Eco-tourism gives ex-poachers a new chance

According to legend in Rwanda, the Batwa people were born to dance.

Dancers at the Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village. Picture: Jonathan Kalan

Dancers at the Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village. Picture: Jonathan Kalan

One evening, so the lore goes, God found himself in need of lively entertainment and called on the people of heaven to dance. The first to begin were the Batwa (commonly known as Pigmies), who danced and howled and laughed well into the night until God was finally satisfied. He thanked his entertainment, permitting them to go home and retired to his quarters.

But the Batwa didn’t stop. They continued to dance until the early hours of morning, and on multiple occasions God was forced from his slumber, calling them to put a stop to it. Finally God had enough. In a fit of fury he reached out, picked each one of them up and flung them straight down to the earth below. They landed in the Parc National Des Volcans (Volcanoes National Park) in Rwanda, started dancing and have never stopped.

Perhaps it’s true. Or perhaps it’s not. Fortunately for Leonidas Barora, a lively 59-year-old toothless grinning Batwa tribe member from deep in park’s forest, at least one part is true; he loves to dance. And it’s dancing that turned Leonidas from a poacher, who was responsible for killing of countless animals inside the park, into a key part of a new model for environmental and cultural conservation in East Africa.

Established in 2005 with funding from Rwanda Eco-Tours Ltd., Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village is a community owned and operated “cultural village”, run by ex-poachers, that replicates traditional tribal life in Rwanda.

Parc National Des Volcans, where the village is located, is one of Rwanda’s largest tourist destinations, and one of just a handful of places in East Africa where you can “track” families of mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. Yet for communities in and around national parks, like Leonidas’ tribe, poaching is simply a way of life. In many cases, it’s the only way of life.

As a park ranger, Edwin Sabuhoro, founder of Rwanda Eco-Tours, a private eco-tourism outfit in Rwanda, began to realise that park management was far too “nature” centric. They worked to conserve the park, but not the local communities that depend on it. Relationships between the poachers, the park officials, and the government had always been tense.

“They wanted to kill our method of survival,” one former poacher said. Despite the constant threats of being fined, jailed, and even occasionally shot at by park rangers, neither the park nor government officials had offered skills training, resources, or alternative methods of income generation for the people.

It wasn’t until Sabuhoro showed up to the Nyabigoma community with $5,000, a plan to build Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village, and a statement saying that Rwanda Eco-Tours would commit 20% of their annual profits to the village, that they began to listen.

When asked about the business reasons for Rwanda Eco-Tours to be giving away 20% of its profit to the village, Sabuhoro says he is proud of a business that is advancing his country.

“While I started this business specifically to help develop and promote my country, at the same time protecting the animals and the parks is simply good for our business and our bottom line,” he said.

While tourism is one way to develop – and in a sense preserve – the community, it’s not the only one. The Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village only directly employs 30 people – a mix of dancers, singers, drummers, guides, herbal healers, metalworkers, and others. Over the years, Rwanda Eco-Tours has invested $30,000 in the village committee, which has developed infrastructure, skills training, and horticulture programmes that they hope will sustain the community.

Through these programmes, a sense of entrepreneurship is now emerging from villagers. Rurengo Enock, 71, the “herbal man” of Iby’Iwacu, now owns cows, goats, and land to farm – things he never had before. “Life has made a significant improvement since poaching”, he told me. Says one other local, “I have a house now, I have a bicycle now. I have a sheep now, but I want to have ten in 5 years”.

In just a few years, the Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village has seen significant changes brought about as a result of this economic incentive-based conservation programme. Out of the 1,000 or so community members of Nyabigoma around the Parc National Des Volcans, nearly all of whom were supported by poaching, only a handful have continued to poach.

One of the biggest changes, however, lies in the locals’ perception of their own destiny. They now see the value of education and understand the importance of sending their children to school. More importantly, they now have financial resources to do so.

Leonidas Barora, the lively Batwa dancer whom most tourists will have a hard time forgetting, even years after their visit, broke out in laughter when I asked him if he had ever gone to school. Growing up deep in the forest, he had never heard of a “school” or a “teacher.” Now, one of his sons just graduated from a local secondary school and in fact was the first Batwa in the history of the entire district ever to do so.