Is it possible to conserve mountain Gorillas without taking into consideration the livelihoods of people? Certainly not. However what can be done to contribute to improved livelihoods which in turn benefit conservation? These questions central to my work were partially answered when I was implementing activities for the project “Strengthening local institutions in the Albertine rift valley for community development and conservation of mountain gorillas in Nkuringo and Rubugiri”, a rural area around Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (BINP); a home of mountain gorillas in Uganda. The project is funded through the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF).
This is a land of three thousand hills unlike the one thousand hills you have in Kigali said one of the community members I met there. It is always green, rainy and cold due to the high altitude.
The Nkuringo and Shongi gorilla groups are the main tourism attractions in this area. Unfortunately the community is poor. They survive on subsistence agriculture and depend on resources from the park for supplementary food and honey, traditional medicinal plants and water. Generally the communities use the forest for different living options including timber for construction and firewood. Alternatives for firewood are limited. Tumusiime one of the community members told me “A project that addresses our energy problem can help people to stop destroying Bwindi Forest. We hear of solar energy cooking stoves, biogas and energy saving cooking stoves but in this area we do not have them”. The forest that used to be their main source of living became a park not only to protect the critically endangered mountain gorilla but also due to its rich biodiversity, UNESCO recognized it as a heritage site in 1994. Tumusiime further noted that Gorillas sometimes leave their natural habitat to raid the agricultural crops that adjacent communities survive on.
Are there ways for humans and gorillas to live in harmony with and benefit from each other? Due to the success of tourism and the availability of some financial resources, this is possible, for there are some opportunities;
One of IGCP’s strategic objectives is that by 2020, mountain gorilla tourism poses minimal risk to the gorillas and provides direct and equitable benefits to communities living around the protected areas. Through this objective, IGCP supports policy and capacity development to help local communities to benefit from gorilla tourism and develop livelihood alternatives to park resources. My mission in Nkuringo and Rubuguri this time around was to educate the village residents how to analyze the situation in their villages, identify development needs, strengths, weaknesses and opportunities; to prioritize them and lay down strategic action plans which involve translating their own visions into reality. Village members also received training in proposal writing. They gained knowledge and skills that will enable them to mobilize resources from different partners (local government and NGOs) to legitimize the community action plans.
Results from the profile exercise done by the village members pointed out many problems that keep villages in permanent poverty. They include; low levels of education, lack of and or limited access to water and firewood also linked to high levels of school drop outs, high level of illiteracy and unemployment among the youth especially girls who help their mothers in various household chores. These problems are part of the reason there is encroachment on the park, hence posing a risk in the conservation of the mountain gorillas. Other problems identified during the village profiling exercise were; HIV/Aids, lack of planning and management skills by the local CBOs to address the community needs.
Speaking to the participants about the training, they revealed that the training was an eye opener and an empowering forum. Following the training, community members have been able to collect data and make village profiles themselves as well as develop elaborate project proposals. In total eight (8) proposals have so far been developed.
Sharing her experience, one woman noted that “The profiling exercise helped us to understand our own problems but also raised awareness on what we can do. We did not know how to associate our problems with proposal writing, now we are aware. We have started a women savings group to help us meet our different household needs” Similarly, representatives from the Civil Society like Nkuringo Community Conservation and Development Foundation (NCCDF) and other CBOs that attended the training and the profiling exercises confessed to have gained knowledge on how best they can support the community to address their challenges, say, through injecting revenue from community lodges (community owned luxury lodge in Nkuringo, Clouds Mountain Gorilla lodge) into community projects that address real problems in their respective villages. Another available resource is the “Gorilla levy” funds and revenue sharing program.
But this process is far from a one-off and real benefits from empowerment come from seeing the cycle through to where village improvements can be linked to efforts to asses, prioritize and mobilize resources and ensure follow up. In this area where some resources exist based on the level of interest among the community for this kind of process, IGCP will continue to see this through over the next few years and to ensure realization of results for benefits to people and to conservation of the critically endangered mountain gorilla.