Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Rwanda's anti-thatch campaign

Survival International is up in arms because Rwanda's government is attempting to force Batwa people to stop using thatch. The government plans to destroy all thatched roofs in the country by May. Apparently the idea is to give people iron sheets to use instead of thatch or, in the case of the elderly, to provide new, brick houses. Just in case it seemed like it might be an April fool's joke but PIH is supporting and celebrating the move. The argument goes that thatch lets in the rain so it is bad for health and quality of life. 

The way in which the government has gone about it seems suspect - destruction of houses without providing alternative shelter, expecting very poor communities to pay for new (brick) houses with metal roofs to be built, justifying forced removals because "people were seemingly happy to stay in their thatched houses and showed no commitment to leave them" (Southern Province Governor). 

But that's not my issue: I'm at a loss to understand why the campaign is happening in the first place. Sure, thatch can leak but only if it isn't done properly or replaced regularly (for example if people can't harvest thatching grass for some reason). Thatch is a great roofing material because it is cheap and people can do it themselves in their communities. Thatched huts don't require a cash income or going into debt. People can build shelter as they need it. It won't last forever but nor will an iron sheet. Plus, thatch keeps out the heat - iron will make the homes unbearably hot. Thatch is awesome. Why would you not want it? 

Thatching also tends to be a local, informal industry, where the people who are best at thatching work with others and there is exchange and prestige. Plus no-one is going to steal your thatch to sell to a scrap-dealer, so your asset is more secure. And it is an area of traditional, local expertise that should be supported. The only plausible reasons I can see to get rid of thatch would be the danger of fires - and there are better ways to deal with that that don't involve slowly baking people in their homes - and environmental degradation, which can be dealt with by replanting.

The complaints about how the government is implementing the programme are a little like closing the door after the horse has bolted. Aside from their blatant disregard for human rights in implementing the plans, what the heck are they thinking running an anti-thatch campaign in the first place? If anyone can shed some like on the Rwanda government's motivations, please, please comment. I'd love to know what on earth they are thinking.

(h/t @RachelStrohm for original article)