COVID-19 Pandemic Cripples Community Livelihoods
For many households around mountain gorilla parks, tourism has been their lifeline. That is until the COVID-19 pandemic affected the tourism industry swiftly and profoundly.
For Gertrude Akankwasa, a porter in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (BINP), the suspension of tourism came as a shock to her. Never had she imagined that mountain gorilla tourism could be suspended or come to an end. "When I got this job two years back I was certain in my heart that I had finally found a permanent and stable source of employment/income. As long as gorillas and the park existed I was sure nothing would ever hold the tourists back and that my family would always be well provided for".
Different tourism enterprises operate around the parks, including crafts and wood carving, basketry and weaving, tailoring of African print clothing, tour guiding, honey selling, cultural dance and drama, farming of vegetables for tourist lodges, casual labouring as porters for tourists, and as cleaners, cooks and waiters in tourist lodges among others.
Sabyinyo Community Livelihood Association (SACOLA), a community-based organization in Musanze, Rwanda comprising 67 cooperatives and over 50,000 beneficiaries, is involved in a chain of tourism businesses including 14 show rooms/shops at Kinigi Complex Centre, a lodge, bar and restaurant, tour guiding, music and dance exhibitions and serving as porters for tourists. Unfortunately, all these businesses closed at the onset of COVID-19 in Rwanda. Celestin Nsengiyumva, the SACOLA Chairperson, reveals that these are very hard times for his members. "Without any income coming in most of the members are struggling to survive. While some are working from home, we can only hope that this situation will pass soon and that tourism will stabilize because it is a primary source of income for many members".
Sunday Charles Ndayakunze, the Assistant Warden tourism for Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Ruhija sector says the impact of the pandemic has been difficult for the surrounding park communities and especially difficult for the porters who earned daily income from their job and largely live a hand to mouth existence.
About 320 porters work in Volcanoes National Park, 470 in the Bwindi Mgahinga Conservation Area and 15 in Virunga National Park.
With sources of income curtailed, prices of commodities increasing, movements restricted and limited survival options there is evidently looming hunger and vulnerabilities among the communities. In Uganda, for example, a packet of salt (500 g) that previously cost 1,000 Uganda Shillings (0.2 US dollars) now costs 3,000 Uganda shillings (0.8 US dollars) while a kilogram of dry beans that previously cost 3,000 Uganda shillings (0.8 US dollars) costs 6,000 Uganda shillings (1.2 US dollars) since the onset of COVID-19 in the country.
Altor Musema, IGCP's country Coordinator in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, also revealed that economic life in Goma is equally challenging. Community Based Organisations, like UDASEMINYA, that actively traded in honey have closed their stores and members are now in their homes stuck with the honey. Most porters and other community tourism entrepreneurs are struggling to feed their families: "Most of the porters are home tilling their gardens and hoping that the tourism will resume soon. Some can't help wondering if life will ever get back to normal again".
However, in the bid to support the struggling masses, respective governments, non-government organizations and the private sector have come in to donate and provide emergency food and sanitary supplies to the vulnerable citizens.
Commenting on the prevailing economic challenges facing the park edge communities, Budahera Anaclet, the tourism warden for Volcanoes National Park, fears that some community members might resort to the park again for survival, making the management of the park and maintaining positive community relationships challenging.
Besides the stay home measures for everybody, the parks have gone ahead to engage the surrounding park communities with information on proper hygiene practices and the potential impact of COVID-19. Anaclet argues that "the compliance of individuals to the anti-COVID measures and the tourism best practices in place will save mountain gorillas from the pandemic. Precisely their safety is dependent on our actions."
The health of mountain gorillas, park staff, and neighbouring communities are interlinked, and integrated strategies are being deployed on site, and across international boundaries to effectively address these.
Going forward, the outbreak of COVID-19 and its impact on the livelihoods of people, especially the park edge communities, highlights several lessons and calls for the development of resilient action plans. Communities should be empowered and supported to invest in other livelihood options besides tourism enterprises, e.g. improved agricultural practices to ensure food supply when tough times set in, adopt and/or improve the culture of saving, training and equipping of park staff in specialised management of epidemics, continued sensitisation of the community on the importance of proper hygiene and sanitation practices and a change of attitude by the community as well as adoption of new skills and knowledge received through training to adapt to non-tourism enterprises. The private sector on the other hand should be mobilized to support/fund viable non-tourism income generating investments among the park edge communities. Only a multifaceted approach can guarantee a resilient park edge community and minimise the impact of future calamities on lower level tourism value chain players.