Dispatches from the Field & Project Summaries
The Gorilla Organization – Uganda & Rwanda, Part V: Gorilla tracking in the Virungas… Even cooler than it sounds
April 16, 2008
In Parc National des Volcans we’re met by Francois, a buoyant, convivial 25-year gorilla tracking veteran and former porter to Dian Fossey who established the formal organization of Rwanda‘s Parc National des Volcans gorilla trackers.
I won’t soft sell it… gorilla tracking ain’t cheap. 500 bucks for a one day, one hour gorilla permit, but it’s an exclusive show – 8 people maximum per day are allowed to visit each gorilla troop. The proceeds from the permits go toward improving tourism services, park infrastructure, community conservation projects and gorilla protection including funding a team of 80 trackers and anti-poachers who work a 24-7 watch on their charges.
We departed on a clear, cool morning, gaiters on and packs filled, prepared for what we’d been warned could be the worst…dumping rain, stinging nettles, mud bog walks, 6-8 hour round trips over dicey terrain. Our venture proved short and forgiving. A steady hike under clear skies, we worked out way straight up the sides of Sabyinyo toward the Hirwa group of gorillas.
The trail wove its way through fields and as we moved into the rainforest, Francois educated us on all the flora the gorillas fed upon – bamboo, sour apple, fern… we crossed the buffalo wall, demarcation of the national park boundary built to keep the hyper destructive African buffalo within the park and out of farmers’ crops.
The canopy thickened. Francois’ radio squawked and he spoke in a rapid fire mix of Kinyarwandan and French. We searched his expression for clues as to our fate.
“They are this way, follow me.”
A few moments later, we met up with the trackers and received our debriefing.
“No food no drink leave your packs here. No flash. You need to pee? Do that now. Numba 2? You need to have done that before. You follow me, you listen to my instructions.”
We nod as willing converts to the one-hour window of gorilla interaction. The anticipation was palpable.
A short walk, maybe 200 yards later, we encountered a mother and baby.
With about 3% DNA deviation, gorillas are the better side of the family – like us, but more calm, less fettered by social norms, more furry and rocking it with equivalent of opposable thumbs on their feet (the things I could achieve…).
As for our critically endangered cousins, it was an honor to visit them that close for even just a brief window. Zoological parks can provide an education and thrills but standing across an short, unfenced divide from a peaceful creature that has an uncanny similarity of social structure, behaviors, in whose offspring’s eyes you spot the spark of discovery as the switch tack to climb, discover, play… nothing like it, people, nothing like it.
Words can’t fully describe pure excitement of experiencing these incredible natural treasures up-close. We were moved, every moment spent in their presence precious. Pictures, while great to cue memory and offer a notion of the activity, barely give it justice.
Consider an idea so good that we shouldn’t have to suggest it twice: grab your favorite traveling companion(s), make tracks to Rwanda and check it out for yourself.
The Gorilla Organization – Uganda & Rwanda, Part IV: Rwandan indigenous communities – The path from forest to farm
April 16, 2008
Thus far, the GO projects that we’d visited were designed to support communities on the edge of gorilla habitat. Then we were introduced to another community, the Batwa, indigenous forest people who had shared their ancestral homes with the gorillas.
When Rwandan national parks were created, including Parc National des Volcans, forest dwellers were evicted without compensation and prevented from providing for themselves through their hunter-gatherer traditions.
The survive/thrive conservation strategy becomes a challenging twist when a critical habitat has been not just been a source of food and fuel – it’s been native land to a people for time immemorial.
Once banished from the territories and environment they once called home, the Batwa suffered enormously, a socially marginalized people who had no jobs, land, homes or political representation. Unable to read or write, the Batwa were held back from integrating into society as their skills and behaviors were specific to a forest dwelling life that they were no longer able to access, forcing them to beg and scavenge to survive.
A Batwa moved by the plight of his dispossessed people, Benon Mugaruwa helped form African Indigenous and Minority Peoples Organization (AIMPO) and partnered with the Gorilla Organization, helping the Batwa acquire 30 acres of farmland and create 7 community based organizations. The farmland and organizational support offer the Batwa agricultural training, assistance and hope, providing access to education and medical care. Through their own efforts and with the support of AIMPO and GO, the Batwa have developed new skills while creating a new cultural identity and pride – attributes that had eluded the Batwa since the loss of their homeland and traditions.
That pride was most apparent when we arrived for a visit to a field very near Volcanoes National Park. A group of 20 men and women stood in a misty field and welcomed us to their land – carefully tilled dark earth with a burgeoning crop of potatoes. Benon did some interpretation for us, but the light in the eyes of the people as we toured their land, their radiant smiles, pointing to the plants and the rich soil that were fueling their rise from dispossession and abject poverty, required no translation.
We took a short trip into a nearby village and Benon gave us a tour of initial construction of crop storage facilities. Singing began to emanate from a simple brick building on the property. The voices rose, more jubilant with the passing of each minute.
