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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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?”