Murchison Falls Continues to be Museveni’s Punching Bag (or Punchline)

23 11 2010

Golfing and Wildlife don't Mix

Can this really be happening? In another blow to the survival of Murchison Falls National Park, President Museveni is demanding that the Madhvani Group, the owners of Paraa and Chobe Lodges, be allowed to build a golf course within the park.  Clearly he does not take the concept of “National Park” seriously.

I think building a Wal-Mart or a 24-hour Nakumatt at the Top of the Falls would be a reasonable next step.

First, let’s address the fact that Museveni is really in no position to make this call, either legally or in terms of his ability to assess the impacts of a project like this.  He is quoted as saying Golf has no fumes. It is not a factory to generate fumes, it is just grass. This must be resolved. Tell UWA that I want this to be done.”

He has absolutely no environmental credentials, and there are, theoretically, laws that a development like this should have to follow (for instance, undergoing one of those pesky Environmental Impact Assessments).  It should also be a decision made by the Uganda Wildlife Authority, not by decree of the president.  If the president is able to just sidestep constitutional process whenever it is convenient for him, that is a sign of a broken political and legal system.

While there are efforts to reduce the environmental impacts of golf courses in countries with strict environmental oversight, unregulated courses are notoriously polluting.  The chemicals used to maintain the “perfect” grass have contaminated water sources around the world.  I don’t know where in the park the Madhvanis plan to build this course, but my guess is that they will want a view of the river,  which means there is a high likelihood of chemical runoff into the Nile.  There is also the issue of irrigating the entire course during the dry season, presumably with water from the river.

Building a golf course in Murchison Falls National Park will also result in yet another area of the park where the wildlife, the main reason for the existence of the park, will not be welcome.  As oil development expands into the production phase, the wildlife will already be feeling pressured as the open habitat shrinks.

The Madhvanis requested permission to build a golf course in Queen Elizabeth National Park sometime back, but were turned down by the Uganda Wildlife Authority because of the impact it would have on wildlife.  The current, questionably-appointed Acting Executive Director of UWA, Mark Kamanzi, has apparently agreed to the current proposal, saying “There’s nothing wrong with the President allowing a golf course to be built in the park. It does not mean that the land has been given away.” It is important to note that, like President Museveni, Mark Kamanzi has no environmental credentials – he is a lawyer who was moved into the position of Executive Director by the Board that was recently disbanded.

Uganda’s natural assets should not be sold off to the highest bidder.  The national parks here have the highest level of protection of any blocks of land in the country.  If even that level of protection can’t keep these places safe, what does that mean for the rest of the remaining forests and other natural lands?  Ugandans successfully fought to keep Museveni from selling off part of Mabira Forest, but they shouldn’t have to continually fight to save places that are already legally protected.

It will be a sad day if Uganda’s National Parks become little more than a National Joke.

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala


Yes, Northern Uganda IS Safe AND Amazing

9 11 2010

I just read another article about the “ongoing conflict” in northern Uganda, called Uganda: The Rest of the Story.  The author, who I have written to with no response, states in her article that “Clearly — and tragically — the conflict rages on.”

For those of you who have been following this blog, you’ll be happy to hear that this article is not at all associated with Invisible Children.  This author, sadly, even did some research and linked to an article about the LRA that she doesn’t seem to have read.  I have a feeling she never got beyond the title:  Uganda’s LRA killed 2,500 people, abducted 697 children over past 18 months.  I can see why she might have been confused by the title, but the article, from The Christian Science Monitor, makes it clear in the first paragraph that the atrocities described happened in Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic, and in the third paragraph even mentions that the LRA was “pushed out of Uganda in 2005.”

I realize that there will always be journalists who are up against a deadline and have to put out a story that they haven’t fully researched.  So, to approach this issue in a more positive way, I’ve decided to dedicate this post to showing how incredible northern Uganda is, and why everyone should try to get there to explore a bit.

The following are some pictures taken on a road trip with Wildlife Conservation Society and Wildlife Clubs of Uganda that I was fortunate enough to be invited to join.  Our basic route was Kampala – GuluAdjumani – Arra – Mt. Otzi – Adjumani – Kitgum – Kidepo – Pader – Gulu – Kampala.  We did this drive in the dry season and were impressed by the quality of the roads for the whole trip, making it from Arra (near Adjumani) to Kidepo Valley National Park in one day’s drive.  I have heard that it is not quite so easy in the wet season, and that it is still not safe to travel the eastern route through Karamojaland.  For now, stick with the western route through Kitgum.