“Benon? Who is that singing?”
“That? Those are the farmers. They are singing for you”.
“Oh my, well we should probably go in and listen to them, don’t you think? Benon, what are they singing about?”
“They are singing that they are happy you have come to visit them, that they appreciate that you have come here to hear their story”.
We enter the space and the volume, already pronounced outside, doubles. A celebratory call and response is in full swing, singers and dancers jumping into the center of the group to participate in energetic duets or solos. The room is electric as elders, children and parents clap and call out the tune; babies wrapped to their mother’s backs bounce along to the rhythm of the song.
This performance is ostensibly offered to thank us, but surely the celebration underway is for the Batwa themselves, leaving the brink of existence behind to become landholders, community members, contributors to their own success story with some well considered support – truly a reason to dance.
The Gorilla Organization – Uganda & Rwanda, Part III: Back to school for water catchment education: Cisterns 101
April 16, 2008
Traveling the roads of the communities around Ruhengeri, Rwanda, one cannot miss the ubiquitous yellow water jug – strapped to bicycles, toted atop heads, waddled down roadways by children scarcely bigger than the containers themselves.
One of the cruel ironies of life in this portion of the world is “water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink”.
Despite 300+ days of rain here in the shadow of the Virungas, the porous, volcanic soil rapidly draws surface water away leaving the soggy inhabitants of the region dodging raindrops but without ready access to drinking water.
-Water collection accounts for 85-90% of all illegal activities within the gorilla habitat.
-Household water collection is a chore that falls to children. Since survival trumps education, many children forego school to go in search of water for their families.
Emmanuel Bugingo, Gorilla Organization‘s Rwanda Program Manager, took us to Gitaraga Primary School to give us a tour of a single solution that addressed 3 problems.
A school with over 1000 children enrolled, Gitaraga has a number of big buildings and as one might guess, big buildings have big rooftops. Big rooftops are a spectacular vehicle for water collection, especially in an environment where you can count on rain on an almost daily basis. GO funded the building of a huge water cistern that holds the roof runoff and feeds a collection station where students fill their yellow jugs, supplying their families with water.
The hat trick, in review:
- A new, reliable water source for a water-challenged community
- Water collection is no longer a deterrent to children’s education but is, in fact, a motivation to make sure children get to school every day
- Every water jug filled at school prevents a potential act of illegal entry into the gorilla habitat
The school cistern project has proven a tremendous success, a win for communities and conservationists alike, ringing perfectly true to GO’s philosophy that for gorillas to survive, the people near the gorilla habitat must thrive. Since the project’s genesis, GO has constructed almost 40 cisterns, with plans to build at least 4 more each year going forward.
The Gorilla Organization – Uganda & Rwanda, Part II: Going organic for the gorillas; dancing on the edge of DRC
April 7, 2008
The following morning we returned to the Gorilla Organization (GO) offices in Kisoro and met with Regina Sanyu, coordinator for GO’s Organic Farming Association projects in Uganda. Regina recently joined the Kisoro office from Rwanda where she had worked for 3 years as a part of a program that successfully trained 5,000 farmers in sustainable, organic techniques.
What does organic farming have to do with gorillas? Encroachment on gorilla habitat for the creation of new farmland has been and is likely to remain the biggest threat to the earth’s remaining gorilla population. In short, organic methods produce higher crop yields by leveraging farm by-products such as compost and manure alongside crop management techniques such as complimentary planting and crop rotation, eliminating the need for costly synthetic pesticides and fertilizers that compromise soil quality and helpful animal/insect populations. Threats of encroachment are lowered when farmers have more fruitful harvests on existing farmlands – they can make their endeavors more efficient and profitable without expanding their acreage.
You’re noticing a theme, I hope… for gorillas to survive, the people near the gorilla habitat must thrive. Even if you like animals more than people (and I know there are a few of you out there), you have to admit this is a pretty smart win-win strategy for creatures and humankind alike.
The first farmer we visited was a woman who raised rabbits, chickens and goats, providing them with shelters of elevated pens with slat floors, a simple system that makes harvesting manure for fertilizer a much cleaner, higher yield process. She also had a simple yet effective solar water purification system, storing collected water in clear bottles and placing them on a silver sheet of corrugated metal which acted as solar collector. After a day in the sun, the bottle water gets hot enough to be purified and safely drink without sacrificing a stitch of fuel or infusing a drop of chemicals.
Rattling down the road in the back of GO’s Land Cruiser toward our second farm, I hadn’t realized how close we were to the historically trouble fraught eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Our first stop had been to a farm 2 kilometers away from the Uganda/DRC border, while the second farm we visited abutted the border itself, an area through which many Congolese fled DRC as refugees in times of conflict. Many residents view the border between the two nations less as delineation between nation states and more as a region in and of itself with its own sense of “locals”, with Congolese living peacefully and productively just over the border in Uganda without traditional immigration documentation, quietly paying rent and contributing positively to their new community.
