Involvement and ownership of tourism processes : Communities’ tale of conserving to serve

And systematically changing lives By Thomas Kagera Silas Twagizimana, stout and square-jawed, talks hastily with every word followed by gesticulations of the hands, the head, shoulders, then eyes and, in rare bouts of emphasis, the legs.

And systematically changing lives

By Thomas Kagera

Silas Twagizimana, stout and square-jawed, talks hastily with every word followed by gesticulations of the hands, the head, shoulders, then eyes and, in rare bouts of emphasis, the legs. A resident of Kinigi, Musanze District in the Northern Province of Rwanda in his early 40s, Silas is an ardent practitioner of apiculture (the raising and care of bees for commercial or agricultural purposes), a job he has done with passion in the last four years. And he loves it, thanks to the Sabyinyo Community Livelihood Association (5ACOLA) that nurtured his skills.

“It is a job I have come to like. It is a job that has transformed my life and that of my family. With bee keeping, and support from SACOLA, my way of looking at and reaping from nature has taken a new paradigm of appreciation and helped me understand why we should all fervently turn our efforts to conservation programmes as supported by the Rwanda Development Board,” says Silas with an abundant theme of satisfaction.

The RDB-Tourism and Conservation Head Rica Rwigamba says SACOLA is a telling register of how community involvement can make a whole world of difference in conservation efforts. “In the first place communities have to understand that they are partners in the whole process of conservation and tourism, not outsiders, not antagonists, not ‘they’ but ‘we’. SACOLA has cultivated and nurtured that spirit,” considers Rica with a fluid sense of purpose.

At first Silas was a hunter, a poacher from the gazzetted Volcanoes National Park and its brinks, an activity he knew was illegal but stuck with for lack of a decent alternative. Besides hunting, he was as well a honey collector from the precincts of the park.

His activities, he now knows, were a slow-motion ruin that injured the eco-equilibrium and would eventually lead to decimation of some components of the environment.

“We used to lay snares within and in the vicinities of the park to trap antelopes and buffaloes. Quite often we would get them, but at times they (traps) would as well injure the gorillas,” he says, his head cocked to the left with a tinge of regret.

Silas now benefits from the extension services of specialists who teach him and others how to get maximum harvests from apiculture using modern keeping methods. And, indeed, he has benefited immensely from that intervention. From building a better shelter for his family, “the household items, the medical insurance, school fees for the children are no longer a problem and could not be obtained from poaching. With bee-keeping, I can plan what I want to do tomorrow and the other day. It’s no longer a sporadic state of life,” Silas says.

Silas’s road to the Damascus world of conservation, that turned his soul of Saul into that of Paul, turning him from a persecutor of nature to nurturing all that there is to love and kindle started in 2004 when the then Rwanda Office of Tourism (ORTPN) that later metamorphosed into Rwanda Development Board—Tourism and Conservation, intervened to turn hundreds of his ilk into nature lovers when SACOLA was formed.

“Hundreds of people around the park were stealthily involved in full-time poaching. It took unwavering efforts of the government to put a stop to this encroachment,” says Silas.

It was the RDB and International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) that helped mobilize the over 50,000 people living around the park in Kinigi and Nyange Sectors to form the Sabyinyo Community Livelihood Association (SACOLA) through which they access benefits derived from tourism.

According to the SACOLA chairman, Celestine Pierre Nsengiyumva, the Association was initiated with an ultimate aim of stopping poaching and encroachment on the park. “This had to be done by improving people’s socio-economic welfare, sensitizing them about the importance of conservation and find long-lasting solutions to the incessant conflicts that created corrosion between the communities and the park. Animals could destroy farms and individuals would poach from the park. This had to be stopped. A balance between conservation, human survival and development had to be struck. And SACOLA came into the equation to provide the answer.”

The Association was supported by the government through RDB, the USAID, African Wildlife Foundation and the IGCP to build a high-end lodge, the Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge at the slopes of Sabyinyo Mountain.

SACOLA as a Community Trust owns the Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, launched August 2008, under the management of Governor’s Camp, a Kenya-based regional hospitality institution.

“We are now united enough to spread the benefits, fight poaching, exchange information with Park authorities and report the poachers to guarantee sustainable exploitation of the environment,” Celestine, the SACOLA chairman enthuses.

The Lodge is SACOLA’s main economic vein. It is an architectural icon amidst the jungle that seats there with a tweak of palatial aura; only that this one is surrounded by beaming and luxuriant communities of vegetation in perfect harmony with their time-honoured dwellers—birds, insects and animals—the most fascinating of the dwellers being the mountain gorillas.

