The Darwin Initiative Blog

Insights and personal musings from the world of biodiversity conservation and development. For more info on the Darwin Initiative see

Leave a comment

Darwin for Climate Action: Saving forests, saving wildlife and saving vulnerable communities from climate change in Uganda’s Murchiston-Semliki Landscape

To finish off our blog series on enhancing climate resilience (be sure check out the first and second blogs in the series, too!), this post looks at the vital role forests play in climate change mitigation. The Wildlife Conservation Society, working with farmers in Hoima, Uganda, have been promoting conservation farming to help local agriculture business grow in a sustainable, climate resilient way. The following article, taken from a recent newsletter, highlights some of their recent successes!

Last year El Niño hit Uganda, the horn of plenty in east Africa. Although Uganda is endowed with two fertile seasons, it saw its maize dry up and its banana trees damaged. Posho and matoke – the staple food for Ugandans – diminished and prices went up, and people went hungry across the country. For poor communities in particular, climate change is very real and painful.

Yet in a small corner of the country, things were not as bleak as elsewhere. Around 1,000 Private Forest Owners in the district of Hoima, western Uganda were better off. Their maize was still green plus they reaped the benefit of a doubling in maize prices – they didn’t go hungry and they earned extra income. These are the small holder farmers participating in the Murchison-Semliki REDD+ project.

REDD+ projects are designed to mitigate climate change by reducing emissions of greenhouse gasses from deforestation and forest degradation. These emissions make up around 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Burning one tree 15m tall and with a diameter at breast height of 30 cm produces the equivalent carbon emissions as 10 return flights between Heathrow and Uganda. We calculated that between 2005 and 2010 on average 8,000 hectares of forest were slashed and burned annually for agriculture in the Murchison-Semliki Landscape, the equivalent of 2 million tonnes of CO2 per year. A group of conservation NGOs, the Northern Albertine Rift Conservation Group, decided to join forces and set up a REDD+ project to safe these important corridor forests.

Uganda 22-011 WCS COP REDD+ project, Credit - Miguel Leal

Rural Farmers in Uganda Credit: Miguel Leal, WCS

When the initiative began in 2010, the group had difficulty securing funding to start implementing measures to stop deforestation. The two main factors driving deforestation were the lack of knowledge about better farming practices and the lack of capital to invest in better farming practices. However, in 2015, the Wildlife Conservation Society managed to secure funding from the Darwin Initiative to develop and roll out their conservation farming programme with the intention of reducing pressure on forests. Over five seasons the project team were able to double their harvests and increase their income 15-fold – a success far beyond what had been anticipated. Meanwhile, they also set up 60 small saving and loans associations with roughly 30 members each, with the aim of overcoming the general lack of capital for other agricultural inputs. The farmers grasped this opportunity with both hands. The team were hoping that farmers would pool up to £100 in their groups, but on average it was closer to £600! A great success, but, what about the primary objective of saving the forest? Even here there has been great success.

There are now 30 community based monitors on the ground regularly checking if the farmers are complying with their part of the deal: conserving the forest on their land. The project also rely on the Global Forest Watcher App developed by the World Resource Institute and rolled out by the Jane Goodall Institute, to receive and verify tree cover change alerts on tablet computers. Despite a few individual exceptions, most farmers are successfully protecting their forests.

If you want to find out more about this project, visit their project page here. To read more articles about how Darwin projects are working towards improving climate resilience in developing countries worldwide, see our special edition of the newsletter from November 2017.


Leave a comment

Darwin for Climate Action – improving watershed management from Morocco to Bolivia

In the second of our climate resilience themed blog posts (read out first one here!), we take a look at the different watershed management approaches used by projects to address both climate change adaptation and mitigation. First, we visit Morocco for an introduction to the adaptation work undertaken by the Global Diversity Foundation’s plant conservation programme in the Atlas Mountains. We then travel half way around the world to see the Natural Bolivia Foundation’s watershed project and the impact it is having on livelihoods, deforestation and climate resilience in the Chaco.

