Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine
April 23,  2000
Conservation at what cost?
To preserve the habitat of the rare mountain gorilla, Uganda expelled the Batwa Pygmy people from the forest. In the long run, officials believe, their sacrifice will have been worth it.

A resident of a village at the farmed fringes of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. (Eric Mencher / Inquirer)

orum Kabwa used to roam freely through Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, trapping animals and harvesting medicinal plants in the same way his Batwa Pygmy ancestors had done for centuries.

But seven years ago the Ugandan government declared the forest a national park to preserve one of the last habitats of the rare mountain gorilla. Kabwa and other Pygmies were expelled from Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, and thousands of impoverished Ugandans who live around the 128-square-mile park were banned from its precincts.

"We were miserable," says Kabwa, 56, an herbalist and community leader who now lives in the village of Kanungu.

The park's neighbors burned 5 percent of the forest in a retaliatory attempt to expand their farms. Poachers and timber-cutters raided the park with impunity. Park employees were shunned as pariahs in their own communities.

"People refused to serve food to park rangers," says Benon Mougyerwa, the park's acting warden. "It was harsh."

The very act of preserving the land had sparked a reaction that was worse than the original threat. The local residents regarded the gorillas - so dearly loved by wildlife enthusiasts - as competition for scarce resources.

And so international agencies in recent years have scrambled to create an elaborate set of development programs to convince the park's neighbors that it is more worthwhile to conserve the park than to plunder it.

The programs include channeling 20 percent of park revenue to parishes surrounding the park to pay for schools and community centers. The communities also operate a tourist camp in the park.

Now a new threat looms. Since Rwandan rebels murdered eight foreign tourists at Bwindi last year, tourism has gone into a free fall. So has the revenue that went directly to communities through employment and gate receipts.

Not all the funding sources are tied to tourist income, however.

A key component of the plan is a trust funded by the World Bank to finance development projects in perpetuity; the bank's $4 million investment has appreciated to more than $6 million. The U.S. Agency for International Development also chipped in $890,000 for projects.

Such programs - called integrated conservation and development plans - are becoming increasingly common in impoverished countries that contain unique environmental resources that the local population cannot afford to conserve.

"It takes time for people to realize they're benefiting from the projects," says Jackson Mutebi, a supervisor for Care International, the lead agency for the project. "We've made a huge investment in terms of time, money and expertise to build capacity."

To conservationists, Bwindi is a rare treasure worth considerable investment. About the size of Philadelphia, the park contains one of the last stands of primeval forest in East Africa. It contains dozens of plants and animals not found elsewhere.

The park is home to 120 species of mammals, including elephant, bushpig, chimpanzee, colobus monkey and half the world's population of endangered mountain gorilla. It also contains more than 300 species of birds, including 19 rare forest birds that are unique to the region.

Dense with undergrowth and giant thickets of bamboo, the forest's fog-shrouded woods are festooned with creepers, mistletoe and orchids.

But the park also lies in one of the most densely populated areas of Africa. The rich hillsides are cultivated right up to the edge of the park with bananas, tea, coffee, cassava and potatoes. The average family has six people and the population is growing rapidly.

For centuries the communities used the forest for timber, medicinal plants and vines and grass for making baskets. The people also put up snares to catch small antelope and boars.

Care, the Uganda Wildlife Authority and conservation groups developed a complicated plan that allows communities to take a limited amount of water and plants from areas along the park's edge.

The communities can also use the forest for low-impact activities such as beekeeping. But they can't take animals or timber.

Park authorities and conservationists set up strict quotas for the plants that can be harvested from the forest each year. The quotas are determined along with community leaders to ensure their cooperation. For each community, the process can take months as the local representatives and conservationists survey the forest on foot to determine which plants are abundant and which are scarce.

Near Kanungu last month, the conservationists and community leaders met in a church bordering the park to put the final touches on their agreement. Of the 32 plants residents wanted to harvest for weaving and herbal medicine, they agreed to take only eight.

"It may not be very much, but psychologically it's very important," says Tom Blomley, a Care conservation official.

In exchange, government agricultural agents will soon visit the community bearing new breeds of goats and chickens, along with livestock vaccinations. The agents will teach some new techniques, such as how to grow trees for firewood and timber, rather than taking trees from the park.

Conservationists say the communities are more cooperative than in the past. Fewer animals and trees are being poached, and the communities that have made conservation agreements are reporting illegal activity. Park officials were heartened recently when forest fires broke out and some communities organized fire-fighting brigades without prompting from park officials.

But the Pygmy families, having been forced to give up their old forest homes to preserve gorilla habitat, are not happy with their new lives outside the park. They were told they must give up being hunter-gatherers and become farmers.

"We're still miserable here," says Kabwa, the herbalist, as he walks in the forest pointing out the plants he is allowed to take - and those he must not touch.

Kabwa's people now have schools and houses with metal roofs, improvements over what they had in the forest. But his clothes are threadbare and his crops are thin. He's still learning how to farm.

What's more, he fears that without the ability to freely harvest medicinal plants, Batwa youth will lose the knowledge of traditional healing.

"I'm worried the next generation will forget all about the herbs," he says. "We're now engaged in other activities." home page   
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