Community upliftment projects are something we have come to expect of African safari destinations; the luxury industry in particular sees giving back as a duty. But it’s fair to say that some take this more seriously than others. In Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, improving the lives of local communities – people previously caught directly in civil war cross-fire – is the end-goal of every initiative, from scientific research to rewilding. And their projects and programmes go far beyond lip service.
Devastated during the 16-year civil war which ended in 1992, Gorongosa is now undergoing a continual process of restoration, thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Gorongosa Project and the Mozambican government, who signed a 20-year public-private partnership in 2008, spearheaded by US philanthropist Greg Carr. To date, there have been countless successes, from the recent reintroduction of wild dogs to the opening of a molecular lab in the science department.
But the focal point is people, and the two biggest departments are human development and sustainable development. Over 98 per cent of park employees are Mozambican and 85 per cent are Gorongosa locals. In terms of tourism, community upliftment has a positive influence: visitors want to see local communities doing well, to know that the park and tourism is directly benefitting the people who live here. We all want to feel good about where we travel, to know our money is funding more than just a holiday.
There are countless stories to tell of how lives are improving as the park heals. These are four of the projects brightening the future of Gorongosa’s people:
1. The Gorongosa Coffee Project
On the slopes of Mount Gorongosa, something remarkable is happening. A stronghold for opposition group, RENAMO, the mountain was off-limits for park employees for years, until negotiations led to an agreement that allowed a coffee project to be founded on the mountainside. The project has multiple benefits: it provides a sustainable industry for locals and it cleverly offers an incentive to protect the mountain’s trees, as coffee needs partial shade. As we walked around the burgeoning farm, Matt Jordan, operational manager of the project, notes that “the dominant factor here is socio-political”. Everything has to be carefully negotiated, but, so far, the project has been highly successful in breaking down barriers.
The team produced their first batch of coffee beans in May 2018 in their factory at the foot of the mountain. Visiting the coffee project is a means to gain an understanding of life in the buffer zones around the park and to meet some of the local Mozambicans working on the project. Carr also mentions the possibility of a coffee lodge at some point, which would serve as a way to extend the flow of tourism money beyond the park’s borders.
2. The Girls’ Club
One of Carr’s biggest concerns is that, when it comes to community upliftment, girls are not given enough attention. Hence the Girls’ Club: an offshoot of the park’s education programme. They teach sexual health, sport and literacy – Vilma Nhambi Mugwagwa, who works at the Community Education Centre (CEC), tells me these teachings are crucial, as without them “[the girls are] not motivated to go to school”. Beyond basic education, the club runs summer bootcamps for leadership and take the girls on safaris to learn about what’s in their backyard: “It’s a must!” Vilma exclaims. The Girls’ Club also provides scholarships, so girls can finish high school, which reduces early marriages and pregnancies while giving young women that essential freedom of choice.
In the male-dominated safari industry, seeing some female faces in the team is as refreshing and uplifting for park guests as much as for the women themselves. An early example of female advancement is Dominique Gonçalves, Gorongosa’s resident elephant expert, who was trained by ‘elephant whisperer’, Joyce Poole, and is now one of National Geographic’s explorers.
3. Conservation Biology Master’s Programme
The Master’s programme in conservation biology launched in April 2018, a two-year course taught in Gorongosa National Park in collaboration with the Universidade Zambeze, Universidade Lúrio and Instituto Superior Politécnico de Manica. It is considered to be one of the first programmes that is taught entirely within a conservation area – but where better to learn than a park described as the most ecologically diverse on the planet by acclaimed scientist E.O. Wilson? Of the first 12 students, five are female.
Having local involvement in the scientific management of the park is crucial for the long-term sustainability of Gorongosa. An invested, skilled and empowered community can help make decisions that benefit everyone and everything, from animals to plants, locals to tourists.
4. The Beekeeping Programme
The Beekeeping Programme was introduced in order to teach locals the skills of beekeeping, how to process honey, and how to store it. It’s a sustainable industry that provides an income for communities in the buffer zone – one that doesn’t rely on deforestation (something the park is trying to reduce). As with the coffee, hives thrive in the shade of large trees.
A future project may also see the hives being used in a human-wildlife conflict solution: hives are positioned around a crop field, close enough together so that a peckish elephant will knock them as it passes; then, the stinging bees deter the elephants from continuing. Finding ways for wildlife and people to live side by side is an important step in making the park a harmonious place for all. And, from a tourism point of view, that’s an essential element of Gorongosa’s rebirth.