Conserving threatened plant species to support community adaptation and resilience to climate change in the High Atlas

The Mediterranean ecosystem of the High Atlas in southern Morocco is home to significant plant biodiversity – including endemic, endangered and economically important species – that has been sustained for millennia by Indigenous Amazigh communities. However, High Atlas cultural landscapes are under increasing threat from interrelated socio-ecological problems that include overharvesting of endemic useful plants, intensive grazing, inadequate water management and the erosion of cultural practices of conservation and sustainable land use management. The effects of climate change, heightened in fragile montane ecosystems, are compounding the impact of all these factors.

Morocco 24-010 Irrigated thyme, Credit Global Diversity Foundation

Irrigated Thyme, Credit: Global Diversity Foundation

In April 2017, Global Diversity Foundation began implementing a three-year Darwin Initiative project. One of the ways the project is seeking to improve the resilience and adaptation of local communities to climate change is by building and restoring water management infrastructure to provide more efficient irrigation of large tracts of agricultural land and community nurseries in partner communities. This contributes to climate change adaptation in partner communities whilst also ensuring that precious water resources are used wisely and can therefore continue to sustain the broader ecosystems within which these agricultural terraces are embedded. To support this work, the project team collaborate with diverse partners to provide training courses for local communities and associations on cultivating drought resilient crops and using water economically to improve resilience to climate change and increasingly arid conditions.

As part of this programme, the Global Diversity Foundation are establishing community seed banks to secure improved availability of locally adapted plant species, and carrying out research on the impact of climate change on the High Atlas flora to identify potential new climate change refugia for target endangered or endemic plant species. The results of this research will inform our ongoing conservation actions in the High Atlas. All of these activities enrich partnerships with Amazigh people, who continually assess the impacts of climate change on their cultural landscapes and devise further strategies to lessen its effects on their socio-ecological wellbeing.

If you want to find out more about this project, visit their project page here.

Watershared: adaptation, mitigation, watershed protection and economic development in the Bolivian Chaco

Bolivia’s Gran Chaco encompasses swamps, salt flats, scrublands, and the largest virgin dry forest on earth. Although the region offers high soil fertility, it receives minimal rainfall. Most of the economic activity in Chaco requires water, so there is an urgent need to increase water efficiency and, most importantly, ensure that the water arrives in the lowlands in the first place.

Upper watershed farmers in the Chaco often have no economic alternative other than to deforest their land for agriculture. Forests are destroyed and cows enter streambeds to drink, forage, urinate and defecate. The subsistence agriculture of upper watershed farmers is unproductive, while downstream water sources are contaminated. Children miss school with diarrhoea as a result of contaminated water, and waterholes dry up.

Bolivia 21-008 Compensation in the Chaco, Credit - Natura Bolivia

Compensation in the Chaco, Credit: Natura Bolivia

Reciprocal watershed agreements – otherwise known as Watershared agreements – are simple, grassroots versions of incentive-based conservation. They help upper watershed forest and land managers to sustainably manage their forest and water resources to benefit both themselves and downstream water users. Watershared agreements focus on changing behaviour through economic and non-economic incentives and building institutional capacity: in other words, by showing local authorities and water users that watershed protection is in their own interests, and then facilitate the creation of the institutional framework needed to plan and implement it.

The Watershared model was first developed in 2003, in the Bolivian village of Los Negros. Six downstream irrigators negotiated a ground-breaking deal with their upstream counterparts. “For every 10 hectares [ha] of forest you conserve for a year,” Andrés Rojas told Serafín Carrasco, “we will give you a beehive and training in how to produce honey.” And so the first reciprocal watershed agreement was struck. The Reciprocal Watershed Agreements Darwin Project helped another six municipal governments create and consolidate Local Water Funds. These funds were designed to catalyse local investment in the upstream “Water Factories” of the Chaco and thereby simultaneously:

