Rwanda pledges to save the environment

Rwanda has vowed to protect its environment The United Nations has declared 2011 as the “Year of the Forests” as it continues to work to encourage nations across the globe to take sustainable actions to protect the planet’s woodlands. One of the first countries to answer the call to action is Rwanda, which has laid out an ambitious plan to protect its jungles, even as it struggles to develop economically.

As most people know, Rwanda was devastated by civil war and genocide during the 1990’s. That struggle extended throughout the country and caused untold damage to its natural resources, including the rainforests that are home to a host of amazing creatures – not the least of which are the endangered mountain gorillas. Since that time, Rwanda has been experiencing plenty of growth and prosperity however, with the economy making strides forward in recent years and the population expanding at a rapid pace. Those conditions have put demands on the country’s natural resources, including the jungles. One report says that the Gishwati rainforest, for example, has shrunk in size by as much as 90% since 1960.

Earlier this week the Rwandan government vowed to change that pattern. Minister of Land and Environment Stanislas Kamanzi has pledged that “By the year 2035, Rwanda will have achieved a country-wide reversal of the current degradation of soil, land, water and forest resources.” A bold statement indeed for a country that faces many challenges to its continued growth.

The pledge was met with applause by environmentalists across the planet, who say that the commitment to protecting the environment is the first of its kind from a developing country. The plan is to not only re-plant and replenish forests, but to also build an infrastructure to improve water, work on soil conservation and build more sustainable agriculture as well.

One area that may aid Rwanda in their efforts is tourism. The country is already seen as a model for how ecotourism can be put to great use, as it is viewed as one reason why the population of mountain gorillas is increasing. Visitors to their protected habitat are willing to pay a hefty sum to spend a few hours with the creatures, and that money goes directly to preserving the forests that they call home. That same approach may be extended to protecting other regions and species in the country as well.

Rwanda’s landmark pledge to protect the environment is a good thing and hopefully they’ll be able to put it into action. In the long run, it will be an important piece to the country’s continued development and its ability to support its population. As an eco-conscious traveler, that’s just the kind of place that I want to support with my dollars.

[Photo credit: d_proffer via WikiMedia Commons]


Sole survivor of Amazon tribe is most isolated man on Earth

He’s the last of his kind.

Nobody knows his name, nobody knows his tribe’s name, and nobody knows what happened to the rest of his people. The last man of an uncontacted tribe in the Amazon is now being protected from the outside world by the Brazilian government.

Officials have created a 31 square-mile exclusion zone in his patch of rain forest to keep out loggers, something local logging companies aren’t too happy about. In fact, nobody is allowed inside.

Isolated tribes have always fascinated outsiders. Early explorers tracked them down to photograph them, like this Amazonian tribesman photographed in the 1922 publication People of all Nations. Anthropologists have tried to contact the sole survivor of the unknown tribe for 15 years now, but he’s always shied away. Once an agent got too close and received an arrow in his chest.

A report by Slate says he’s the most isolated man on Earth. His patch of rain forest is now an island amid ranching and logging areas, a potent symbol of what’s happening to isolated tribes all around the world. Tribes that have little or no contact with outsiders are highly susceptible to disease and exploitation and there’s a growing movement to help them. For example, there’s an ongoing controversy in the Andaman Islands over a resort built near the Jarawa tribe. The government wants to close it in order to take pressure off this tribe of only 320 people.

Grim evidence suggests what may have happened to the unknown Amazonian’s people. He is known to build a distinctive style of hut, and a village of identical huts was found in the rain forest–run over by a bulldozer.

A flyover of another uncontacted tribe two years ago resulted in some dramatic photos showing the startled tribesmen shooting arrows at the airplane. While the media made a big hype about how they had probably never seen planes before, that seems unlikely. They’re simply protecting their territory from an outside world they perceive as dangerous and hostile. In other words, they want to be left alone.

UNESCO adds Everglades, Madagascar rain forests to endangered list

Yesterday we told you how the World Heritage Committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, aka UNESCO, had granted several new sites “World Heritage” status at their recent meeting held in Sao Paulo, Brazil. That same group also moved two other sites to their endangered list in a move that typically serves as a warning about the future health of those locations.

