For many households around mountain gorilla parks, tourism has been their lifeline. That is until the COVID – 19 pandemic affecting the tourism industry quickly and profoundly.
For Gertrude Akankwasa a porter in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, the suspension of tourism came as a shock to her. Never had she imagined that mountain gorilla tourism can be suspended or come to an end. “When I got this job two years back I was certain in my heart that I had finally found a permanent and stable source of employment/income. As long as gorillas and the park existed I was sure nothing would ever hold the tourists back and that my family would always be well provided for”.
Different tourism enterprises operate around the parks, including crafts and wood curving, basketry and weaving, tailoring of African print clothing, tour guiding, honey selling, cultural dance and drama, farming of vegetables for tourist lodges, casual laboring as porters for tourists, and as cleaners, cooks and waiters in tourist lodges among others.
Sunday Charles Ndayakunze, the Assistant Warden tourism for Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (BINP), Ruhija sector says the impact of the pandemic has been difficult for the surrounding park communities and especially difficult for the porters who earned daily income from their job and largely live a hand to mouth kind of life. About 320 porters work in Volcanoes national park, 470 in Bwindi Mgahinga Conservation Area and 15 in Virunga national park.
Commenting on the situation Nicholas Banyezaki who has been a porter in BINP for the last eight years says, “life is hard for most of the porters because none of us saw this coming and unfortunately very few of us have alternative sources of income”. Nicholas says this is a big lesson to most of them to diversify their income options, improve their saving culture and always have plan B and C for any other hard times in future.
With sources of income curtailed, prices of commodities increasing, movements restricted and limited survival options there is evidently looming hunger and vulnerabilities among the communities. In Uganda for example a packet of salt (500 grams) that previously cost 1000UGX (0.2$) now costs 3000UGX (0.8$) while a kilogram of dry beans that previously cost 3000UGX (0.8$) now costs 6000UGX (1.2$).
Richard Ngabirano a resident of Buhoma in Uganda and board chairperson for Buhoma Mukono Community Development Association says some families can hardly afford a piece of soap to keep their hands and homes clean and sanitized.
Ride for a woman a Community Based Organization in Buhoma that employs/works with about 54 women to tailor African print materials, weave baskets and other related craft work for tourists has also been closed for about a month now. Evelyn Habasa, the director says her members are struggling financially too since they no longer earn the daily income that they used to get. Evelyn adds that besides the biting poverty the members are complaining of increased domestic violence in their homes. “Most of the women come from domestically violent homes. The work they do here does not only empower them financially giving them financial independence but also keeps them away from the violence at home, however, since the lock down the situation seems to have worsened for some”.
Sabyinyo Community Livelihood Association (SACOLA) a community based organization comprising of 67 cooperatives and over 50,000 beneficiaries is involved in a chain of tourism businesses including 14 show rooms/shops at Kinigi Complex Centre, a lodge, bar and restaurant, tour guiding, music and dance exhibitions and serving as porters for tourists. Unfortunately, all these businesses closed at the onset of COVID-19 in Rwanda. Celestin Nsengiyumva the SACOLA Chairperson reveals that these are very hard times for his members “without any income coming in most of the members are struggling to survive. While some are working from home, we can only hope that this situation will pass soon, and tourism will resume because it was a primary source of income for many members”.
Altor Musema, IGCP’s country coordinator in DRC also reveals that economic life in Goma is equally at a standstill. Community Based Organisations like UDASEMINYA that actively traded in honey closed shop and members are in their homes stuck with honey while most porters and other community tourism entrepreneurs are struggling to feed their families. “Most of the porters are home tilling their gardens and hoping that the lock down will be lifted. Some can’t help wondering if life will ever get back to normal again”.
In the bid to support the struggling masses however, respective governments, non government organizations and private sector have come in to donate and provide food supplies to the vulnerable citizens.
Commenting on the prevailing economic challenges facing the park edge communities, Budahera Anaclet the tourism warden for Volcanoes National Park fears that some community members might resort to the park again for survival, making the management of the park and maintaining positive community relationships challenging.
Besides the stay home measures for everybody, the parks have gone ahead to sensitize and educate the surrounding park communities on proper hygiene practices and the potential impact of COVID-19 on the park. Anaclet argues that “the compliance of individuals to the anti COVID measures in place will save mountain gorillas from the pandemic. Precisely their safety is dependent on our actions.”
The connectedness of the health of mountain gorillas, park staff, and neighboring communities are interlinked, and integrated strategies are being deployed at site, and across international boundaries to effectively address these.
Going forward, the outbreak of COVID-19 and its impact on the livelihoods of people, especially the park edge communities, highlights several lessons and calls for the development of resilient action plans; communities should be empowered and supported to invest in other livelihood options besides tourism enterprises, e.g improved agricultural practices to ensure food supply when tough times set in, adopt and or improve the culture of saving, training and equipping of park staff in specialized management of epidemics, continued sensitization of the community on the importance of proper hygiene and sanitation practices and change of attitude by the community as well as adoption of new skills and knowledge received through training to adapt to non-tourism enterprises. The private sector on the other hand should be mobilized to support/fund viable non-tourism income generating investments among the park edge communities.
Only a multifaceted approach can guarantee a resilient park edge community and minimize the impact of future calamities on lower level tourism value chain players.