  1.  Mitigate climate change (conserve old growth forests);
  2.  Adapt to climate change (maintain water sources);
  3. Increase food security (maintain quantity of irrigation water and diversify upstream production systems); and
  4. Improve human health (enhance water quality).
Bolivia 21-008 Handing out conservation incentives, Credit - Natura Bolivia

Handing out conservation incentives, Credit: Natura Bolivia

Most importantly, by having water users and municipal governments pay for the conservation activities, the project developed the institutional framework for sustainable financing of climate change mitigation and adaptation activities. In addition to the 96,510ha that the project conserved under Reciprocal Watershared Agreements, there was a high demand from local authorities for the creation of new municipal protected areas. The project used Darwin Initiative funds, along with counterpart support, to help create three new municipal protected areas. The creation of these areas protected another 500,000 ha of the Chaco’s forests.

If you want to find out more about this project, visit their project page here. To read more articles about how Darwin projects are working towards improving climate resilience in developing countries worldwide, see our special edition of the newsletter from November 2017.

Leave a comment

Darwin for Climate Action – Mainstreaming biodiversity conservation at Yayu Biosphere Reserve

In honour of the 23rd session of the Conference of the Parties (CoP23) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change that was held in Bonn in November 2017, the Darwin Initiative blog will be running a series highlighting a few of our most innovative and interesting climate change focused projects.

The first entry in this series looks at the climate resilience and biodiversity project in the Yayu Biosphere Reserve in Ethiopia. This project, led by Dr Aaron Davis of RBG Kew, took an approach to climate resilience which focused on empowering the communities living near the reserve. The Yayu team believed that improving the income and livelihoods of local coffee farmers would limit forest loss through land conversion and empower the farmers to put more climate resilient practices in place – and evidence to date suggests they have been successful. The project has had a number of positive impacts over its three-year lifespan, and is due to end in just a few months. Below is an extract from the article the project team submitted to the Darwin Newsletter to explain more about those successes and the methods used to achieve them.

Yayu Reserve in Ethiopia covers 167,000 hectares and is one of the most important storehouses of wild genetic resources for Arabica coffee. Given that these forests are suitable for wild coffee, it may come as no surprise that coffee farming occurs within the forests of the buffer zone and transition areas of the reserve, generating up to 70% of the cash income for over 90% of the local population.

Despite the popularity of Ethiopian coffee, most coffee farmers at Yayu are struggling to make sufficient income. This drives forest loss through land use conversion, leading to a reduction in biodiversity, deterioration of ecosystem services, and a narrowing of income diversity. In the longer term, coffee farming at Yayu has been identified as climatically sensitive and thus low coffee prices are also problematic, because farmers have a reduced capacity to adapt to increasing climate variability and change.

The overarching model of the project is to increase the income for the farmers who grow, harvest and process the coffee at Yayu, via improving coffee quality and providing sustainable access to market. One of the ways the project is working towards this is by training farmers in coffee harvesting and processing techniques, as well as installing the appropriate equipment, to improve the quality of coffee they produce.  If the value of the forest-based coffee production improves, this will serve to preserve the forest at Yayu. In turn, this brings benefits for coffee production, from the ecological services (including pollinator services) provided by the forest. With improved coffee prices, farmers also have the potential to invest in coffee-farming, including adaptation to climate change.

Ethiopia 22-006, Graciano Cruz, a coffee farmer from Panama, advises on drying bed construction, Credit - Emily Garthwaite.jpg

Graciano Cruz (HiuCoffee) a coffee farmer from Panama advises on drying bed construction, essential equipment for producing high quality coffee, Credit: Emily Garthwaite

Early on in the project it became evident that farmers knew how to improve climate resilience, but there was simply not enough value in their coffee crop to pay for it. This project has supported the Yayu cooperatives by providing them with what they need to improve their coffee quality and making direct links to the markets where they can sell it.

As a direct result of the project, more than 130,000 kg of high quality project coffee has been purchased from the five Yayu cooperatives, tripling the income from coffee for several hundred households across the community.