Returning to the endangered list this year is the Florida Everglades, which were first cited back in 1993 and remained on the list until 1997 due to damage sustained during Hurricane Andrew. The sub-tropical wilderness is the largest of its kind in the United States, but is degrading rapidly, thanks to the loss of more than 60% of its water inflow. The committee also noted that increased levels of pollution is causing the water in the Everglades to become toxic, killing, or driving off, large numbers of marine life that once lived in the area as well.

Also added to the endangered list this year are the rain forests of Atsinanana, located in Madagascar. In this case, the World Heritage Committee cited the illegal logging operations that continue to go on there, as well as the hunting of an endangered species of lemurs, as causes for concern for the future of that natural environment.

Being put on the endangered list is not necessarily a bad thing for these World Heritage Sites. In the past, such a designation has brought a great deal of attention and focus to the problems at those locations, allowing governments to clean them up and keep them better protected for future generations to enjoy as well. Hopefully that will be the case in both of these cases as well.

[Photo credit: Moni3 via WikiMedia Commons]

Ghost Forest brings attention to rainforest threat


A Ghost Forest is stalking Europe.

Giant trees from Ghana have appeared in Copenhagen, Trafalgar Square in London, and now Oxford. It’s called the Ghost Forest Art Project, and it’s an innovative way to bring the plight of the world’s rainforests to public attention.

Artist Angela Palmer wanted to share her concern with the public about tropical rainforests, which are disappearing fast. An area the size of a football pitch vanishes every four seconds, and most are never replaced. Not only does this reduce biodiversity and nature’s way of absorbing atmospheric carbon, but it leads to soil erosion and long-term economic problems. Since Europe is a major consumer of rainforest wood, and there are no rainforests in Europe, Palmer decided to bring the rainforest to Europe.

She hauled a collection of stumps from the commercially logged Suhuma forest in western Ghana all the way to Europe. Ghana lost 90 percent of its forest due to overlogging before the government got serious about conservation. Now the remaining forest is being logged in a sustainable manner under strict supervision. The stumps mostly fell due to storms, but three were actually logged. To offset the carbon footprint of shipping these behemoths hundreds of miles, Palmer contributed to a project that distributes efficient stoves to Ghanaian villages. These stoves use less wood than traditional stoves and reduce the need for cutting.

First stop was Copenhagen, just in time for last year’s UN Climate Change conference. This was followed by a visit to Trafalgar Square before the trees were installed in front of Oxford University’s famous Museum of Natural History. A fitting display for 2010, which is the UN’s International Year of Biodiversity. Next year will be the Year of Forests.

I’ve seen this exhibit in person and I have to say the stumps are truly awe inspiring. Their sheer size, and the realization that they were once alive, made me think about our place in this world. My four-year-old was impressed too, and I hope that some of these giant trees will still be standing when he’s my age.


Image Courtesy Ghost Forest.

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Top 7 adventure activities near Arenal, Costa Rica

For travelers in search of a little adrenaline, the Arenal region of Costa Rica serves up adventure any way you like it.
The area around the Arenal volcano in Costa Rica, about 80 miles north of San Jose in the center of the narrow country, is known as the adventure capital of Costa Rica. With a diverse landscape that features erupting volcanoes, rainforests full of life, and cascading waterfalls, it’s a land perfect for active explorers. Here are the top adventure activities in the area.

Volcano Hikes

Just over 10 miles west of the small tourist town of La Fortuna, Arenal Volcano National Park is home to the big daddy of Costa Rican volcanoes. Those papier mâché volcanoes you made in 4th grade, with their perfectly formed cones, were probably modeled on Arenal. It’s everything you expect a volcano to be – lush and green on the bottom, gently sloping up its black rock sides to a pointed top with a near constant wisp of smoke wafting from its mouth.

Arenal isn’t the only volcano in the area, but it is the most impressive. It’s the youngest and most active. It’s been erupting daily since 1968.

