In southwestern Uganda lies one of the world’s oldest tropical rainforests, dating back some fifty million years. The two hundred fifty square kilometers are home to more than half of the world’s remaining population of mountain gorillas and other rare species. The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is not only a national park, but also an example of balancing the preservation of nature with the needs of the surrounding population.
Simply designating an area a national park by no means guarantees its pristine nature will endure - especially if the surrounding population is poor and hungry.
Among the groups helping maintain the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is the international humanitarian agency, CARE. Tom Blomley is CARE’s conservation and development coordinator in Uganda.
He says, "Our aim, really, is to try and reconcile the conflict that occurs between this high presence of biodiversity right alongside, butting up against high levels of poverty. And that really is our starting point. CARE is an organization which is focused on alleviating poverty, improving people’s standard of living and livelihood."
He says at one time Uganda considered Bwindi simply a commercial area.
"The government of Uganda," he says, "set them up as forest production areas. They were commercially logged. They were timber production areas. But in the early 90’s, around 1991, ’92, because of this high bio-diversity value they were then declared national parks. So in a sense their protection status was really significantly increased. On the level of use, commercial off-take of things like timber and so on was radically cut. In fact, there is no legal timber off-take at all at this point."
However, Mr. Blomley says unless local populations “get a slice of the benefits from protected areas there is really no future, no hope for those national parks.”
He says, "Firstly, Uganda has a program, which is enshrined in law, which allows for a certain proportion of the revenue generated by that national park to be shared around and amongst the communities that live immediately adjacent to that national park. This is what they call a revenue sharing program. So, every time you pay to go into a national park, a proportion of the income you pay goes straight back to those communities. That’s one particular way. Tourism is another way."
But nearby communities need more than money. CARE’s conservation and development coordinator says they also need what the Bwindi forest has to offer.
He says, "Helping communities to get access to the resources themselves. Helping to negotiate agreements, mutually binding agreements, whereby communities are allowed to enter into the protected areas into the national parks. Access resources for subsistence purposes. I’m talking firewood, medicinal plants, fibers, drinking water and so on. In return for which they agree to report illegal activities and to assist law enforcement efforts."
Despite the money that can be had from poaching rare animals – such as the mountain gorillas – Mr. Blomley says it’s not a problem in Bwindi. He says that’s a result of paying attention to the needs of the community and the community respecting the needs of the national park.
He says, "There’s been a real sea change in the last decade. If you asked that question twelve years ago the answer would have been yes. I think people would have been tempted to go in and take out a gorilla, take out a few trees or whatever. That has fundamentally changed, I think, in the last twelve years through the efforts of many organizations, of which CARE is only one. But I think it’s because of the appreciation of the benefits that people get from these wildlife protected areas that people are less inclined to do that. They know that the number one reason people come and continue to come to these areas is because of the presence of those gorillas. And they know that if those gorillas disappear, so they stand to lose a whole range of benefits."
Ten years ago, there was a great deal of tension between local residents and the Uganda Wildlife Authority. That’s because government restrictions prevented residents from going into the forest to gather honey or to hunt and fish. Yet at the same time, wildlife from the forest – mainly baboons and bush pigs – raided the local crops.
Now, Tom Blomley says, the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is – what he calls – “a global good.” He says besides preserving one of the most biologically rich areas on earth, there’s a vast “untapped potential within forest areas” for the discovery of drugs to cure disease.
(photos courtesy of CARE)