Ethiopia 22-006 - Yayu coffee sold in Waitrose 1 Credit - Union Hand-Roasted Coffee

Yayu Forest Coffee – which has tasting notes of citrus fruit and bourbon biscuits – is now on sale in Waitrose in the UK, with 25p from each packet sold going directly back to the project, Credit: Union Hand-Roasted Coffee

With improved and stable prices it is now possible to put climate resilience experiments into practice. If farmers invest in climate adaptation measures (such as soil mulching, pruning, and better shade management) what will this mean in terms of improved resilience, coffee productivity, quality and income? Following this, farmers will be in a much better position to quantify the precise value of climate adaptation measures and target their limited resources more effectively.

If you want to find out more about this project, visit their project page here. To read more articles about how Darwin projects are working towards improving climate resilience in developing countries worldwide, see our special edition of the newsletter from November 2017.

Leave a comment

Building on success: insights from a cluster of Darwin Initiative projects in Uganda

The Darwin Initiative has provided funding to projects in Uganda since its very first round of funding 25 years ago. In its opening year, the Darwin Initiative funded three projects in Uganda:

In celebration of the Darwin Initiative’s 25th anniversary and its long and successful history in Uganda, in this blog we hear from three members of the Darwin community (E.J. Milner-Gulland, Dilys Roe and Julia Baker) who have worked together on five Darwin supported projects over the past five years.

Uganda is a country with remarkable natural beauty, important conservation value, a dynamic cadre of conservation professionals who are keen to engage with international best practice, and continuing challenges of poverty, conflict and lack of capacity and infrastructure.

The three of us have been fortunate to work closely together on five Darwin-funded projects in Uganda since 2012. These projects illustrate the value of having overlapping teams carrying out complementary projects, the benefits that can be gained from building on the achievements of one project to provide a springboard for further projects, and of long-term engagement and investment in a country, particularly in building in-country capacity for conservation.

The Biodiversity Team at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) has worked in Uganda since 2010. Early on, the need for a network of conservation professionals was identified in order to share experiences, best practice and international lessons, particularly on understanding the complex linkages between poverty and environment. Thus, the Uganda Poverty and Conservation Learning Group (U-PCLG) was born, funded by the Arcus Foundation.

Uganda Batwa community on edge of Bwindi National Park, Credit - Dilys Roe

Batwa community on edge of Bwindi National Park, Credit: Dilys Roe

U-PCLG was the ideal vehicle to translate research findings into real-world policy and action. As the best way to learn is by doing, a case study problem was identified, research done to understand the problem, and then the U-PCLG was supported to advocate for policy change, using a range of approaches including policy briefs, meetings and workshops. This idea was taken up and funded by the Darwin Initiative, in our first project Research to Policy – Building Capacity for Conservation Through Poverty Alleviation, which started in April 2012. The project took wildlife crime in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park as the case study, and chalked up notable success in changing park-level policies, including an increase in the share of income from gorilla tracking permits that is given back to local communities. It also saw the nascent U-PCLG transformed into an active and empowered group, and resulted in a spin-off project, funded by the Arcus Foundation, to evaluate the tourism revenue sharing scheme at Bwindi.

With the learning and partnerships gained from the Bwindi project, we submitted a proposal to Darwin with in-country partners the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA). This extended our approach to tackling wildlife crime to Uganda’s largest and oldest national parks, Queen Elizabeth and Murchison Falls, by using cutting-edge research to understand the motivations of natural resource users. Our proposal was transferred to the newly-instituted sister grant scheme to Darwin, the Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund, and became the Building Capacity for Pro-Poor Responses to Wildlife Crime in Uganda. Most of our final year of this project involved working with park staff to develop feasible action plans to change the way wildlife crime is tackled, from law enforcement to a community-engagement approach. Following calls from UWA for support to implement these plans, a new IWT Challenge Fund project is now underway to build UWA’s capacity in community engagement approaches to tackling wildlife crime.