On clear days (which are never guaranteed in the rainy season from May to November) you can see it from miles around and its fiery lava lights up the night sky like a fireworks show. Guides will lead hikes into the rainforest around the base of the volcano, though you can also drive yourself to the observation deck for a day or night viewing.
Rainforests and Wildlife Park Visits
The National Park surrounding Arenal includes a cloud forest and several thousand acres of rainforest filled with greenery, tropical plants, elusive colorful birds and butterflies, chattering monkeys, and dangerous reptiles and amphibians like crocodiles and poisonous tree frogs. You could hike through through these lush jungles with a guide, but there are other ways to see the forest.

The hanging bridges, a collection of walkways elevated above the canopy, provide a bird’s eye view of the forest. The walk is not strenuous (perhaps except for those afraid of heights) and can be done during the day or evening. An aerial SkyTram also elevates passengers to an observation deck in the rainforest canopy. Once there, you can peer out over the jungle or dine with a view of the volcano at the restaurant. To get back down, return on the SkyTram, take a shuttle, or for a quick return to ground level, zoom down the zipline.

For wildlife sightings closer to earth, visit the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge. The wetlands area, about an hour and a half from Arenal near the border with Nicaragua, resembles the Everglades of Florida with a few more dangerous residents. In addition to turtles, three-toed sloths, iguanas, several kinds of monkeys and thousands of species of birds, you may also see crocodiles and freshwater sharks.

Ziplining
You’ll find no shortage of companies that offer ziplining tours through the jungle canopy. Prices range from $30-$60 per person depending on the number of cables and other extras offered with the package. Canopy Los Cañones operates on the property of Hotel Los Lagos and is a mid-priced option for a zipline experience that includes transportation from your hotel, 15 cables, and unlimited time in the hotel’s hot spring pools post-activity.

Each cable line is different and presents a new challenge. On some, you’ll coast slowly along a nearly flat line from platform to platform as you look for glimpses of toucans and howler monkeys. Other lines are much more steep and fast, making for an exhilarating pass over the blurry green landscape.

Waterfalls
While the rainforest is dotted with hidden waterfalls, you may have a hard time stumbling upon one on your own. Instead head to La Fortuna waterfall. It may be the area’s most famous falls, but it can still be nearly empty of other people, especially in off season. You can hike there on your own by following the signs and paying a small entrance fee, or book a trip with any one of the tour operators offering trips from La Fortuna town.

The trek down from the road to the falls is strenuous, so save your strength by riding there on horseback instead of hiking. Anywhere Costa Rica matches riders to the appropriate horse, and then leads them on an hour-long ride to the falls, where they dismount and head down to the pools to swim before heading back.

Canyoning
If swimming in the runoff of a waterfall and watching it rain down from above isn’t enough, try Canyoning. Pure Trek Canyoning Adventures leads outings that combine hiking and rappelling with waterfalls – basically you rappel down the side of a cliff through the waterfall – in an activity called canyoning.

The PureTrek adventure will have you rappel down one rock wall and four waterfalls over the course of four hours. You’ll also hike through the rainforest to and from the trails, and enjoy a “Tipico” lunch, usually rice and beans with pork or chicken.

White Water Rafting
The Desafio Adventure Company offers a variety of tours, including white-water rafting. They offer full and half-day trips on class 2-3 and 4-5 rapids near Arenal. All gear is supplied, and the river is dam-controlled so the water levels are perfect all year round.

You can also combine a half-day of rafting with other adventure activities, such as kayaking or sport-fishing on Lake Arenal, cave spelunking, mountain biking, or canyoning, or with more relaxing outings like volunteering, bird watching or wildlife refuge visits.


Hot Springs
Arenal is also known for its hot springs and there are several options to chose from, ranging from the pricey, elaborately-landscaped pools at Tabacón Hot Springs Luxury Resort, to the bare bones ones frequented by locals at Los Laureles. A good middle option is Baldi, which has over 20 hot springs of varying temperatures, a restaurant, three bars, water slides, and a spa.

Okay, relaxing in a hot pool isn’t exactly an adventure sport – unless you count dodging creepy couples at the swim-up barbut after all that activity, you muscles will appreciate the soothing soak.