What happens to a magnificent wildlife and nature reserve if it suddenly becomes the stage for a civil war? Refugees find home in its forests, destroying them, poaching animals and burning fields. Inevitably, tourist facilities are abandoned and the park dies. It all happened to the Gorongosa National Park during the 16-year civil war that devastated Mozambique.
Today, 21 years after the fighting ended, I see a very different Gorongosa. Wild animals roam the park’s immense green pastures, birds dive for food in the river and crocodiles wonder curiously at the surface of Lake Urema. It’s no surprise that National Geographic recently published a story about the park.
I came to Gorongosa with U.S. Ambassador Douglas Griffiths, who wanted to see the impact of USAID’s restoration and health projects on the communities that live there.
USAID has been involved with the park restoration since 2006, a few years after Greg Carr — an American philanthropist who fell in love with Gorongosa —signed an agreement with the Government of Mozambique to manage it. When USAID partnered with Carr and the Mozambican government to restore the park, the vision was to generate a harmonious and mutually beneficial relationship between wildlife and the communities that share the park. As time passes, that vision is becoming reality through a network that connects biodiversity conservation with education, health, forestry, agriculture, eco-tourism, natural resource management, and livelihoods.
It is pretty obvious that Gorongosa’s success story lies in the communities living there. “Historically, national parks didn’t think that they had a duty to the human beings that lived next to them, but in the last 40 years people realized that it won’t work. You have to think of the greater ecosystem, the park and its buffer zones,” –Greg Carr said as he showed us the Community Educational Center, which was built and maintained with USAID funding.
About 200,000 people live inside the park and in the surrounding buffer zones. Increasing tourism attracted a Portuguese hotel chain that took over Chitengo Safari Camp, the area’s primary tourist stop, creating a number of jobs. However, investing 20 percent of the park’s revenue back in the communities, in accordance with Mozambican law, has also made a big difference. While visiting the health facility in nearby Vinho village, we heard how well revenue-sharing is working. Marta, born and raised in the village, had brought her baby in for vaccination. “I am happy with the park,” she told us. “My sister works there, my husband works there. Now I also want to work there.”
USAID supports the health of Gorongosa communities with services ranging from family planning to vital medical treatment for malaria and other health problems. We visited a class at the Community Educational Center, where buffer-zone residents were learning about tuberculosis symptoms, treatment and prevention. Such activities also raise awareness of sustainable practices, such as organic farming, that help people earn incomes without damaging the park. In 2012 the conservation education team worked with 4,200 people, most from buffer-zone communities, including classroom sessions for children, workshops on fire prevention and other conservation topics and mobile movie sessions. Ambassador Griffiths told me how rewarding it was to see U.S. investments contributing to the health of the park and its residents. “By supporting this ecological jewel,” he said, “we’re also supporting the people around it.”
With the recent animal re-introductions and natural growth rates, wildlife has increased substantially since 2004, attracting scientists, tourists and businesses from everywhere. As we took the afternoon game drive we could see herds of Gorongosa’s small-tusked elephants and gaze at grazing wildebeest and African buffalo in the immense savanna near Lake Urema.
View more photos of Ambassador Griffiths’ visit to the Gorongosa National Park.