Whilst implementing these projects, we worked with our partners to identify other critical issues for supporting poverty alleviation in Uganda while conserving nature. New projects addressing these issues supported by Darwin include supporting Uganda’s National Environmental Management Authority to understand the impacts of a biodiversity offset for a large hydropower dam on people and wildlife, and improve Uganda’s ability to implement effective offsets. This builds on another IIED-led Darwin project that supported Uganda and other African countries to mainstream biodiversity in national and sectoral development policy. Meanwhile at Bwindi we have begun working with private sector professionals to improve the quality of local tourism products and services in order to increase local spending by gorilla tourists, linking back to the original Bwindi project that showed local people resent gorilla conservation because they believe they do not receive a fair share of tourism benefits.

Uganda gorilla Credit Dilys Roe

Gorilla, Credit: Dilys Roe

We are also evaluating the conservation impact of a public health intervention at Bwindi. This project is notable because it is one of the few projects in the Darwin Initiative’s portfolio to be led by a developing country NGO (Conservation Through Public Health, CTPH), rather than an international partner. This was made possible by IIED and Oxford University working with CTPH to build their capacity in proposal writing and project implementation, leading to success in accessing Darwin funding. During our last visit to Uganda we tried to spread this support further by training U-PCLG members on applying for Darwin funding. One of the greatest benefits from Darwin’s support has been to boost the careers and personal development of Ugandan conservation professionals involved with the projects.

We are very grateful to the Darwin Initiative for their support, and hope that this taster gives an idea of the added value of supporting a network of interlinked projects, in terms of continuity, learning, mutual support and capacity-building.

This article, and many others celebrating 25 years of the Darwin Initiative, can be found in our August Newsletter.

Leave a comment

Darwin delivers in the Falklands

Continuing the theme of celebrating the Darwin Initiative’s 25th Anniversary (see our last blog!), this latest blog shares two articles from our most recent newsletter, both looking at the work the Darwin Initiative has supported in the Falkland Islands.

Darwin funding was awarded to a Falklands based project in 1993, the very first year of funding, delivered by the UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum. Since then, Darwin has consistently supported diverse conservation projects in the Falkland Islands resulting in a wide range of benefits and outcomes. The following articles from our newsletter, prepared by Falklands Conservation and the South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute respectively, highlight but a few of the Darwin supported Falklands projects over the years.

Darwin delivers in the Falklands thanks to Falklands Conservation

With eight Darwin Initiative projects awarded to Falklands Conservation (FC) alone over the last thirteen years, the contribution of the Initiative to delivering environmental research, practical conservation and biodiversity policy development in the Falklands cannot be underestimated. FC is a small conservation charity based in the Falklands, partnering with the local and international community to conserve the Falkland Islands natural environment. External funding is essential to the delivery of its organisational objectives. FC’s Darwin projects have discovered new species to science, delivered Species Actions Plans, built local capacity, educated and trained the local community, changed national policy, and much more besides.

The benefits continue today, well beyond the life of each Darwin Initiative project. Following native seed trials, and habitat restoration technique development delivered through Darwin Initiative projects, FC now has a Habitat Restoration Officer working with landowners on restoration projects tackling habitat loss in the Islands. New records and even new species to science are still being identified two years after samples of mosses, liverworts and lichens were collected through FC’s ‘Lower Plants’ project. The Falkland Islands National Herbarium at FC now houses lower plants specimens which can be accessed for research and educational purposes.

Falklands EIDCF014 conservation volunteer collecting Poa alopecurus on Sea Lion Island Credit A Davey

Conservation volunteer collecting Poa alopecurus on Sea Lion Island, Credit: A. Davey

Darwin Initiative funded projects aimed at understanding Falklands’ raptor populations and landowner issues have led to updated population estimates and Species Action Plans for raptors of conservation concern, and influenced Government policy development on control measures. After a Darwin Initiative funded Biodiversity Action Planning project, National Biodiversity policy was aligned with delivering CBD targets and strategies are still being developed to provide more focussed and effective conservation action. These are just a few examples of how much Darwin Initiative has, and continues to deliver in the Falkland Islands!

