Kitabi College of Conservation and Environmental Management, with tea plantations in the foreground and Nyungwe National Park in the background. Photo credit: Wildlife Conservation Society.

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Ecosystem accounts link national-scale environmental and economic trends, offering an internationally standardized approach to tracking sustainability and link it to economic activity. They are especially valuable in places experiencing rapid growth and change and where sustainable development is a key societal concern. Rwanda has experienced rapid economic and population growth as it seeks to become a middle-income country; it has also committed to various high-level environmental initiatives, but broad progress toward these goals has rarely been assessed.

We thus compile the first ecosystem accounts for Rwanda for the years 1990-2015, modeling and mapping ecosystem services at the national scale for these years. We demonstrate that despite strong economic growth, social development, and high-level commitment to environmental goals, ecosystem services fundamental to Rwanda’s well-being have declined substantially during this period. In particular, services related to climate regulation and water quality and quantity declined substantially. Conversion of forests and other natural ecosystems to cropland are the primary drivers of these trends, and were particularly evident from 1990 to 2000 and 2010 to 2015. This is especially important to water users – hydroelectric power generation, irrigation, and drinking water, which may be at increasing risk for water supply and quality problems, particularly as climate changes.

In order to address these problems, careful targeting of forestry and sustainable agriculture projects will be needed. Ecosystem accounts provide the baseline data to do so. Ecosystem accounts are particularly important for tracking sustainability, especially in African nations with high levels of economic and population growth and rapid environmental change. These accounts can build our understanding of trends in nature’s ability to provide critical benefits that underpin human well-being. In Rwanda, ecosystem accounts align well with the nation’s key sustainability strategies, and offer a means to measure and track progress toward them.