countries?

But we have to face our own failings in terms of poor policy and practices that also contribute to the degradation of our environment.

We Africans, cannot therefore bury our heads in the sand and be paralyzed in the position of victim, in the face of this conundrum.

Rather, we have to rise to the occasion and confront environmental challenges locally and continentally.

We must also become a serious global constituency in the struggle for the preservation of our planet.

In the past decade, our continent has fought and won key battles – including those against bad governance and authoritarian dispensation.

Africa is generally extending democratic frontiers, improving administration and planning processes – all of which enhance business environment that in turn enables the creation of greater wealth for uplifting our people from poverty.

We must therefore take the environmental challenge in the same stride, for it is part and parcel of socioeconomic development.

In order for this to happen, African governments must provide leadership in key areas, for example, in building environmental infrastructure, and supportive human competencies.

Our record in this regard is rather poor.

As we speak, most of Africa is not able to gather accurate weather statistics of any kind - at a time when such data are badly needed to master weather patterns in order to plan.

The World Meteorological Organisation reports that most of the weather stations it helped to establish in Africa are currently in shambles – precisely when we need them most.

We need to end this disabling condition.

The African Union and regional economic blocs, as well as individual African states, have an urgent role to play in developing and sustaining improved infrastructure for credible weather-data collection, analysis and dissemination.

The African business community has a role to play as well by seeking investment opportunities in new technologies that are not harmful to the environment.

For example, they could collaborate with African governments, and foreign investors to harness thermal power, wind and solar energies – alternative power sources that are becoming increasingly cheaper and more readily available.

What of the role of journalism in confronting the environmental challenge?

Newspapers, radio, television, internet and other forms of media have a vital part to play.

They are in the business of researching and transmitting to society at large good practices as well as challenging bad practices.

In others words, journalists are agents of change, and their active participation is essential in terms of informing and educating society.

But as everything else on our continent, we are starting late and have some catching up to do in building adequate media capabilities generally, but particularly in specialised fields such as environmental reporting.

Consider, for example, the programme of Environmental Journalism and Communication in the Great Lakes Region, established in 2002 with much appreciated support from the Swedish International Development Agency, to assist the development of this sector.

A review of this programme has revealed that a limited number of its graduates joined media houses in their respective countries, including Burundi , Kenya , Rwanda , Tanzania , and Uganda .

In our case in Rwanda , I am told, they are only two graduates of the programme practicing their profession.

Most graduates of this programme have moved to other sectors.

This clearly indicates that we have a long way to go in terms of building a critical mass of environmental journalists.

We must make better use of such programmes to build adequate capacities in this increasingly important profession.

let us briefly touch on Rwanda ’s environmental experiences.

We face considerable challenges especially in terms of deforestation, soil erosion and wetlands degradation.

It is estimated that Rwanda loses 500 tons of soil per hectare annually, enough to sustain some 40,000 people per year.

Due to the degradation of our forests and wetlands, water levels have decreased substantially, with dire consequences.

Forest cover has been reduced drastically in our country – from 634,000 hectares in 1960 to only 221,200 hectares by 2004.

The case of the Gishwati Reserve, one of Rwanda ’s major forests, is indicative of this problem.

Ninety-eight percent this reserve has been destroyed.

The principle source of this problem is the fact that most Rwandans depend on wood fuel as source of energy for both domestic and industrial needs.

With regards to soil erosion, part of the problem has to do with cultural mindset and behavior. There is a belief in our country, for example that the removal and clearance of ground cover constitutes cleanliness and tidiness.

Along the highways, in homes, offices and schools, natural vegetation and indigenous groundcover are routinely cleared, thereby significantly contributing to soil erosion.

Rwanda journalists can partner with local government authorities as well as national environmental agencies to end such misinformed and harmful centuries-old practices.

We in Rwanda face many environmental challenges, but cannot afford to be complacent.

That is why institutions, policies and laws related to natural resources sector are in place.

Further, we are engaged in various programmes to restore our environment through diligent terracing and tree planting in all parts of our country.

This is accompanied by substantial budgetary allocations.

These modest actions are beginning to show promising results and call for more efforts from all stakeholders.

It is clear that in order to make real progress towards environmental protection in Africa , we must forge meaningful partnerships with key national, regional and continental stakeholders, including governments, business, civil society and development partners.

Let me assure you that we in Government will play our role – indeed the entire continent must be mobilized even more urgently to this cause. "

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