Marine Spatial Planning in the Falkland Islands

Around three years ago, the Falkland Islands took a massive step forward in terms of marine planning when a Darwin-Plus funded project commenced. The two year project titled ‘Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) for the Falkland Islands’, and led by the South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute (SAERI), and supported by the Falklands Islands Government (FIG), developed a framework for the implementation of MSP along with a suite of associated tools to support MSP.

MSP is a practical, stakeholder driven, science-based approach to organising the marine environment and the interactions between its users.  It strives to balance the demands for development with the need to protect the marine environment and to achieve social and economic objectives.

Falklands Marine spatial planning, Credit Neil Golding

The Darwin Initiative has led to a sea change in the way management of the marine environment is considered in the Falklands Islands, Credit: Neil Golding

Following this pioneering work in the South Atlantic, Falkland Islands Government were keen to maintain the momentum generated, and directed SAERI to undertake a short, follow-on project.  There were four goals to this subsequent project:

  1. maintain and update the suite of MSP tools;
  2. undertake an assessment of fishing closure areas within the Falkland Islands;
  3. undertake a review to identify legislative gaps for future MSP implementation; and
  4. develop a long-term strategy for MSP implementation in the Falkland Islands.

The project is progressing well and is due to finish in 2017.

The story of how far marine spatial planning has come in the Falkland Islands is a real testament to the importance of the Darwin Initiative, and really demonstrates how a single Darwin-Plus project has led to a sea of change in the management of the Falklands marine environment.

For more articles celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Darwin Initiative, please see our newsletter

Leave a comment

Darwin Initiative’s 25th Anniversary celebrated on Jersey stamps!

2017 marks the 25th Anniversary of the Darwin Initiative! Since it was first announced in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit, Darwin has gone from strength to strength. This year saw us passing the 1000th project mark, bringing the total number of funded projects to 1,055 – a fantastic legacy!

In celebration of this anniversary, and celebrating the legacies of famous naturalists Gerald Durrell and Charles Darwin, six stamps and a miniature wooden sheet, illustrated by artist Sara Menon, were issued by Jersey Post on Wednesday 14 June. The animals and birds that feature on the stamps are subjects of conservation projects undertaken by the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust with support from the Darwin Initiative over the past quarter century. Featured on the stamps are: Livingstone’s fruit bat, Telfair’s skink, the mountain chicken, Hispaniolan solenodon, the pygmy hog and the mangrove finch. As the symbol of the Darwin initiative, the finch is the subject of our latest blog looking at the extraordinary work done by the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, with the Darwin Initiative’s support, to protect the species.

Durrell & Darwin_Mint Set
Six stamps, illustrated by Sara Menon, celebrating 25 years of Darwin, Credit: Jersey Post

In 2005, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust was invited by Galápagos Conservation Trust to look at the apparently catastrophic decline of the critically endangered mangrove finch in Galápagos, Ecuador. This endemic finch, one of Darwin’s finches and the rarest bird in the archipelago, was once found at several mangroves on the coasts of Isabela and eastern Fernandina. Since limited to two small mangrove patches on Isabela, the exact reasons for its decline were unclear. Durrell, in partnership with the Charles Darwin Foundation and Galápagos National Park, began identifying the causes of decline and establishing strategies for restoring the species while developing a much better understanding of the finch’s ecology across two Darwin supported projects.

Fundamental to the success of these projects was the identification of dedicated and experienced key personnel with the ability to work in challenging field sites, as Galápagos can be both beautiful and very hostile. Field manager Birgit Fessl had already studied the finch before taking on this role, advisor Hernan Vargas knew the bird intimately and team member Segundo Goanna had worked with Hernan at the field sites before joining Birgit’s team. This team, with support from Francesca Cunninghame who headed up the second project, and the overall project partners, can be credited with the success of these projects.

