People and Gorillas at Bwindi

People and Gorillas at Bwindi

Looking out of the lodge window at Rushaga in southwest Uganda close on the border with Congo and Rwanda the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest home to the fabled mountain gorillas presents a wall of forest. This is a landscape sculpted by man, not unnatural but wild only where a legal instrument has restricted man’s use of nature. My view extends across the stone patio, down across the lawns and flower beds, over stone built lodges down into the valley now settled with displaced Batwa, some of whom have turned to agriculture, and up to the protected forest home to the mountain gorillas. In the southern sector some twenty family groups have been habituated. There are about 400 gorillas in Bwindi, about half of which live in habituated groups. The edge of the protected forest is sharp with cleared agricultural land rising up the mountain side defining the protected area boundary.  There is little unprotected land left that could be cleared for agriculture. This is a highly managed landscape, attractive with its patchwork of precipitous fields, under considerable population pressure.

The Batwa were displaced from the forests where they had lived alongside the gorillas for centuries when the national park was gazetted in 1991. All of the Batwa have now been displaced from the forests and are struggling with the transition to modernity, some of them are still living on wasteland in their traditional leaf and branch shelters; however at least one has begun an MBA. Most are living in considerable poverty, when and where they engage with tourism they are generally exploited. As I write this blog the BBC have carried a story about the exploitation of the Batwa, it is a disturbing read. There are exceptions, there are reputable Batwa experiences available to tourists but it is easy to be misled, disappointed and angry. The house in the picture above belongs to a Batwa lady of mature years, she has a fertile garden and supplies the lodge with fresh vegetables, we had excellent spinach soup for supper last night, it was her spinach.

Research conducted a couple of years ago into local people’s attitudes to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park confirmed that many feel that conservation is unfair, that they receive no benefit from it and the tourism it attracts. Now excluded from the park in favour of the gorillas and the tourists who pay 600 USD for the privilege of spending and hour or so with them; local people see themselves as locked out of the forest that used be theirs, to benefit the tourism industry and the gorillas. The Uganda Wildlife Authority shares some of its revenue with the local communities but not just with those who used to live in the forest or those most impacted by the crop raiding by the gorillas, there is little benefit going to those who lost most when the park was created. Only a small proportion of households living in the ‘frontline’ in the 1km strip benefit from tourism; the initiative I am here for is working with the industry to increase engagement by local economically poor, but culturally rich, people with the tourism, supplying the lodges with food and soft furnishings, improving craft production of carvings, baskets and jewellery to increase sales and sale value, and quality, culturally sensitive experiences.

There will be a session on the Responsible Tourism stand at World Travel Market in November for conversations between internationals and local tour operators, lodge owners, the Ugandan Tourism Board and those working on the initiative to discuss how tourism in and around Bwindi can be shaped and improved so that local people, particularly the economically poorest, can benefit more from the tourists attracted by the opportunity to see the gorillas. There is more to Bwindi than the gorillas and great opportunities to extend length of stay in this part of Africa.

All round the world when land and habitat is protected for wildlife local communities lose out, more needs to be done to ensure that they too benefit from the tourism attracted by the resources they used to ‘own’.

The Gorillas, Tourism and Poverty Reduction conversation will take place on Wednesday 9th November on the Responsible Tourism stand at 12:30. Come along if you have a tourism interest in Bwindi and the gorillas or if you are interested in the issue.

More on the gorillas and the Batwa  

This initiative is funded by the Darwin Initiative from UK Aid.

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Harold is WTM’s Responsible Tourism Advisor, he puts together the flagship Responsible Tourism programme at WTM London which attracts 2000 participants each year and the programmes run at WTM Africa, WTM Latin America and Arabian Travel Market. Harold has worked on 4 continents with local communities, their governments and the inbound and outbound tourism industry. He is Managing Director of the Responsible Tourism Partnership and chairs the panels of judges for the World Responsible Tourism Awards and the other Awards in the family, Africa, India and Ireland. Harold works with industry, local communities, governments, and conservationists and undertakes consultancy and evaluations for companies, NGOs, governments, and international organisations. He is also a Director of the Institute of Place Management at Manchester Metropolitan University, where he is an Emeritus Professor, and Founder Director of the International Centre for Responsible Tourism promotes the principles of the Cape Town Declaration which he drafted.

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