Kidepo Valley

Kidepo Valley

Nile River near Arra Fishing Lodge

Nile River near Arra Fishing Lodge

Moonrise on the Nile

Moonrise on the Nile

Mt. Otzii

Mt. Otzi near Sudan border

East Madi Wildlife Reserve

East Madi Wildlife Reserve

Zoka Forest Footbridge

Zoka Forest Footbridge

Sunset at Arra Fishing Lodge

Sunset at Arra Fishing Lodge

Dufile landing

Dufile Landing on Nile

Village in Dufile Fort

Village in Dufile Fort site

Approaching Kidepo

Approaching Kidepo Valley NP
Kidepo Elephant

The queue for the loo

A Village with a View

Landscape in Pader

Landscape near Pader

Beyond the spectacular landscape, it is wonderful to feel the sense of vibrancy in northern Uganda, as communities and economies rebuild.  Expect the tourism infrastructure to expand in the near future, which will make it even easier to explore this part of Uganda.  But, don’t wait too long.  There is a sense of adventure that comes with traveling through an area before all the infrastructure gets built.

For now, all the main towns have basic accommodation available, and a good hub for exploring the western part of the region is the Arra Fishing Lodge, which is about 30 minutes from Adjumani and just a few kilometers from the Laropi Ferry Crossing, giving you access to Mt. Otzi and the whole West Nile area.

One of the most exciting aspects of the tourism potential in northern Uganda is the 200km stretch of the Nile that is navigable from Murchison Falls National Park to the Sudan border, passing through a number of wildlife reserves and past two of Emin Pasha’s old fort sites.  It will just take one savvy investor to renovate an old steam ship and start running multi-day trips on the Nile.

Northern Uganda is no longer a place of war – it is a place of potential.  Sure, it still has its challenges, but one of the things it needs most is to be more integrated with the rest of Uganda.  What that will take is more people traveling there and seeing it as a living, vibrant part of the country rather than a mythical land of warfare and abductions.

Mark D. Jordahl

Sport Hunting Suspended in Uganda

3 08 2010

According to the website of Global Sporting Safaris, sport hunting has been temporarily suspended in Uganda.  Their source here said the suspension is largely based on questions around the ability to set appropriate quotas.  This is in line with the concerns expressed at the stakeholder meeting in February that I reported on here, where most people questioned whether the Uganda Wildlife Authority has credible population estimates of the wildlife in the country.

Interestingly, I didn’t find anything about this suspension on the Wildlife Authority site, but I am encouraged that they are willing to listen to scientific and public concerns and reevaluate the sport hunting system.

Even though the pilot phase for sport hunting has been going on for nearly ten years, I have spoken to very few people who are even aware that it has been happening.  This might speak favorably that the hunting has not affected many people directly in a negative way, but it also means that the public has not been properly informed or allowed to comment.

Whether they end up reinstating sport hunting or not, I expect the decision will be received more favorably by all after feeling like the various voices have been heard.

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala

More on the topic: Uganda Announces Suspension of Sport Hunting.

The Serengeti at 60 (mph)

29 06 2010

Serengeti Highway map from Africa Wildlife Foundation

The government of Tanzania has reopened discussions about building a tarmac (paved) highway across the northern part of Serengeti National Park, cutting directly across the path of the annual wildebeest migration.

This highway has been proposed in the past, and has always been prevented by the outcry of conservationists in Tanzania and around the world.  The proposed highway will impact the migration, and will also “pave” the way for increased poaching with the easy access the road will provide to this wildlife-rich area of the park (think about what happened to the American Bison when the railroad opened up the Great Plains).  It will also have a huge impact on tourism, and much of Tanzania’s national budget relies on the mystique of the Serengeti.

This scar across the landscape will also leave a scar across the human psyche.  The Serengeti is just one of those places that the world needs.  People all around the world dream of visiting the Serengeti, and for many of us it has risen to mythical prominence in our minds.  It is “Wild Africa,” whether that is an appropriate characterization or not, and true wildness is in short supply these days.

It is one more indication of the world forgetting to value the beautiful, wild places that still remain.  As humans, we have a hard time “taking the long view” when there is money to be made in the short-term.  People want to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, sell the endangered rosewood trees from Madagascar and now build a road through the Serengeti, the home of the largest mammal migration left on the planet.

It is a perennial challenge for environmentalists and conservationists to quantify and put a dollar figure on the “value” of wildlife and wild places.  They are trying to do that – there are whole fields of study now trying to put dollar values on “ecosystem services” and other things that the earth provides to us, but something just gets lost in the equation.  It can’t be done.  Not everything can be boiled down to dollars.  Unfortunately, nothing seems to speak as loudly to decision-makers as dollars do.