Regina was very proud of the woman who ran the second farm on the edge of DRC – an exemplary participant in Uganda’s nascent organic farming program. As we walked her farm, Regina spoke at length at how she had attended every training seminar and actively teaches and supports other farmers in the program. In addition, she had provided sanctuary to DRC refugees on her property – up to 25 people at a time – feeding them from the bounty of her crops and livestock.
To acknowledge her efforts, Regina arranged for her to be a recipient of a fuel-efficient, firewood saving stove. A design made out of local clay that can reduce firewood consumption up to 70%, Regina herself committed her own time and labor to help assemble the stove for this very deserving recipient.
GO has provided over 3,000 firewood saving stoves and planted more than half a million trees around national parks, lowering the pressure of encroachment and illegal deforestation of gorilla habitat while (theme again, people) providing smart, simple technologies that provide economic relief + improve the air quality for residents around gorilla habitat.
Everyone, all together now:
For gorillas to survive, the people near the gorilla habitat must thrive. Three cheers to the Gorilla Organization for investing in a grass roots powered survive/thrive approach to environmental protection. Supporting people and communities to make more sustainable choices is a common sense success story of the best kind: a bright light for conservation strategies in an extremely challenging environment.
The Gorilla Organization – Uganda & Rwanda, Part I: Averting extinction by educating and empowering communities
April 7, 2008
We headed southwest toward Uganda‘s shared borders with the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda, passing through mountainous, heavily cultivated farmlands that supply more than half of Uganda’s produce from a verdant patchwork of terraced plots that appear to cover every inch of the region. As daylight flickered to a close, we ascended through the fog of bamboo-filled Echulya Forest Preserve before dropping into Kisoro, a town located near Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, home to one of the world’s last populations of critically endangered mountain gorillas.
The next day we joined the morning commute of pedestrians, bicycles and motorcycles to meet the staff at Gorilla Organization (GO)‘s Kisoro office.
Gorilla Organization works internationally to save the world’s last gorillas from extinction. Their conservation strategies target long term poverty alleviation and environmental education projects in poor communities around gorilla habitats, involving communities in conservation initiatives, providing viable alternatives to the unsustainable use of forest resources.
GO’s hallmark is small, grass roots projects run by local partners, strengthened by the Organization’s mindful management practices that include monthly funding and reporting cycles and a high level of communication between headquarters and local programs, placing strong emphasis on developing local capacity in Africa.
Sam Nsingwire, Ugandan Program Manager at GO’s Kisoro, gave us an overview of local programs before leading us off for a tour of projects. Our first stop was the Kisoro Beekeeper’s Cooperative Society, an organization that supports this traditional trade by educating local beekeepers in new techniques and equipment that make harvest of bee products safer and more efficient along with providing processing, packaging and marketing support for their products, thereby enabling community members to transform a long established subsistence endeavor into a lucrative business.
David, a farmer on the collective’s board, gave us a tour of his farm – an organic Eden shaded by over 100 gigantic avocado trees. He grows coffee as well as myriad vegetables and fruits in the rich black soil of his property. A 3rd generation beekeeper, he keeps his bees happy with shade, a ready source of water and a yellow moon flower tree with gracefully bowed butter-hued trumpets (heck, they’re so pretty I’d pollinate them).
David has a mix of traditional, older apiaries alongside the newer designs. As familiar and sentimental as he might be with the older designs, he readily embraces the new apiaries that have been introduced by the GO-supported Beekeeping Cooperative as they allow him to harvest honey more efficiently, reaping a bigger yield and sparing his hardworking bees the hive destruction required to harvest traditional apiaries
Later that day, we stopped by Mutolere Primary School to visit a compelling program that GO helped establish to encourage environmental awareness in the next generation. Wildlife Clubs of Uganda and Rwanda are extra curricular conservation groups whose members are taught sustainable environmental education via educator presentations as well as theater activities including song and dance. In addition, students are exposed to sustainable agricultural practices through cultivating organic food crops + planting native tree species on school grounds and in the surrounding community. Mutolere students involved in the program enjoy Wildlife Club benefits including weekly school-based activities, a quarterly newsletter and field trips to the country’s national parks.
Dennis Agaba, the lead teacher, swiftly assembled the Wildlife Club members, touring us through their recently planted raised bed gardens. Dennis then informed us that the club members wanted to sing to us. The voices of 80 children rose in a moving call and response song with the bright, clear tones of a young girl calling the lead. Wildlife club members acted out lyrics about planting and preservation as the other students gathered around us to watch + listen.
Wildlife Clubs have proven to be a unique opportunity to virally message habitat preservation and sustainable practices – members take what they learn about conservation into the schoolyard, the community and their homes, educating friends and family to issues + alternatives to deforestation, encroachment + poaching.
It was exciting to see GO’s remarkably successful grass roots programs in action -evolving traditional beekeeping into profitable venture and educating the next generation in thoughtful stewardship are progressive programs that serve the communities, environment and species whose futures hang in the balance.