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Uganda turning poor farmers into conservationists


BWINDI IMPENETRABLE FOREST, Uganda -- This verdant mountain park, in the cool misty highlands of southwestern Uganda, long has served as a larder for the subsistence farmers who hoed the nearby slopes. For generations they hiked up the 8,600-foot mountains to harvest its food, medicine and firewood.

But the forest also houses about 300 mountain gorillas, nearly half of the world's remaining population. To save the endangered primates, made famous by conservationist Dian Fossey, nearby villagers had been excluded from the park since 1991.

Now, however, Uganda's government is trying to transform subsistence farmers into conservationists. An experiment begun about six months ago gives some farmers limited access to the forest perimeter.

The farmers, struggling to make a living on the densely populated land surrounding Bwindi, likely will influence whether the gorillas survive.

"We're trying to improve the links between parks and people," said Jaap Schoorl, an adviser to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest for CARE, the relief and development organization. "This park cannot continue to exist without the help of the local communities."

Uganda's attempt to give the local community a bigger stake in the forest underscores a larger tension in conservation circles: Are people the greatest obstacle or the best solution to wildlife preservation?

Ms. Fossey, the late conservationist who made the gorillas famous, opposed tourism in the animals' mountain habitat because she believed it disrupted their lives and could lead to their deaths. Long based in adjacent Rwanda, Ms. Fossey focused on mountain gorillas in the Virunga Volcanoes, roughly 20 miles from the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda.

"You've got a whole spectrum of opinion, and there is no consensus," said Philip Franks, a CARE development officer who works near Bwindi.

Bwindi shelters an unusually large array of animals and plants.

But it is the mountain gorillas, with their chocolate-brown eyes set in black leathery faces, that Western tourists travel thousands of miles and pay hundreds of dollars to glimpse. These gorillas, which may live 50 years in the wild, never survive long in captivity.

There are only two separate populations of mountain gorillas, and they live only in the African forest. About 350 or so, including the ones that Ms. Fossey studied, inhabit a protected mountain forest straddling Rwanda, Zaire and Uganda. Another 300 live in Bwindi, solely in Uganda.

Perhaps 500 years ago, the entire area was forested and the two mountain gorilla populations were connected. But as the human population grew, the forest was chopped down. About 15 miles of steeply sloped farmland now separate and isolate the two gorilla populations.

If farmers are angry about restrictions to the park, they may sneak into the forest and harvest valuable tropical timber. If people are hungry, they may take Bwindi's fruit, grow crops there or set snares for small game, which may harm the gorillas.

Thousands of local farmers live within several miles of Uganda's park. Some have never seen the gorillas and place little value on the animals. But if the farmers value the forest habitat, the gorillas are more likely to survive.

"People want to protect the forest," said Evacy Byamukama, an agricultural extension agent who works with residents near the Impenetrable Forest. "If they protect this forest, they will keep getting clean water and rain."

The terraced red farmland near Bwindi supports 100 to 320 people per square half-mile, and the typical family of six lives on $526 a year.

The population is growing at almost 4 percent annually, intensifying pressure on farmland throughout Uganda. Much of that land already is low in nutrients and highly eroded.

Uganda's experiment allows farmers to harvest sustainable resources in the forest, among them medicinal herbs, vines for basketry and bamboo shoots that can be replanted on farmland.

Several hundred farmers are permitted to keep their bees in the Bwindi forest and harvest the honey, and to use the mineral springs for baths.

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