15-005 Mangrove Finch Cactospiza heliobates Galapagos 2008 Photo by Michael Dvorak (37)

Mangrove Finch, Cactospiza heliobates, on the Galápagos, Credit: Michael Dvorak

And the finch? Things move fast in conservation. The team quickly learnt that the mangrove finch is not only a specialist of mangrove, a rare habitat in Galápagos anyway, but that it only likes one specific type of mangrove, where uplifted beaches prevent the tides from removing leaf litter and where crabs are not present. The team found that invasive rats were suppressing the finch; their removal from the mangroves brought about immediate signs of recovery. This, however, threw up new problems. Where previously rats would limit the number of hatching chicks, their removal allowed invasive parasitic flies to inhibit chick survival, presenting further challenges for the finch’s protection.

The mangrove finch is still very rare and only survives through ongoing support of the Darwin projects’ partnership long after the original projects were completed. All of the key personnel from the projects remain committed to the finch’s survival – removing the chicks from their nests, hand-rearing where the flies can’t get to them and returning them safely to the mangroves. The Darwin Initiative has allowed Durrell to develop an extraordinary international partnership and team that remains committed to this remarkable bird and to ensure survival of the Darwin logo!

Many thanks for Glyn Young from Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust for his contribution to this blog. For more articles celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Darwin Initiative, please see our newsletter

Do you have a project that has been supported by the Darwin Initiative? How has the fund helped you over the last 25 years? Be sure to tweet us @Darwin_Defra, and use the #Darwin25 hashtag to celebrate this special milestone! And feel free to get in touch at


Leave a comment

Community-based nature tourism by the Ayeyarwady River, Myanmar

In our most recent newsletter we invited articles from Darwin projects on the theme of Sustainable Tourism, and we are blogging some of our favourite articles here! Our last blog focused on sustainable scuba tourism in Sudan’s newly designated marine world heritage site!

This time we hear an update from a project working to develop a tourism venture with fishing communities that work alongside the iconic Irrawaddy River dolphins in Myanmar.

Community-based nature tourism by the Ayeyarwady River, Myanmar

Written by project leader Paul Bates of the Harrison Institute

The objective of this UK-Myanmar project looked simple on paper – ‘To develop two new rural destinations on the Ayeyarwady River for niche tourists interested in Myanmar’s cultural and natural heritage’. The destinations (only accessible by boat) were situated at Hsithe and Myitkangyi villages, respectively 45 and 60 km upstream of Mandalay and the aim was: to help (1) alleviate poverty in the two village communities; (2) conserve the Irrawaddy River dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) and other river wildlife; (3) preserve the culture of the fishermen and women who have traditionally fished cooperatively with the dolphins.

So how did we do? On the positive side, the destinations are up, running and beautiful; average spend per tourist (in the village) is currently between $28 and $36 and all money spent in the village stays in the village (this, in village communities where a typical wage is about $3/day). That said, the villages are remote and visitor numbers at 190 were perhaps at the lower end of our original expectations. However, in the last six months, the villages received 13 inspection tours from 41 individuals representing 10 private sector travel companies and after extensive marketing by the project’s UK and Myanmar staff, interest amongst tour companies is very encouraging and supportive for the 2017-18 season.

Meanwhile, there are many positive messages to take away from our experience so far. Numerous workshops and training programmes have sparked amazing creativity amongst the villagers, resulting in a spectacular range of handicrafts: everything from funky, off-the wall artefacts made from recycled cement bags, to beautiful carvings from drift wood, and jams and chutneys made from local fruits. There are distinctly branded bags of peanuts and spices, and locally produced honeys, to name but a few. Each month, new ideas from the villages lead to new products in the visitor centre shops – this is wonderful! Furthermore, talks are currently in progress to market the products elsewhere in Myanmar and on-line through a supplier in Yangon. We are also hopeful that a luxury Mandalay hotel will buy for its clients’ breakfasts the very tasty mango jam.

