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In the early 1990s, the Republic of Burundi experienced the assassination of its first democratically elected president after only 100 days in office. The ethnic conflict between the Hutu majority (85 percent) and the Tutsi minority (14 percent) that followed the assassination lasted for almost 12 years and led to the deaths of 200,000 Burundians. Hundreds of thousands more fled to other areas in Burundi and to neighboring countries, chiefly Tanzania. In 2003, international groups engineered a peace agreement; and in 2005, the Hutu elected a new president. However, rebel groups continue to threaten political and economic stability.
With a per capita income of only $600, Burundi is the sixth poorest country in the world. Nearly 70 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty. Income is unevenly distributed, with the richest 10 percent of the population holding almost a third of all resources and the poorest 10 percent sharing 1.8 percent of income. Burundi’s largely undeveloped natural resources include nickel, uranium, rare earth oxides, peat, cobalt, copper, platinum, vanadium, hydropower, niobium, tantalum, gold, tin, tungsten, kaolin, and limestone. More than 35 percent of Burundi is arable, and 93.6 percent of the workforce is engaged in subsistence agriculture. Together, tea and coffee exports furnish 90 percent of Burundi’s foreign exchange revenues. Depressed prices on these markets in recent years have led to declining revenue and efforts at increasingly intensive cultivation.
Burundi, which is situated at the crest of the Nile-Congo watershed in central Africa, shares borders with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Tanzania. The climate of Burundi is equatorial, and altitudes vary from 772 meters at Lake Tanganyika along the western border to 2,670 meters at Heha in west central Burundi. The mostly moderate temperatures vary according to altitude. Around 150 centimeters of rain falls on Burundi during the wet seasons that occur between February and May and between September and November. Most of Burundi’s terrain is hilly and mountainous, with interspersing plains and a plateau in the east. Burundi experiences both flooding and drought, and landslides are common.
With one out of every 10 adults in Burundi living with HIV/AIDS, the country is experiencing a major health crisis. Some 25,000 individuals had died of this disease by 2003. Around 21 percent of Burundians lack sustained access to safe drinking water, and 64 percent lack access to improved sanitation. Consequently, the population faces a very high risk of contracting food and waterborne diseases such as bacterial diarrhea, hepatitis A, typhoid fever, and malaria, a vectorborne disease. High incidences of disease result in low life expectancy (50.81 years), population growth (3.7 percent), high infant mortality (63.13 deaths per 1,000 live births), and death rates (4.22/1,000). Burundian women bear an average of 6.8 children. Since only one of every two children attends school and only 45.2 percent of females and 58.8 percent of males are literate, it is extremely difficult to disseminate essential information on health and the environment.
Soil erosion is accelerating in Burundi in response to overgrazing and the encroachment of agricultural development into marginal lands. The loss of large areas of forest for fuel use has produced an annual deforestation rate of 9 percent. Because of declining rainfall and the destruction of forests, water catchments, and ecosystems, northeastern Burundi, where many refuges fled during the civil war, is experiencing major food shortages. This destruction motivated by attempts to survive has spread to the Murehe Nature Reserve, depleting the bamboo and aquatic grasses and threatening biodiversity. Of 107 endemic mammal species, six are threatened, as are seven of 145 bird species. While laws have been enacted to prevent illegal hunting and poaching, they are rarely enforced.
In 2006, scientists at Yale University ranked Burundi 108 of 132 countries in environmental performance, slightly above the comparable geographic and income groups. The lowest scores were received in the areas of environmental health, biodiversity and habitat, and production of natural resources. The Ministry for Land, Environment, and Tourism is responsible for implementing environmental laws in Burundi, which focus on sustainable development and eradicating poverty. The Burundi government participates in the following international environmental agreements: Biodiversity, Climate Change, Kyoto Protocol, Desertification, Endangered Species, Hazardous Wastes, and Ozone Layer Protection. The Law of the Sea agreement has been signed but was never ratified.
- Timothy Doyle, Environmental Movements in Minority and Majority Worlds: A Global Perspective (Rutgers University Press, 2005);
- Kevin Hillstrom and Laurie Collier Hillstrom, Africa and the Middle East: A Continental Overview of Environmental Issues (ABC-CLIO, 2003);
- Valentine Udoh James, Africa’s Ecology: Sustaining the Biological and Environmental Diversity of a Continent (McFarland, 1993).