Usher Komugisha in Kinigi and Andy Nicolson
Rwanda’s mountain gorillas are found along the country’s border with Uganda and Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photograph: Getty.
Console Nyirabatangana sits on a stool outside her three-bedroom house preparing the evening meal and, as the sun sets over Volcanoes national park in north-west Rwanda, she reflects on another day of being thankful.
Facing the towering peaks that have in many ways contributed to her wellbeing, Nyirabatangana is in a hurry to have dinner ready in time for her family. She cuts tomatoes and onions, and peels Irish potatoes, all from her garden. With a smile, she sings along to a song on the radio.
If it were not for an innovative approach to tourism, however, life would have been very different for the 55-year-old. A decade ago, Nyirabatangana was living below the poverty line of $2 a day. She could barely afford one meal a day for her family. “We went hungry for days and woke up every morning wishing we could get just a meal a day,” she says. “It was a difficult time for us.”
The mother of five, whose husband died in 1995, has been able to feed and educate her children using the money extended to members of her community through one of the projects funded by gorilla tourism in Rwanda. Her eldest child, Christine Ndacyayisaba, 22, completed school and a diploma in education, and is a teacher in Gasizi, a village in Musanze, near the national park.
Rwanda is well known for mountain gorillas – an endangered species found only in the border areas between Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo – and hosted more than a million visitors between 2006-13, generating from the national parks alone $75m (£44m) in tourism revenue in that time; 85% of this is from trekkers who come to see some of the country’s 500 gorillas.
In 2005, the Rwandan government initiated a tourism revenue-sharing scheme, whereby 5% of annual income from national parks is disbursed to communities. As a result, $1.83m has been distributed over the past nine years to fund 360 community projects across the country, ranging from roads, bridges, bee-keeping, water and sanitation, small and medium enterprises, and handicrafts. The Rwanda Development Board (RDB) estimates that 39,000 people have benefitted from this tourism.
The home of the Rwandan gorillas is the Volcanoes national park in Kinigi, close to the border with DRC, where communities are allocated 40% of the scheme; communities around Nyungwe forest in the south-west and Akagera national park in the east each receive 30%.
The mountain gorilla, an endangered species, is mainly herbivore. Photograph: Rex
NGOs are involved in the implementation of community initiatives, but the government works hard to ensure that decisions on which projects get funded are made locally. “We sit down with community leaders and decide how to distribute the money according to the priorities in the area, to address the issues that prevail in the area,” says the RDB’s conservation division manager, Telesphore Ngoga.
Transparency is ensured by regular follow-ups and by the presentation of financial reports at monthly and annual meetings of the RDB, community leaders and the boards that run the various cooperatives.
Many of the projects incorporate a strong theme of sustainability. In the past, for example, villagers would go into the forests of the Volcanoes park to collect wild honey, interrupting the delicate ecosystem that sustains the gorilla populations. However, thanks to the tourism revenue, communities formed cooperative societies, and some have become bee-keepers and farmers.
In addition to community projects, the tourism revenue has been used for public works – the government has built 57 primary schools in 13 districts, serving approximately 13,700 students over the past decade, 12 health centres have been built, along with roads and bridges.
However, the scheme has not had universal approval. Jean de Muru Habyarabatuma, who has been a guide at Volcanoes for five years, says he does not profit from the tourism sector. He is neither paid for his services nor does he receive any of the money given to other members of the community. “I have been working in this park since 2009 and I have never received any money like the other people,” the 35-year-old father of three said.
Habyarabatuma survives on the little money he gets from odd jobs such as clearing people’s compounds. He says he has complained many times to the park officials, but because he loves the work and has always dreamed of being part of conservation efforts in his community, he continues to work as a guide, albeit an unpaid one.
For Nyirabatangana, though, the scheme has transformed her and her children’s lives. She was able to buy a hectare of land to grow potatoes, and says: “As a widow, this project has helped me to run my family including paying school fees, buying food and facilitating my farming.
“I really don’t know what would have happened to us if we weren’t part of this scheme. Our lives have completely turned around and now we can afford to have a nice meal three times a day and buy clothes.”