The Darwin Initiative Blog

Insights and personal musings from the world of biodiversity conservation and development. For more info on the Darwin Initiative see https://www.gov.uk/government/groups/the-darwin-initiative


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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 Darwin-Newsletter@ltsi.co.uk.


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Promoting sustainable tourism in Sudan’s marine World Heritage site

May 22nd was the International Day for Biological Diversity, and the theme for 2017 was Biodiversity and Sustainable Tourism”. To tie in with this, in our most recent newsletter we invited articles from Darwin projects on the theme of Sustainable Tourism.

Underpinning the success and sustainability of many aspects of tourism internationally is the natural environment, from the landscape to the species level. Conservation of nature and biodiversity is therefore crucial to many tourism ventures. Revenue from tourism can help support communities living in poverty near protected areas or reliant on a depleting natural resource, and may offer a potential solution to conservation funding gaps.

However, there is a risk that high levels of, or uncontrolled practices in, tourism can do more harm than good to the natural environment. Projects must therefore ensure that they consider the sustainability of new tourism ventures so that the potential benefits can continue into the future.

In the newsletter we heard from projects working across the world – including Myanmar, Madagascar and St Helena. Although their context and approaches to sustainable tourism may differ, we hope that their stories and lessons will resonate with everyone.

We’ve picked out a few of the articles to share on our blog, and we’d encourage anyone who is interested to read further!

Promoting sustainable tourism in Sudan’s marine World Heritage site

Written by Lisa George (SUDIA) and Rebecca Klaus (Cousteau)

In July 2016, Sudan’s Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) – Sanganeb Atoll Marine National Park and Dungonab Bay and Mukkawar Island National Park – were inscribed as a UNESCO Natural World Heritage site. This is the first natural World Heritage site in Sudan and the first marine World Heritage site in the Red Sea and wider Arabian region. The Darwin Initiative (DI) project team supported the national nomination process by providing data and organising a workshop at UNESCO headquarters. The new international status will likely attract more interest in Sudan as a potential tourist destination and more visitors. To prepare for this, our DI project has been helping Sudan to plan ahead and promote sustainable and fair tourism for the MPAs.

Sudan is not a high-profile tourist destination but the country has a special reputation among the international SCUBA dive community. Between 2,500 and 4,000 divers come to Sudan every year from Europe and occasionally the USA.  The special reputation of Sudan as an elite destination among the dive community started in the early 1960s when the legendary Captain Jacques Cousteau filmed the documentary “The World Without Sun” and launched the Conshelf II experiment in Sudan to test whether humans could endure living underwater for extended periods of time. Sudan has managed to sustain this reputation due to the quality of the diving experiences, the abundance of marine wildlife, but also partly due to the small number of live-aboard dive boats operating in this challenging location.

Shark_Turtle_Neeser_small

A taste of what divers in Sudan’s Marine Protected Areas might experience, Credit – B. Neeser

In recent years, the number of live-aboard boats has started to increase; from the 8 locally based boats that were operating in 2000 there are now 15 boats, including 7 boats that visit seasonally from outside Sudan. While this number is still low compared to other destinations, the increase is proving to be a source of tension and poses a real threat to biodiversity conservation and the sustainability of this sector. The small number of locally based dive boats has been operating under a long-agreed informal set of guiding principles. However, newer boats bringing clients to Sudan are not obligated to follow these rules. To address this issue, the DI project has been working to support the dive operators to establish a formal code of conduct. As part of this process, the DI project has designed a series of Best-Practice Guidelines for encounters with marine wildlife for both the dive boat operators and their clients.

The DI project also identified a need to increase the link between the dive operators and the local communities. As international tourism is mainly boat-based, and the local communities are not easily accessible, there are limited opportunities for them to benefit from this potentially lucrative stream of foreign income. Establishing appropriate mechanisms through which the dive boats can interact with the local communities is challenging but paramount to ensuring that the communities benefit from tourists visiting their areas. To deepen understanding of the concept of sustainable tourism among national stakeholders, the DI project provided a 3-day “Sustainable Tourism Training Workshop” at the Red Sea University in Port Sudan. The workshop enabled participants to learn more about principles of sustainable tourism, including ecotourism. It highlighted the importance of ethical and responsible tourism and how these concepts can bridge development and conservation. Currently we are preparing for an expert to visit the communities to engage local fishermen in low impact ecotourism activities, such as manta watching.

While international tourism in the Red Sea State revolves around the live-aboard dive boats, Port Sudan and Dungonab Bay and Mukkawar Island National Park are also becoming increasingly important destinations for national tourists, particularly for people coming from the capital Khartoum. However, there is a lack of awareness of the marine environment and conservation issues among the general population as demonstrated by the stalls along the seafront in Port Sudan. These stalls target national visitors and sell marine mementoes including shells, corals, turtle carapaces, and dried baby shark and other fishes. To sensitise the general public about the wealth of marine biodiversity and flagship species in Sudan, the DI project prepared a poster exhibit jointly with our local partner SUDIA. The exhibit has been displayed at various events and has been very well received.

