Fact: The plight of mountain gorillas cannot be separated from the plight of people. Human population densities in the mountain gorilla region can touch in some areas to 1,000 people per square kilometer (note, that’s more than 2,500 people per square mile), and these people don’t merely use this land for housing, but also for the basis of their subsistence and livelihood- agriculture, timber, water, etc.
It was in this vein that the International Gorilla Conservation Programme teamed up with CARE International in Rwanda and Uganda to take comprehensive steps in the mountain gorilla region to provide opportunities for people in a way that was equitable and conservation-responsible, through the EEEGL Project funded by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation.
A few weeks ago, I went on an evaluation field visit to a our joint project sites in Uganda and met with hundreds of beneficiaries of the project. While I have been well aware of the IGCP-side of the EEEGL project (construction of communal rainwater harvesting tanks; support to tourism-related community enterprise; launching and raising awareness about the Gorilla Levy tourism revenue-sharing scheme), this was my first glimpse of what this 5-year project as a whole has been able to accomplish. More than two weeks after returning from the trip (with time to reflect on the experience), I am confident in saying that what I found borders on transformative. And in that sometimes fuzzy or ‘soft’ area where community development and conservation overlap, here there are crystal clear, tangible examples that it can be done where people and parks (and the gorillas) both emerge as winners.
Here are several integrated themes that I think have been the strength of the EEEGL Project- community empowerment, equitable benefits, and incorporation of Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLAs).
Many tourists who come to the region and visit mountain gorillas ask where their 500 USD permit fees goes to. In addition to going to fund the protection of the national parks and the mountain gorillas through the national park service, a portion also goes back to communities living near the parks through what are called revenue-sharing schemes. In the mountain gorilla area of Uganda, the Bwindi-Mgahinga Conservation Area, there are three such schemes- traditional revenue-sharing, the Gorilla Levy, and the Bwindi-Mgahinga Conservation Trust.
But just merely having these schemes, doesn’t mean that the money gets put into the areas that the community needs the most. Communities have to submit proposals for these funds directly from the grassroots. This is not automatic. What the EEEGL Project has done is to build systems at multiple levels to ensure transparent, equitable distribution of these funds to projects that can have the most positive socioeconomic effect on the communities surrounding the parks.
Here’s how we (collectively IGCP and CARE) have done it- we’ve improved and clarified the revenue-sharing schemes, encouraging the development of a special Gorilla Levy, and raised awareness of such funds and how people can receive them. We’ve worked to support and empower civil society organizations and forums. These civil society organizations are now equipped to write better proposals to seek out funds, not just from revenue-sharing, but other sources as well. Personally, one of my favorite projects is the work to facilitate community-based mapping and planning.
All of these interventions built and fed from one another, so that after five years, the EEEGL Project has made clearly visible transformations in the communities involved. The civil society forums and the communities who have gone through one cycle of community-based planning (and have seen tangible results within months) met with us with bright, exited eyes and plans on how they themselves were going to take the lead in development projects within their community, their Parish, their District. We saw it genuinely at all levels, and I’m inspired by it.
In addition to revenue-sharing schemes, there are other benefits that communities get from mountain gorilla tourism. Through tourism-related enterprise, through something like the luxury lodge, Clouds, collectively owned by the citizens of Nkuringo and Nteko parishes through the Nkuringo Community Conservation and Development Foundation (NCCDF). Improved governance structures, with the inclusion of women, youth, and the Batwa, were further developed within many community associations and groups, like NCCDF.
There are also resource users groups in Uganda that are registered and allowed to collect certain materials and plants from the national parks as well as place beehives within the park. A participatory assessment of this practice (from the ecological and community perspective) was evaluated under the EEEGL project and a new set of guidelines put in place.
A poignant example of this came when meeting a resource user group keeping beehives within Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. They recounted the benefits of having members of the Batwa community in their group. “Before the Batwa would put their hives illegally in the park and even harvest honey from hives that weren’t theirs, thinking that everything in the park belonged to them. Now, we’re working together and everyone has their hives, legally, and there is no conflict,” one member said.
No matter what the benefit or enterprise work was accomplished through the EEEGL project, there was a very intentional emphasis on equity at all levels, to ensure that yes, benefits to the community from revenue sharing, tourism-related enterprise, and even resource user groups were accessible to all members of the community. Through this equity, even the most marginalized of the community are being able to access resources and benefits that allow them to raise their social and economic status, something that with continued vigilance by all involved, can translate into improved conditions for the next generation.
Incorporation of VSLAs
At almost every stop whether we were talking to beekeepers, potato growers, water tank users there was another thing that was in common- the Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLAs). Supporting the development of these VSLAs has enabled community members to turn their income-generating activities into machines for further economic development. Members of the VSLA can invest as little as the equivalent of 10 US cents (yes, cents) a week and be able to earn a savings on that money over a year as well as have access to small loans when they need them.
Most of the people I talked to had used the funds to pay school fees for their children (which are due every term in a lump sum) and to invest in their small businesses (trading dry goods, growing livestock, making sorghum beer, planting timber). In addition, funds raised from the collection of water from the communal tanks from those that can afford to pay, is linked doesn’t linger in an account or box, it gets put to use. Community members can apply for loans to fund the construction of their own rainwater collection tanks for their household.
Ripple effects. Integrated activities. It leaves me feeling good about the work that we did alongside CARE International through the EEEGL project. What I’m left with a sense that real collaboration between the development sector and conservation sector can work and the power is when we work together in a concerted, intentional way. But the work is far from over.
I am also left with a sense that this type of project is just begging to be undertaken in the Democratic Republic of Congo near Virunga National Park, where the needs of people are dire and the opportunity to transform lives looms large.
IGCP is an organization built upon partnership, in that we have been a coalition of the African Wildlife Foundation, Fauna & Flora International, and the World Wide Fund for Nature for 20 years. Together, we are stronger and can accomplish so much. And that’s why the term ‘partnering’ is featured prominently in our mission statement and will continue to manifest itself in our work.