The Darwin Initiative Blog

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

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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.


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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.

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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