conservation development

Doing conservation and development together – a story from Rwanda

Last week at the DICE 20th birthday I met an inspiring man called Edwin Sabuhoro, who works in gorilla conservation in northern Rwanda. His innovative work combining development and conservation earned him the IUCN Young Conservationist of the Year in 2008, and his projects have also won eco-tourism awards.

“When I was growing up I was involved in conservation work,” says Edwin, “and then I went to work for one of the national parks. The biggest problem in the parks was poaching, people coming in from the outside and killing wildlife, encroaching on park land. We saw the wildlife diminish and the parks degraded. Our answer as park rangers was just guards and guns – we’d run after people, shoot them or chase them away. We didn’t have any other message than ‘this is a park – don’t come in here. If you come in here, I’ll shoot you.’ That didn’t work. There had to be a better way to stop people killing wildlife.”

Edwin came to do a masters at DICE, expecting to be given the answers. Instead, they told him to find his own, and that the people most likely to have the answers were the ones currently being shot at. “I was involved in rescuing a baby gorilla, but five gorillas were killed and the men were caught. I talked to the families responsible, and their challenge to me was that if they were not employed to do a job, not getting paid, how were they going to eat? They are struggling to feed themselves, and if you were starving and you saw wildlife, would you not kill it? That’s when I realised we needed to do conservation in a way that would benefit local people, helping them to understand the resource they have, and want to protect it.”

“You can’t avoid it – conservation and development have to go hand in hand. Local people have to be involved in the planning. It was too easy to care for the wildlife, and forget about the people living around them. They are suffering, languishing in poverty, they don’t have food, but these are the people that should be the number one custodians and first beneficiaries of the resource.”

The first priority then, was to create an alternative source of food, turning poachers into farmers. “Instead of poaching wildlife,” Edwin explains, “we gave people start-up funds and enrolled them in a farming programme. Then when they get seeds the following year, they pass those on to another family.”

This took people off the park lands, but it didn’t go quite far enough – the local people weren’t killing the gorillas, but they weren’t benefiting from them either. That led to an eco-tourism venture. “We have tourists coming to visit the village, and we wanted people to benefit from this, so we started a cultural village. After visiting the gorillas, tourists come and learn directly from the community, with art, food, and dances.” Former poachers now lead western tourists in traditional dance and drumming sessions. Through the eyes of the tourists, the community came to view the gorillas differently. “Now people understand that the natural resource that people are coming to see is also generating an income.”

“We’ve seen the number of poachers decrease, and the population of gorillas increase,” says Edwin. “I’ve seen that if we bring conservation and development together, with the local community right at the heart, then you get truly sustainable conservation.”

The next challenge is to share that story more widely, in other national parks in Rwanda, and in other countries around the region. “As well as telling our story, we’re also raising the capacity of the local community to manage their own resources, through education” says Edwin of his future plans. “We’re teaching men and women about family planning, and encouraging them to keep their children in school, so that everyone gets to learn and be involved in conservation.”

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