Budding 19-foot stalks of vibrant bitterleaf catch the eye on Rwandan farmer Patricie Nyirabahinzi's half-hectare plot of thriving land. The tall shrub, Vernonia amygdalina, is native to Rwanda, but is now a rare sight in the country's drought-prone east.

Ten years ago, Nyirabahinzi could find native shrubs and trees only footsteps from her home in the village of Rebero. Today, these have disappeared and she must travel over 90 miles, toward the border with Tanzania, to find the bitterleaf seedlings she needs for her livelihood.

Millions of trees around the world have been lost or degraded and need to return to landscapes. But while NGOs, including WRI, have celebrated country-level commitments to restoration, restoration will never be achieved at scale until it helps the millions of small farmers like Nyirabahinzi. To do that, restoration advocates need to speak to farmers' needs. Nyirabahinzi's story shows why.

A Restoration Champion Unrecognized

Patricie Nyirabahinzi on her land. Credit: WRI
Patricie Nyirabahinzi on her land. Credit: WRI

Native plants are disappearing from the district of Gatsibo where Nyirabahinzi lives. Droughts, unsustainable practices and overharvesting are ruining the land and depleting the supply of seeds for native species. Additionally, many NGOs in Rwanda give free, non-native seedlings to farmers, weighing the gain of more immediate income from timber and charcoal over the long-term benefits of tree diversity.

Bucking this trend, Nyirabahinzi continues to cultivate native trees from which she derives her living wage. These wages come in part from her side job as a medical provider. One of the plants traditionally used in this work is bitterleaf, known locally as umubilizi. It has been grown by her family for generations, its leaves used to treat various diseases in animals and humans across Africa.

Even though umubilizi is the most useful plant for Nyirabahinzi, none of the restoration-focused agencies or NGOs operating in her area provide umubilizi. She supports the growing worldwide need for restoration, but it doesn't seem like the restoration agencies or NGOs recognize this yet – even though her practices help restore land while also keeping cultural traditions alive.

Her story is not uncommon in Rwanda. There are around 6 million smallholder farmers in the country. Those choosing to manage their land independently and sustainably might receive sporadic help from the government or NGOs in the form of free seedlings or loans for fertilizer, but not the consistent support necessary to sustain a tree from planting to being fully grown. Many like Nyirabahinzi travel far for the seedlings they need. And a tree takes 10 to 20 years to grow—far longer than the typical funding cycle for restoration programs.

But, there is a solution: directly empowering farmers like her and doing more to enable farmer-owned activities that align with community needs.

Shrub- and tree-planting on farms can shade crops and counter erosion, as well as protect water resources, soil fertility and biodiversity. But, these benefits only come to fruition if seedlings are nurtured to maturity. This relies on farmers understanding why shrubs and trees are also good for their income and how they can best look after them. Unless farmers are motivated to nurse seedlings, and equipped with the knowledge and resources to do so, many seedlings won't survive.

If smallholder farmers like Nyirabahinzi had a voice in the planning of restoration projects they could ask for the tree seedlings they need: ones which provide a living wage, like fruit or native species. The Albertine Rift Conservation Society (ARCOs),for example, offers a menu of seedling options from a nearby farmer cooperative-run nursery, from which farmers can select according to their needs.

To Support Restoration, Align with Farmers' Needs

Nyirabahinzi'sstory shows that restoring land through shrub- and tree-planting is achievable and can lead to an increase in income for the farmer. And, easier access to seedlings and knowledge of their storage could increase the resilience of businesses like hers. With the right support, farmer-owned activities can be replicated by the millions of other Rwandan smallholders, mainly subsistence farmers, which would help the country reach its goal of restoring 2 million hectares of land by 2030 as part of the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100).

Without a long-term vision for restoring land as well as food, water, and energy security for people on the landscape, restoration will be limited to unconnected half-hectare plots like the land owned by Nyirabahinzi.

There's much more that could be done by farmer cooperatives, community groups, NGOs and government agencies to support smallholder farmers in Rwanda.

  1. If restoration advocates give the option of native trees, farmers can maintain traditional lifeways and receive additional income like Nyirabahinzi does.
  2. If farmers had access to agroforestry training , such as how to store seeds, where to plant, and how to maximize yields, they would be more able to grow and nurture trees and shrubs on their farms.
  3. If land ownership were more secure , particularly on smaller plots of land, they would no longer be at risk of land confiscation and more willing to invest in their land over the longer term.
  4. If farmer groups could access finance directly, farmers would be able to choose trees and methods that directly benefit their livelihoods and expand their efforts over time. They can lead the restoration movement on their own terms.
  5. If farmers could learn from restoration success stories, they can support each other and spread ideas in ways which disconnected projects cannot.

If taken together comprehensively, these steps could replace fragmented efforts, increase tree and shrub survival and build a movement for landscape restoration across Rwanda. And women like Nyirabahinzi, so important to the process of restoration, could reduce the length of time they travel for their inputs, as seen in other African countries with regreening.

Unsupported, Nyirabahinzi will continue to travel far for the seedlings she needs and one day this may become too difficult. Her bitterleaf, too, will remain a rare sight among monocropping and trees grown for timber, playing havoc with the land so important to the country's future.