By Arans Tabaruka
While the minister of finance planning and economic development Hon. Matia Kasaija presented the 2020/2021 fiscal year budget, I was eager to match the government’s desire to support the premise of domestic production and its commitment to the proposed strict import and export substitution.
Indeed he came through with it, struggling to address the natural resources exhaustion challenge without equal community benefit.
Despite assurances of how the government is committed to realigning its priorities to recover from the offset of the current pandemic, it is certainly farfetched and communities continue to suffer alongside wildlife in such uncertain times escalating the human-wildlife conflict.
One of such cases is the death of Rafiki the lead and only silverback gorilla of the famous Nkuringo habituated group. This, according to UWA is the second loss in just over a year of a silverback in Nkuringo group, with the death of silverback Kirungi on May 21, 2019.
There have been enormous and continued condemnations that only seem to leverage an expose to the raging inequalities between the rural communities living adjacent to conservation areas that entirely depend on tourism and the role of government in addressing such inequalities during such a crisis.
For starters, in 2017, tourism was the leading foreign exchange earner to the Ugandan economy generating USD 1,453 million compared to USD 1,371 million in 2016 and it continues to be.
The direct contribution of tourism to GDP only in 2017 was UGX 2,699.1bn (2.9% of GDP) while the total contribution including wider effects from investment, the supply chain and induced income impacts, was UGX 6,888.5bn in 2017 (7.3% of GDP), up from UGX6, 171.5bn in 2016.
In terms of contribution to employment in the economy, tourism generated 229,000 jobs directly in 2017 (2.4% of total employment). This included employment by hotels, travel agents, airlines and other passenger transportation services. The total contribution of tourism to employment was 605,500 jobs in 2017 (6.3% of total employment).
With the sector’s high transformative power to the economy if fully harnessed according to the World Bank survey for Uganda in 2013 it could attract 100,000 additional leisure tourists, add 11 percent to exports and 1.6 percent to GDP.
So this does not need persuading for the government to understand that even during this COVID19 uncertainty, the tourism’s vulnerability would largely affect the direct proportion of its growth domestic product and force communities into despair while struggling to survive without the benefits of tourism.
To use the tourism sector as a synopsis of government’s negligence during the handling of the COVID19 pandemic in the countryside may sound unfair but only to those naïve of the importance of the principles of necessity and proportionality as a ground for equality and justice in the society.
While the news is a wash of condemnations to the poachers over the death of the gorilla, it’s a disgracing consideration that is not inclusive to address the rising inequalities and vulnerabilities in the natural resource sector arising from restrictions slapped on communities as a result of COVID19.
The facts given, prior to growth of tourism make a compelling case for the government to prioritize the country’s tourism and drive its growth alongside the communities at risk of the effects of conservation efforts.
The tourism sector and its relevant MDA’s that run taxpayer budgets must move closer to establishing a sustainable and compelling stimulus in addition to a rather crippling policy to avert human-wildlife conflict.
A Stringent UWA law, Non-remedial
The Uganda Wildlife Authority Act 2019 starts off from a remedial test of handling poaching while intimately addressing inequalities in the sections such as human-life conflict and community revenue sharing disparities.
UWA reports from 2009 to 2017 indicated more than 13,000 human-wildlife conflicts, involving livestock predation by lions and leopards, elephant crop damage as well as hippo, buffalo and chimpanzee attacks. Queen Elizabeth, Murchison Falls, Kidepo Valley National were identified as conflict hotspots but this did imply that other communities adjacent to the other conservation areas were not at likely risk.
Since 2009, the number of human-wildlife conflicts has risen by more than 22 percent all the new law could afford was a compensation approach for loss occasioned by wildlife escaping from protected areas that only catered for a person who suffered body injury or was killed or suffered damage of his or her property by wildlife without addressing the livelihood shortages.
Per the new law, punishment for use of weapons, traps, explosives is Shs 100 million fines or 10 years imprisonment, or both. This also applies to persons who unlawfully prepare land for cultivation, mining or those who take, destroy, damage or deface any object of geomorphological, archaeological, historical, cultural or scientific value.
If the law is to be followed to the later to provide natural justice to Rafiki and other species of wildlife lost in poaching and illegal trade, chest-thumping must be avoided and scrutiny on how a preferred treatment of indigenous peoples and communities survive from tourism and its related biodiversity.
It’s true the law did not address the likely emergencies and hence the authority and relevant stakeholders in conservation are struggling to forge a way out for the struggling communities that ought to be sustained amidst hunger and uncertainty.
Whereas the law set the lifeline to redeem wildlife through tough measures to avert poaching, life sentences and fines cannot address the emerging difficulties, the question as to how this should be addressed lie in the contribution wildlife and its related biodiversity makes to this country.
The death of Rafiki and arrest of the alleged poachers is a wakeup call and for truth-telling, it is evident that the enactment of a stringent law means that the perpetrators could face the highest penalty, a maximum fine of Shs20 billion or life imprisonment, or both for an offense relating to killing a wildlife species classified as extinct in the wild or critically endangered but may not be the ultimate remedy for conservation.
Many wildlife species of antelopes, lions, greater and lesser kudu, Ssese Island Sitatunga, Cheetah, African elephant, and many more endangered species die without an honorable mention at the hands of the poachers and communities struggling to survive and their defense has been that they have depended on this biodiversity for a lifetime.
Policies not enough without a tangible approach
This year’s budget according to the budget committee of parliament was the first sectoral budget prepared since the creation of tourism as a fully-fledged and standalone sector.
As a result of this achievement, sector coordination enhanced by Ministry of Tourism Wildlife and Antiquities, Uganda Tourism Board (UTB), Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), Uganda Wildlife Conservation Education Centre (UWEC), Uganda Hotel and Tourism Training Institute (UHTTI) and Uganda Wildlife Research and Training Institute (UWRTI) should lead a conversation to salvage the situation.
As tourism becomes increasingly important to Uganda’s economy, communities who are the custodians of the tourism habits should preserve them too, through recognition and rescue.
Whereas the sector is undertaking interventions aimed at delivering the mandate of formulating and implementing policies that promote tourism and conservation for socio-economic development, there is a lot that remains desired.
One of the key approaches still desired is to address another emerging impulse. There are cases unreported; the escalation of gender-based violence; sexual reproductive rights abuse which will aggregately affect communities more.
Violence in communities in any way is a widespread problem that takes a variety of forms such as sexual, psychological, community, economic, institutional and intimate partner violence.
With a diminishing engagement in and around economic and educational opportunities, there are skirmishes of marginalization and abuse in households that are dependent on tourism.
This aggravates the inequalities that already exist and escalates violence but also leaves the following questions unanswered.
How are people living adjacent to the conservation areas, dependant on tourism making a living right now?
Although many people living adjacent to the national parks own land and cultivate crops, most of them have depended largely on tourism and its related activities. With the sector on halt due to COVID19 restrictions, It’s important to call upon government attention to this section of people as they remain vulnerable.
What is the government’s approach to maintaining wildlife and communities’ co-existence amidst the COVID-19 pandemic?
It should be naïve for the Uganda Wildlife Authority and its related partners not to expect a surge in a human-wildlife conflict characterized by animal vermins, poaching and hunger in the communities.
There is a need to do something in terms of vigilance on ranging wildlife and support to communities in the different conservation areas in Uganda with the uncertainty surrounding the return of tourism to normalcy.
Arans Tabaruka is rural communities advocate working with IRUCE Communities