Exhbit pic

Marine biodiversity poster exhibit, Credit – SUDIA

You can find out more about Sudan’s marine parks on their website and read about how, on World Ocean Day on June 8th, Children from Sudan’s UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site called on world leaders to save the Ocean for future generations at the UN General Assembly.

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 Darwin-Newsletter@ltsi.co.uk.


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Ecotourism and biodiversity conservation – experience from Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda

by Lesley King

According to the UN, tourism has become ‘one of the largest and fastest-growing economic sectors in the world’ (UNWTO 2016). Indeed if you look at the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers for many of the countries Darwin projects work in, tourism is seen as an important area of investment to support development.  International tourism represents 7% of the world’s exports in goods and services and represents a key source of future jobs and investment in things like infrastructure for developing states.

However, tourism and biodiversity conservation have a chequered history with ecotourism ventures widely touted as the silver bullet for funding conservation – predominately by the marketers of such ventures. What is often misunderstood by the general public is the impact this tourism can have on biodiversity – both directly through increased human footfall in areas of high biodiversity, but also indirectly through policies and incentives that often end up pushing local poor, often the guardians and curators of such biodiversity, into greater poverty.

It was this issue of equity and how it incentivises biodiversity conservation that came up when I visited Uganda in 2015 on an evaluation of Darwin projects.

The Darwin Initiative has funded a number of projects focusing on Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in the south-west of Uganda. It is an important park for Mountain Gorilla with roughly half the world’s population residing in the park. It is also an important source of revenue for Uganda with tourists visiting to track habituated gorillas paying over $500 per permit.

The impact of this tourism on the local communities living just outside the fence of the park is complex. When the park was gazetted in 1991, the Batwa, indigenous forest peoples residing in the forest, were removed and resettled outside the park with no compensation. The Batwa were especially disadvantaged as the forest was the basis of their livelihood and practices that defined their ethnic identity.

Uganda 19-013 Batwa children on edge of Bwindi National Park Credit L King

Batwa children on the edge of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Credit: Lesley King

In addition to the Batwa, the majority of the local population around Bwindi are poor subsistence farmers growing crops on terraces on very steep hillsides.  Whilst a proportion of the fee tourists pay to enter Bwindi is shared through a benefit-sharing scheme, there is often bad feeling towards the park; local people feel that they pay a high cost as a result of human-wildlife conflicts. They see rich tourists arriving and spending large amounts of money to access the gorillas but little of that benefit is felt by them.

During my visit in 2015 I evaluated 2 Darwin-funded projects working on different aspects of these issues.

The first, “Integrating Batwa cultural values into national parks management in Uganda”, was a project led by FFI. It supported Batwa people to increase their engagement with the park management authorities and to negotiate access into the park to engage with their spiritual values – an essential for life as a Batwa. In addition, the project supported Batwa to develop livelihood initiatives including organic farming (as traditionally forest peoples, they have limited skills in agriculture), handicrafts to sell to tourists, and the flagship Batwa Forest Experience project.

Uganda 19-019 Batwa Forest Experience guides in their new uniforms Credit L King

Batwa Forest Experience guides in their new uniforms, Credit: Lesley King

The Batwa Forest Experience is a new venture that was negotiated by the Darwin Project. It is a cultural experience directed at tourists that have already completed their gorilla tracking and looking for something else to do in the area. Tourists will be led by a Batwa guide and interpreter through the forests within the National Park and the life of the Batwa will be explained through stories, singing and dancing. Some of the tourism businesses the reviewers spoke to saw this venture as having real potential for increasing tourism revenue in this area. The biggest challenge for tourist providers is, once tourists have completed the gorilla tracking, there is little to keep them in the area. The Batwa Forest Experience was seen as a new niche product that would entice visitors.

The second project I visited, “Research to Policy – building capacity for conservation through poverty alleviation”, was led by IIED and looked to boost the capacity of Ugandan NGOs and research groups to undertake research-into-use. They used Bwindi as a case study and, in addition to boosting capacity to undertake research and advocacy work, made positive inputs to how the park was managed to the benefit of poor local communities.

One of the issues the project looked at was the issue of equity in the park’s benefit-sharing scheme. A proportion of the fee tourists pay to enter the park is shared out with local people living around the outskirts of the park. By supporting the Ugandan partners to develop their advocacy skills, the project resulted in an important agreement for the Ugandan Wildlife Authority to increase the benefits paid out to local people, in the form of the gorilla levy. Due to the work of the project, the share of revenue from tourists paid to local people was doubled (by potentially more than $100,000 per year) which is hoped to support local poor and reduce conflict between the people and the park authorities and reduce illegal incursions into the park.

