Uganda: Can a gorilla park deliver more benefits to local people?

A project aims to help poorer members of the community receive more benefits from a national gorilla park in Uganda through research and by advocating for change with national and local authorities.

26 July 2013
Gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda.

Gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. Photo: Copyright José Ozorio 

“The biggest problem people have around Bwindi…is just poverty. The income generating activities are minimal. Many will get income from surplus crops, and productivity is not so promising, so usually we get [a] very low income,” said a local resident and retired teacher summing up the predicament that many people face around Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda.

Located in south-west Uganda, the iconic national park has a high population of highly-endangered mountain gorillas. According to the African Wildlife Foundation, there are less than 900 mountain gorillas living in the wild. The recent results from Bwindi’s last census show the park is home to 400 gorillas – close to half of the world’s mountain gorilla population. However there is also a large population of people living around the park, and the development challenges in this area are nothing short of huge.

As the local resident says above, people are poor and struggle to make a living. Whereas many national parks around the world have a buffer zone between park and people, here the park ends and people’s crops begin. This means that communities living around the park are restricted in the natural resources they are able harvest in their local area and their agricultural crops, crucial for supporting their families, are susceptible to raiding by wild animals, such as baboons or even  mountain gorillas. This makes the promotion of both development and conservation highly challenging.

Before Bwindi was designated a national park in 1991 it was a forest reserve, and people had access to the resources important for their everyday needs, such as firewood, medicinal plants, timber and game meat. When access to those resources was restricted in 1991 this led to conflicts between local people and park authorities, which threatened the ability of authorities to manage park. 

As a result, the Ugandan government and nongovernmental organizations adopted a range of "integrated conservation and development" (ICD) strategies, which aimed to create benefits for local communities, allow access to some resources in the park and provide alternative livelihood options — and hence reduce their negative impact on the gorillas' habitat. Since then a variety of ICD programmes have been initiated around the park, which have included a Multiple Use Programme (which allows people to go into the park to collect specific resources), revenue sharing (which has involved local communities receiving a proportion of the park entry fee), an agricultural programme, tourism projects, the promotion of public health, and education and awareness-raising projects on the importance of conserving biodiversity.

An assessment of integrated conservation and development projects around Bwindi in 2010 showed that many projects have achieved successes, but often in different ways to what was planned. The projects have been most effective in improving local attitudes towards the national park. For instance, local people who were involved in the multiple use programmes were more willing to be involved in park activities, such as fire control activities, and were less likely to be involved in illegal activities in the park. The projects also resulted in improved dialogue between community members and staff involved in managing the park. 

However the assessment showed programmes have been less effective in alleviating poverty. The study found that to maximize both conservation and development outcomes such initiatives will need to have a greater positive impact on the poorest households in the future.

The Conservation through Poverty Alleviation project, funded by The Darwin Initiative and the UK Department for International Development, aims to help resolve this problem. The project consists of research and advocacy phases.

The research phase, now coming to a close, aims to understand how development efforts around the national park can be better targeted towards the needs of local people. The research team, led by IIED’s partners, the Institute for Tropical Forest Conservation (ITFC), and assisted by students from Imperial College London, has been carrying out interviews with local resource users to better understand the motivations and reasons people are involved in both authorised activities, such as beekeeping, and unauthorised activities, such as bushmeat hunting, within the park. It also aims to get a fuller picture of who these people are and where they come from so that future interventions can be better designed to meet their needs. Research has also been carried out into how local governance is affecting the revenue sharing programme around the park.

The results of the study will be shared with Ugandan policy makers and conservation and development practitioners in a workshop in Kampala this September. We’ll also share results in our next blog. This is the first major project of the Uganda Poverty and Conservation Learning Group, a local chapter of the Poverty and Conservation Learning Group, which aims to promote a better understanding of the links between conservation and poverty in order to improve conservation and poverty policy and practice. The lead institutions, which include IIED, the Institute for Tropical Forest Conservation (ITFC), and the Jane Goodall Institute, Uganda and Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE) have been working closely with the Uganda Poverty and Conservation Learning Group to design the research.

As the research phase wraps up, the advocacy phase of the project will start in earnest. To date, training has been carried out with the Uganda Poverty and Conservation Learning Group about how to become an effective advocacy network. Members of the Ugandan media have also received training on how to report on biodiversity and poverty issues. Key issues covered included the need for conservationists to communicate better to a non-specialist audience, and to find human interest angles that can aid the media in making conservation issues more relevant to their readers.

The next advocacy activities to be carried out will include working collaboratively with national and local policy makers to get the Integrated Conservation Development (ICD) programmes to better alleviate the poverty of households living around the park. The work will be led by ACODE. 

It is hoped that these more targeted integrated conservation and development efforts could result in local people receiving greater benefits from protecting the gorillas’ biodiverse home. 

Find out more about the project.