Potatoes, Gorillas and Little White Flowers

juvenile gorilla
Juvenile Mountain Gorilla in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. Photo by author

What do potatoes, mountain gorillas and organic pesticides have in common? The answer is they are three major components of the current conflict between wildlife conservation and human development in northern Rwanda.

Human-wildlife conflict, as it has come to be known, is not a conflict between large charismatic  mega-fauna (gorilla, elephants, etc.) and poor farming communities per se. Rather, its root cause stems from differing views on how finite resources should be used. In the case of northern Rwanda, the issue concerns land shortage and the conservation of the Critically Endangered, yet highly lucrative, mountain gorilla.

Rwanda remains one of the most densely populated countries in the world, supporting nearly 11 million people in a country less than half the size of Ireland. Northern Rwanda in particular supports population densities as high as 1,000 people/km2; equivalent to urban density, yet the dominant livelihood is subsistence agriculture.

Northern Rwanda also, however, supports one of the few remaining populations of the Critically Endangered mountain gorilla, the Endangered golden monkey and African forest elephants, all of which reside on the slopes of Volcanoes National Park. As part of the Virungas Transboundary Protected Area, this park lies on the not-so-stable border between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, adding another dimension to the conflict. Additionally, the extremely fertile volcanic soil surrounding Volcanoes NP is prized for its ability to grow pyrethrum flowers, a white daisy which when dried and pressed yields pyrethrin oils, a highly prized component of organic pesticides in the developed world (an industry now privatised). Topping this, successful conservation and instability in the DRC has led to increasing animal numbers in the park, resulting in damage to the crops of poor subsistence farmers on the parks edge; a final addition to this complex cocktail, and one which threatens local support for conservation.

Pyrethrum flowers cultivated on the slopes of the Virungas Volcanoes. From left to right lie Sabyinyo, Gahinga and Muhabura volcanoes.

A three year project run by Trinity College Dublin aimed to characterise this conflict, by training 25 park-adjacent farmers in the use of GPS units to record each time an animal exits the park, which crop was damaged and how old the crop was (see animation below). Added to this, key informant interviews with industry officials, tourism representatives and conservation bodies unveiled the extent of land pressure and the lack of control most farmers have over what they grow, where and when. Coercive interventions from pyrethrum industry officials, including blackmail and intimidation, were openly reported, while the prioritisation of conservation over the welfare of local people was strongly apparent.

In addition, the lucrative tourism gains from gorilla trekking ($750 person / hour with a gorilla group) do not appear to percolate down to those farmers forgoing use of this readily-available resource on their doorstep, even as the park’s animals become increasingly enamoured with farmers’ crops. Though roads are built, health centres improved and cooperatives established, real progress lies in the equitable sharing of resources already there.

With an appropriate combination of case- and location-specific interventions, better stakeholder dialogue, and acknowledgement that the status-quo is not so equal, better solutions ensuring the survival of protected species and the development of marginalised people can be reached. Gorillas and monkeys however, might still find those potatoes a little too tempting.

Authored by: Shane Mc Guinness, PhD student TCD


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