Myanmar 21012 8 Aung Ko Toe gives a cooking class in Myitkangyi, Credit Paul Bates

Aung Ko Toe gives a cooking class in Myitkangyi, Credit –  Paul Bates

The project has also led to increased community pride – pride in the remarkable culture of the fishermen and women, who have for generations fished co-operatively with the Irrawaddy River dolphins. Tourists pay 10,000 Kyat (approximately $7.50) per person to learn from the fishermen how to cast a traditional fishing net. The training takes place both on land and on the river, and is very popular. Alternatively, they can go on a fishing tour and capture for themselves this timeless, photogenic activity.

With increased community and cultural pride, comes civic pride. For three years the project team has emphasised the importance of the environment and of waste management. Workshops in the villages involved almost 1,000 children. They included talks and visual displays as well as games, colouring competitions, and competitive litter collections! These workshops brought the school children, the school teachers and a broad range of parents into the project. Hosted at the school and in the monastery, they have enabled the greater community to learn about the project aims and understand its relevance.

Although some benefits are relatively easy to measure, others are more subjective. Civic pride is one of them but so too is a change in mind-set of some of the village youth. For better, for worse, the villages have become part of the global economy. Through the project’s website and through the marketing of tour agencies they are visible throughout the world. As with all aspects of globalisation, there are positives and negatives but one of the positives is the opportunity it provides for the young. The world has come to them. To some extent, they are now living in a global village, where on any particular day, the sound of French, German, English or Spanish might be heard. They are living in a village where local guides, men and women from the village, interact with an international, well-educated audience. The guides inform the visitors about the village school, the agriculture, the monasteries, and their way of life. In return, the visitors bring a sense of importance to the village. It is also inspiring for the villagers to know that their handicrafts will end up in Paris or Picardy, in London, Berlin or Madrid. It leads to a different perspective.

Myanmar 21012 18 Myitkangyi tour guides, Credit Paul Bates

Myitkangyi tour guides, Credit – Paul Bates

And what of the challenges? This project illustrated that in this instance poverty alleviation and biodiversity conservation are totally complementary. Like the fisherfolk, the visiting tourists love seeing the critically endangered dolphins, which are often sighted in the river opposite the destinations. However, being complementary does not mean that they are the same. Well managed and well directed poverty alleviation can lead to excellent long term benefits for nature.

Without doubt, the project raised awareness of the importance of the conservation of the dolphin, and associated wildlife, with the local communities of the Ayeyarwady, with the tourists, and most importantly with decision makers in the ministries in Nay Pyi Daw. It highlighted the threats to the dolphin and raised its profile (and value) as a charismatic species that draws international tourism to the river.

In the long term, having the support of the communities and decision makers is essential for meaningful dolphin conservation but so too is controlling upstream pollution and sedimentation, increasing the dwindling supply of fish and the eradication of illegal gill nets and electro-fishing.

So, is the dolphin in a better position today than it was three years ago? Yes. We have raised awareness, identified and reported on threats, trained 112 local tour guides and boat captains how to observe dolphins without disturbing them. We have trained 72 nature tourism guides and park rangers and most importantly we have shown to the decision maker and the local communities that the dolphins are not only of intrinsic and spiritual interest but also of economic benefit.

The real test of the project is not today’s or tomorrow’s results but its long term impact. In February, 2017, when we presented our results to the Minister of Hotels and Tourism, he was so enthusiastic that he immediately presented us with a donation of $5000 to begin Phase 2, overnight Bed and Breakfast accommodation at the two destinations. We believe that with such enthusiastic support from the government, from the communities, from private sector tour companies and from our own project team, there is a bright future for nature tourism on the Ayeyarwady and for the magical, charismatic Irrawaddy River dolphin.

To find out more about this project, visit its project page or its dedicated website!

2017 marks the 25th Anniversary of the Darwin Initiative! Since it was first announced in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit, Darwin has gone from strength to strength. This year saw us passing the 1000th project mark, bringing the total number of funded projects to 1,055 – a fantastic legacy!

We are now inviting articles for our next newsletter celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Darwin. Are you involved in a Darwin project, or have you been in the past? If so – we’d love to hear from you! Click here for article ideas and guidance, and get in touch at