There are alternatives to this road.  The African Wildlife Foundation has made an alternative proposal to the Tanzanian government that you can find more about here.

You can also find out more about the situation on the Wildlife Direct site, one of my favorite sources for information about conservation in East Africa:  STOP the Serengeti Highway – Baraza.

Even if you have never been there, I encourage you to take a moment and think about what the Serengeti means to you.  Please share it with the rest of us in the comments section below.

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala

The Permit Wars

28 05 2010

NCDF Headquarters

I really don’t know where I come down on this issue.  On one hand, you have a monopoly over six of 48 gorilla permits on offer in Uganda each day.  On the other hand, you have a creative public/private partnership that is giving far more financial benefit to a couple of communities than pretty much any other tourism initiative I have seen here in Uganda.

Nkuringo is a community on the border of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, the home of about half of the world’s remaining highly endangered mountain gorillas.  As in so many communities around the parks here, the people living in Nkuringo were having trouble with wildlife coming out of the forest and damaging their crops.  This tends to lead to people killing wildlife to protect their food source.  People in these boundary communities also tend to see many tourists driving past their homes in nice vehicles, but receive very little financial benefit from this tourism.

To address these issues, in 2004 the International Gorilla Conservation Foundation and the Uganda

Bwindi View

Bwindi View

Wildlife Authority set up the Nkuringo Community Development Foundation to represent Nkuringo and Rubugiri parishes, bordering a section of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.  They were given control of a large piece of land and right of first refusal on 6 of the 8 mountain gorilla tracking permits available each day for the family of gorillas that has been habituated in the area (not all 8, as the articles below claim).

The community group was having trouble marketing the permits, so they joined in a partnership with The Uganda Safari Company.  IGCP solicited $250,000 from USAID to build a lodge in Nkuringo, and The Uganda Safari Company matched that initial investment (and have apparently put in much more subsequently).  The result was the beautiful (and pricey) Clouds Lodge, opened in 2008.  Permits and lodging tend to be sold in packages, so people tracking this particular family of gorillas are likely to stay at Clouds.

This raised the ire of many of the other tour operators in the country.  There are peak seasons in the year when permits need to be booked months in advance, and it is a definite advantage to any company to have a guaranteed six permits per day to offer their clients. The complaints of these other tour operators led to an investigation by the Inspector General of Government, Raphael Baku.  The resulting report was a pretty strong condemnation of the arrangement and an order to cancel the contract.

However, I have heard that the IGG report was riddled with inconsistencies and errors, and certainly there are some problems even with the information that has made it out into the news.  One of the articles states:

The NCDF, a company limited by shares, gets eight permits each day and purports to represent entire communities of Rubuguri and Nteko parishes neighbouring Bwindi Impenetrable Forest yet it is owned by only 23 people, the IGG wrote.

In fact, NCDF is not a company at all, but a registered NGO.  They have a Board of Directors consisting of 39 members, and a general assembly of 271 representing the villages in the parishes.

Another article stated:

Investigations by the IGG office indicated that UWA encouraged individuals to form a private company with which they operated private businesses in respect to gorilla permit tourism, edging out others.

Once again, they are either referring to NCDF, which is not a private company, or The Uganda Safari Company, which was in operation for years before it got involved with this arrangement.

One way or another, there is a lot of misinformation out there, and I think it is not unlikely that the IGG will reverse its decision.

I recognize that from a strictly business perspective, it is unfair to give an advantage to one company by offering them right of first refusal for 75% of the permits available in Nkuringo, and I’m sure some of my friends in the tourism industry here will stop talking to me for a while for even suggesting otherwise.

NCDF Projects

But here’s the thing…in 2009, the NCDF, a community-based organization representing two boundary parishes, received $40,000 through this arrangement.  That’s a lot of money.  For every single person who stays at Clouds Lodge, $35 goes to NCDF whether the lodge is turning a profit or not.  They also receive rent from the land the lodge sits on.  I am not aware of any other tourism arrangement in Uganda that funnels so much money directly into local communities (although it is possible that the Buhoma Homestead, fully owned and operated by the Buhoma community, is bringing in that much or more).

I am not making a naïve assumption that the arrangement is perfect.  Corruption is the norm here, and who knows how much of that money actually got where it was supposed to go.  I also don’t like the fact that the community group receives the money whether or not they do anything, reinforcing the handout mentality that plagues a lot of projects here.

It’s a tricky issue.  Uganda needs business development, and tour operators are fueling a growing percentage of the economy here.  There needs to be a supportive business environment to encourage them to expand.  However, most tourism here doesn’t really benefit local communities all that much. When you have an alternative tourism arrangement that seems unfair to some tour operators, but has the potential to reduce poverty in communities around Bwindi, how do you define fair?