The CBD chose the International Day for Biological Diversity to highlight its chosen theme for 2017 – biodiversity and sustainable tourism. In the coming months in Darwin we will be pulling out more examples of how our Darwin projects work to support sustainable tourism. The theme for the next Darwin Newsletter will be sustainable tourism – find out how to submit an article here – or if you are working on issues mentioned above and would like to write a guest blog post for us please contact darwin-newsletter@ltsi.co.uk.


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Protected areas and ecotourism: who’s paying?

“Why do we have to pay so much more than the locals to get into the park – it isn’t fair!” a friend of mine once commented en route to a Kenyan National Park. The same could have been said for most national parks across the continent, or even worldwide.

In my mind, the logic is simple and transparent: international visitors, for the most part, have the money to pay for a higher-priced ticket whereas nationals and residents, in the majority of cases, may not. But why are these fees necessary? And where does this money go?

Ecotourism is one solution to the pervasive problem that, in developing countries worldwide, little government financing goes towards the operational costs of protected areas. Tighe Geoghegan, a recognized expert in participatory management and protected areas, said that from her experience of working with protected areas in the Caribbean:

“While the political will to establish protected areas may be strong, the will to budget for their management has shown itself to be very weak, in the face of urgent national priorities and continuous fiscal crisis”

Tighe Geoghegan 1998

In the 1990’s Government funding to protected areas globally equated to only about 24% of the estimated US$17 billion required for proper maintenance. The Durban Action Plan, launched in 2004, was an attempt to change this. However there is still a major gap in government finances for protected areas.

There are many potential solutions to this problem, such as private sector financing (e.g. through biodiversity offsetting) and private donations, to fund operational costs of parks where government finances fall short. But ecotourism is commonly viewed as a more sustainable means to make up this shortfall, whilst also involving the local community. But is it that simple?

Local communities are often negatively impacted by protected area creation and management. The eviction and exclusion of local residents in the name of conservation often results in negative perceptions of protected areas, reinforced by increased incidence of human wildlife conflict which further impact upon the well-being of local residents.

Where ecotourism initiatives are in place locals often experience negligible increases in tourism-related livelihoods benefits, further fueling local feelings of resentment. These negative perceptions of the benefits of protected areas are often accompanied by poor enforcement of regulations at the local level. For example, a study by Bennet and Dearden in 2014 discovered managers in Marine Protected Areas in Thailand often allowed local fisherman to fish, even in no-catch areas. Without proper protection, the scope of these protected areas for conserving the very species they were established to protect is jeopardised and, with the inevitable loss of biodiversity that results from a poorly managed protected area, the potential for ecotourism will also diminish.

Mountain gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda, Credit: Rod Waddington via https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0

Mountain gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda, Credit: Rod Waddington via https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0

 

The problem in many of these cases is the disengagement of the local communities – something that Darwin Initiative Project 19-013 is trying to address. “Research to policy – building capacity for conservation through poverty alleviation” has been working with communities surrounding Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda to ensure that communities receive direct benefit from ecotourism. A number of initiatives have been developed to this end, including increasing the proportion of money international visitors pay to visit the park’s renowned population of critically endangered mountain gorillas, and ensuring more jobs are filled by local groups. The project has made a particular effort to focus on the fairer distribution of jobs to include more marginalised groups and a more equitable gender balance.

Another project, 14-046 “Sustainable tourism supporting species conservation in the Srepok Wilderness, Cambodia”, dealt with similar issues. The project was focused on Srepok Wilderness Area (SWA) of Mondulkiri Protected Forest which, like all protected areas in Cambodia, receives little government financing. Its operational costs are therefore dependent on less predictable and often unsustainable international financing sources. Over-harvesting of wildlife and habitat loss resulted in serious declines in species populations within the park, putting at risk the survival of the park and its ability to sustain the key threatened species within its borders, as well as the human communities reliant upon it. The project worked to establish better designation of protected areas within the SWA and improve the monitoring of poaching and species populations within the park by communities and enforcement agencies, meaning that low-impact but high-profit tourism is now a feasible long-term solution.

Critically endangered vultures feeding at a ‘vulture restaurant’ set up to assess their numbers. Credit J P Delphal WWF Cambodia

Critically endangered vultures feeding at a ‘vulture restaurant’ set up to assess their numbers. Credit J P Delphal WWF Cambodia

 

Conservation worldwide is chronically underfunded and ecotourism is one approach to address this shortfall. As the Darwin projects discussed above demonstrate, ecotourism interventions that take into account local needs and engage communities in conservation limit exacerbating traditional problems faced by protected areas. If ecotourism is a viable alternative to practices which might lead to over exploitation of natural resources within national parks, then more should be done to make sure communities see this benefit (through initiatives such as Darwin project 20-010, the “Social Assessment of Protected Areas”) and, perhaps more importantly, make this process more transparent for international visitors, on whom ecotourism depends. Then perhaps, rather than asking “why are we paying so much” they’ll be asking “what more can we do?”