From the lodge, like a camera attempting to focus, your eyes constantly zoom in and out, pinballing around to try to process the technicolour birds, the impenetrable walls of green, the swarms of insects, and the imposing mountains that kiss the misty skies.

The orange exterior of this property of former poachers, combines with that thick green vegetation around that breathes the misty cold breezes to produce an idyll of the mind; like metaphysical drama, like frozen music, like a portrait of post-card beauty. The inside, suave, warm, with an inviting domineering brown, the toe-tap-inducing music and the aroma from coffee and unctuous meals under preparation, all coalesce to give every space a shade of colour and grand satisfaction. The staff always pleasant and helpful. It is not a place you will be in a hurry to leave.

Ronald Harerimana, the Human Resources manager with Governor’s Camp that runs the Lodge says that they have 40 employees, many of them professionals in the hospitality industry.

No wonder then, tourists pay for the services with great satisfaction. The revenues so generated, about Rwf15 million per month, have been used to change many a people’s lives in Nyange and Kinigi Sectors.

Two villages have been built by SACOLA in Kinigi and Nyange and helped the construction of 30 houses for the very poor under the Bye-Bye Nyakatsi Programme by offering over 3,000 iron sheets. Others have been assisted to get power connections.

The Association has also assisted in the construction of classrooms in different schools to support the now Twelve-Year-Basic-Education. The schools that have benefited are; Groupe’ Scolaire Nyange, Kabara, Kampanga, Bisate, Kagano and Gasizi.

The SACOLA Chairman, with glee, explains the number of cows given out under the Girinka Programme. “We have given out 150 Friesian cows, but there are some 28 that have calved, making a total of 178 cattle from SACOLA efforts. When we give them these domestic animals, then in a way we cater for their meat needs. Instead of risking arrest, and fined moreover for a one-off feast, they can keep their own animals as they multiply, get milk and money,” Celestine explains with a winning smile.

Other community activities done under the auspices of SACOLA include; giving out water tanks, training cooperative members in activities of their choice, planting bamboo trees around the park and the construction of a buffalo wall that stretches for about 10km on which about Rwf28 million has been spent.“We also pay school fees for about 40 children. Community tourism is also getting increasingly popular. Tourists are introduced to the preparation processes of local cuisine, brews, crafts, and tours in villages among others. They pay a small fee for these activities and it’s getting popular,” says Celestine.

But even Governor’s Camp management has contributed to community works. Harerimana says; “Sometimes when SACOLA is working on a project, we supplement their efforts. We have contributed Rwf9 million towards the construction of a three KM road from tarmac to Ndabaruhuye and Rwf5 million for the construction of a bridge.”

The Virunga National Park currently employs 180 people, working as guides, gorilla groups’ trackers, and anti-poaching teams deployed in 5 protection sectors of the park. In addition, an estimated 800 community members around VNP are involved in day to day VNP management activities. A participatory process began in 2005 to transform the livelihoods of poachers towards farming, and then tourism. Part of the concept was to benefit conservation, by providing alternative livelihood opportunities from tourism compared to illegal hunting of buffalo and other wildlife in the national park. Part of the strategy was to hold meetings with poachers to gain their trust and insights.

Taming poaching is a relentless effort as the Chief Park Warden, Prosper Uwingeri observes. “It is true we have brought many people in the loop. Some poachers lay snares to trap buffaloes and antelopes and end up injuring gorillas. So we have trained a special force to remove the snares, some former poachers are now working with the game rangers and part of the community patrols,” says Prosper. He adds that they have harmonized the systems of intervention and are putting much emphasis on providing alternative sources of income.

Collaborating with the neighbouring countries where the mountain gorillas share the habitat is also another plus where RDB has excelled. The RDB Head Tourism and Conservation, Rica Rwigamba, notes that a Trans-boundary Secretariat has been established. “The Secreatariat brings together the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN), Uganda Wildlife Authority and RDB-Tourism and Conservation. Joint patrols are a major activity. When a gorilla group or family crosses from one country to another and it is visited in the receiving country, 50 percent of the revenue that accrues is remitted to the country of origin,” Rica explains.

On the whole, a spirit of the park ownership, partnership and participation has been inculcated among Rwandans living around the Volcanoes National Park. The level of participation, the distribution of benefits, the change of mindset and the paradigm through which they view their environment is being reoriented to build a vibrant tourism industry, which, at the same time is sustainable. Conservation—of both the habitat and the dwellers—is at the heart of the efforts. Making everyone a winner is part of the equation. Sustainable tourism and development is then a sure answer. Such harmonized interventions are paying dividends.

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