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala

More info:

Uganda Wildlife Authority’s Statement New Vision Article The Monitor Article

Conservation Can Reduce Poverty

6 05 2010
Ecotourism site

Ecotourism Site in Budongo Forest

Nyungwe Forest

Hiking in Nyungwe Forest, Rwanda

One of the biggest struggles in modern-day conservation is how to make sure that local people are benefiting from, or at least not being hurt by, conservation efforts.  It can often be discouraging as one new approach after another is tried, often without success.  There is also controversy around whether conservation groups should even try to address poverty since some believe that it waters down the conservation objective and takes resources away from the direct protection of wildlife and natural places.  Given that even organizations with huge budgets and a primary goal of poverty eradication have had little success, it might just be too much to ask from organizations with a conservation focus.

That said, conservation works better when local people have buy-in, and buy-in comes more readily when people are benefitting from conservation.  Recently, a team commissioned by the International Institute for Environment and Development looked at 400 studies on the effects of conservation efforts on poverty around the world.  They were trying to determine if there are any interventions that have a lasting positive effect on rural incomes.

The full reports will be released sometime in the next few months, but the researchers identified 5 interventions that seem to improve rural livelihoods:

1.  Community Timber Enterprises
2.  Forest tourism
3.  Agro-forestry
4.  Marine Tourism
5.  Exploitation of fish spill-over from protected areas into adjacent fisheries

As somebody with a focus on conservation through tourism, I am happy to see that two of the top five are tourism-related.  It will be interesting to read more when the final reports are released.  For now, you can read more here.

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala

Would you pay more for sustainable travel?

7 04 2010

When you travel, do you try to travel responsibly?  Do you really know where your money ends up?  In the article below, the head of the Association of Uganda Tour Operators makes the case that more of the benefits of tourism need to reach the local people in order to truly have their support and to develop the tourism sector in Uganda to its full potential.  He’s right.

However, he doesn’t give any suggestions on how to do that.  It is always easy to point out the problems and more difficult to figure out what to do about them.  He highlights a couple of examples where locals were supposed to benefit but didn’t, and shows what can go wrong when that happens (ie. a local stealing from a tourist because he is supposed to “benefit from tourism”).  As a traveler, though, how can you make sure that your money is going to projects that actually do benefit locals and the local natural environment?  At the moment in Uganda any tour operator or lodge owner can claim to be providing “ecotourism,” “sustainable tourism,” “pro-poor tourism,” or whatever else they want to say, because nobody is checking.

I am an advocate of certification in the tourism industry.  Some tour operators and hotel/lodge owners claim that certification programs are often arbitrary, time-intensive and sometimes costly, but I believe the benefits far outweigh the costs. As a traveler planning a trip to a new country, it is just too difficult to know if the claims of “ecofriendliness” or “local-centeredness” that your tour or lodge marketing materials throw at you are accurate.  Even if a tourism facility starts out with the best intentions, they may gradually move away from benefiting the local communities for any number of reasons.  With nobody actually checking on their claims, they don’t have a lot of incentive to get creative around how best to benefit the people living near the site (also, check back to this post about problems with the term “local”).

Here are just two examples of the many certification programs in use around the world today (there are no certification programs being used in Uganda):

After you read Mr. Baluku’s article,  I am interested to hear in the comments section below whether you, as an individual, would be more likely to stay at lodges or book travel through tour companies that have been certified under some set of sustainable tourism guidelines.  In fact, let me up the ante and ask  if you would be more likely to do it even if it cost a bit more (let’s say 5%).  If you think certification is a bad idea, put that down there, too, and let us know why!

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala

Don’t just tell Ugandans to smile at tourists;

give them reason to do so

By Geoffrey Baluku

Visitors are drawn to Uganda by the natural beauty, wildlife, hospitality and the rich culture that continues to make this country a popular destination.

With the knowledge that tourism has the potential to contribute significantly and continuously to the country’s economy, the government and concerned tourism players need to place emphasis not only on the development of our infrastructure and tourism facilities but also to improve the lives of local people, protect their environment and offer a better future.

Long and short-term development plans should be developed so that tourism and its benefits are spread within local communities.

For tourism to be developed in a sustainable manner, efforts should be made to ensure enjoyment for the tourist and minimum impact or disruption for the local communities and environment. Tourism investments are too often imposed from outside the communities where some of our tourist attractions are located, and the potential for sustainable forms of tourism is weakened. Unless local people begin ‘feeling’ tourism in their pockets and on their tables, all efforts may be put to waste.

For the rest of the article, click here