Conservation was high priority under Belgian rule in Rwanda Leopold’s son; Prince Albert had visited Yellowstone and became an advocate of national park. At Carl Akeley’s urging and with fathers support Africa’s first national park was created in the Virunga in 1925 for the specific purpose of protecting its mountain gorillas. Expanded into neighboring Congo in 1929, the Albert Park would eventually cover more than four thousand square miles. Later in 1934, the Akagera Park was created to protect the diverse wildlife assemblages of a savanna wetlands complex that covered one thousand square miles of Eastern Rwanda. The major forest reserves along the Congo-Nile divide also received renewed attention, although the Belgians aggressively exploited the most valuable hard woods.
Across the settled landscape of Rwanda, the Belgians instituted other policies and practices that would ultimately intensify human pressure on protected areas, especially in the mountains. Cash crops were promoted to increase local revenues and foreign exports. From the first 1,200 acre, tea was planted on another twenty thousand acres in the highlands and pyrethrum was introduced in the 1940s to produce insecticides for the war effort. Rwandan farmers were forced to cultivate cash crops, under threat of penalties, for which they received little compensation. But they latched onto white potato as a subsistence crop. Potato production exploded from three thousand acres in 1930 to 85,00 acres in 1942, almost all of it in the higher elevation zones of Northern Rwanda. The following year, however a fungus infestation known as the “black blight” wiped out the entire crop. As in Ireland a century before, a large population dependent on the potato faced starvation. Yet with the colony cut from Belgium during World war 11, there was no system in place to help. Even if help were available, N Northern Hutu were not a favored constituency under Belgian Tutsi rule. More than 100,000 northerners died during the potato famine of 1943-44.
After the war, the Belgian administration introduced new blight resistant strains of potato, and highland farmers steadily, if cautiously, renewed their production. Throughout the postwar period, per capita food production in Rwanda remained stable, contrary to trends in most other African colonies. This was largely a function of clearing new lands, especially wetlands, rather than improved productivity. Forest lands, especially wetlands, rather than improved productivity. Forest lands, too were cleared. In 1958, the Belgians took the extraordinary step of converting more than twenty thousand acres of Virunga parkland to farmland. This was one of the world’s first in stances of removing protected land from an established national park setting a dangerous precedent within Rwanda and beyond.
The Virunga parkland conversion was the direct result of human population pressure. The average Rwandan’s health improved enormously under the Belgians. Life expectancies rose and infant mortality declined in response to modern medicines dispensed through a modest network of hospitals and clinics. The combination of improved health programs with increased food production resulted in dramatic human population growth. From one million at the turn of the last century, the Rwandan population surged to more than three million by the end of the Belgian era in 1962, Hutu made up 85 percent of this population.
Throughout their time in Rwanda, the Belgians continued the practice of indirect rule through the Tutsi. With several thousand administrators, technicians and private citizens in the county, however the Belgians played a far more direct role in day to day management of the colony’s affairs than the Germans before them. Still, they maintained the façade of the Tutsi monarchy. In return for this charade, they blatantly favored the Tutsi through preferences in commerce and education. Eventually, however the Belgians also provided an outlet for Hutu grievances. Beginning in the 1950s, Hutu leaders from Southern and central Rwanda began circulating tracts critical of the preferential treatment of Tutsi with regard to educational and work opportunities. Mean while, outside of Rwanda, ant colonial sentiment was building on the twin pillars of Gandhi’s non violent victory over the British in India and the military victory of the Vietnamese over the French. As the decade unfurled, demands for better treatment of Hutu increasingly merged with manifestos calling for independence. The logic of the former and the inevitability of the latter resonated with portions of the Belgians public. Socialists and Catholics eventually formed a surprising alliance in favor of transferring power to the Hutu majority independence which they imagined to be a distant and therefore manageable reality.
JEAN PAUL HARROY spoke with great animation. A short round man in his eighties, he repeatedly poked his stubby fingers into the air as he recounted his singular role in Rwandan history. First warden of the Virunga sector of the Albert Park. Author of Rwanda terre qui pleurt (Rwanda: The land the weeps) a heartfelt if prematurely dramatic account of the country’s losing battle with resource degradation. Last governor general of Rwanda Urundi; after independence he would be named secretary general of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in 1980, however he was professor emeritus at the free university of Brussels where he met with bill in his apartment.
During his tenure as governor general, Harroy was told to promote a revolution to allow the Hutu to overthrow the Tutsi. To complicate matters this was to happen only in Rwanda, a despite a comparable Hutu majority in neighboring Burundi in his own recounting, Harroy discreetly passed this information on to key Hutu leaders, mostly from Southern Rwanda who then seemed paralyzed by the opportunity. They had become adept at writing political manifestos, but after centuries of Tutsi subjugation they were apparently unprepared for decisive action. The Northern Hutu had no such problems. Hearing that the Belgians would not aid their Tutsi clients, they sharpened their machetes and spears, poured out of their mountain settlements in Ruhengeri and Gisenyi and began killing. Tens of thousands of Tutsi died in the brief but bloody uprising of 1959.Hundreds of thousands fled into neighboring Burundi,Uganda and Congo as the Hutu consolidated their control over Rwanda. A tutsi counter attack a few years later was brutally crushed by Hutu soldiers, now armed by the Belgians and under the direction of a young major named Juvenal Habyarimana Jean Paul Harroy smiled as he remembered Hayarimana as unassuming but right young man who left seminary school for better opportunities in the military. He would take advantage of these opportunities to play a leading role in the fight for independence and eventually became president of Rwanda.