The Batwa Trail of Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in southwest Uganda has been a long time coming and has had a lot of partners contribute to its development. This is a cultural tourism ‘product,’ which is what it is called in the tourism industry, but this ‘product’ is something that ties a culture back to the forest that it depends on. And it does so in a way that benefits tourists, the forest and the Batwa people, with real appreciation and respect for Batwa culture.
On June 7th, 2011, the Uganda Wildlife Authority, the United Organisation for Batwa Development in Uganda (UOBDU), and the Kisoro District local government will officially launch The Batwa Trail. This launch will include a landmark occasion- the signing of a formal agreement between the Uganda Wildlife Authority, a community, and local government on a tourism product within a national park.
Even with Uganda’s history of collaborative forestry and natural resource use- beekeepers are already allowed to keep registered beehives within Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, for example- this is still a unique arrangement and highlights the ever-present need to formally engage communities with the conservation of protected areas.
The Batwa Trail runs across the lower slopes of two volcanoes in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, a forest containing rich biodiversity including the mountain gorillas. Led by local Batwa guides, visitors experience the forest through the unique perspective of the Batwa.
At a traditional Batwa house made of forest materials, the guides tell Batwa folklore and show the traditional way of making fire. Further along, young men reenact a traditional hunt for forest buffalo. Visitors can sample some of the forest’s herbs and fruit, and learn how the Batwa used the forest’s cornucopia for medicine, tools, and sustenance.
The highlight of the experience is a descent into the Garama Cave, a 200 meter-long lava tube beneath Mt. Gahinga that was used as a safe place for the last Batwa king. A performance of traditional song and dance within the rocky lair makes this an unforgettable experience. Read an early description of The Batwa Trail from a previous post by IGCP.
Tourists have been visiting The Batwa Trail since July 1, 2010 and so far almost 70 visitors, mostly international tourists, have experienced The Batwa Trail, each paying 80 US dollars. Of the money that they pay, 40 dollars goes to UWA for conservation of the park and 40 dollars goes to the Batwa, either as direct support to the 34 guides and musicians or to a pool of money meant for larger development work in the larger Batwa community, estimated at about 1,500 people in Kisoro District.
The June 7th launch of The Batwa Trail will include the trail experience, signing of the formal agreement, and screening of a 30-minute documentary about Batwa culture and additional beautifully captured music videos. The ultimate goal is not only to make The Batwa Trail a successful tourism product contributing to both conservation and socioeconomic development, but also to raise awareness of the struggles of the Batwa people and elevate their opportunities both locally and regionally.
The Batwa Trail was developed by UWA, UOBDU, and Kisoro District with technical and financial support from the International Gorilla Conservation Programme, Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration, USAID STAR Project, USAID PrimeWest, and the Netherlands Directorate General for International Cooperation (DGIS).