Three partners Uganda Wildlife Authority(UWA), Kisoro District Local Government and United Organization for Batwa Development of Uganda (UOBDU) on June 7 launched the Batwa Cultural Trail in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park(MGNP)which the commissioner for Tourism Ms Grace Aulo dubbed the Tourism product of the decade.
The launch which was marked by the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the three parties stipulating the roles and responsibilities of each, coincided with 2011 which is designated the international year of the forests. The Batwa are also known as the forest people and for centuries before 1991 when Mgahinga forest reserve was elevated into a national park, they solely relied on the forest along Muhabura, Sabinyo and Gahinga volcanoes for their livelihoods and cultural heritage.
Indeed the three parties with the support from development partners including the International Gorilla Conservation Program(IGCP),the Greater Virunga Trans-boundary Core Secretariat, USAID-STAR, the Royal Netherlands embassy among others, committed to keeping the cultural elements of the 8km trail authentic and true to the Batwa culture.
Mr. Stephen Masaba the acting director for Tourism and Business Development(UWA) represented the acting director Executive Director to sign the MOU wile Ms Peninah Zaninka the coordinator for UOBDU represented her organization and the chief Administrative Officer, KDLG, David Lubuuka signed on behalf of the host district.
According to Mr. Stephen Asuma,the programe officer for IGCP and chairman Batwa Trail Tourism Management Committee, the trail started in 2006 out of research on Uganda National parks carried out in 2002 which discovered that the Batwa were one of the biggest encroachers on the national park due to lack of land, employment and any other source of livelihood.
It was from this research that IGCP and UOBDU with support from USAID Prime West embarked on developing a product that would offer an alternative sour e of livelihood to the Batwa and a consultant was hired to develop a tourism plan.
Accordingly, from 2006, studies were carried out and recordings made of the Batwa traditional way of live as well as a study on the economic and social impact of the planned product. In 2007, the process of developing the product began in Ernest with the training of the Batwa guides ,putting in place the necessary infrastructure.
In 2009, the project received a boost from GVTCS with funding from the Royal Netherlands embassy to complete the product but which remained un marketed. In 2010, the Tourism Management Committee sought assistance from USAID -STAR program to begin marketing the unique product.
According to the partners, the main objectives of the product are to create an avenue where Batwa can earn an income for livelihood, preserving the Batwa rich culture, preserve the traditional relationship between the Batwa and the forest and to diversify tourism activities besides the renowned gorilla trekking.
So far, about 69 Foreign non residents and four Ugandans have walked the trail as tourists generating about US$6000. The revenue from the product are shared amongst the parties.
The chairman UOBDU Mr. Elias Habyarimana said he was happy that with the launch of the product, the Batwa will be able to showcase their rich culture, knowledge of the forest and use generated revenue to improve their livelihoods.
Mr. Stephen Masaba is convinced that this is another milestone that will market Uganda as a prime tourism destination. He adds that the product underscores the UWA mission of collaboration with stake holders to sustainably manage the resources in protected areas. Mgahinga National park boasts of various unique features like three out of the seven Great Virunga volcanoes besides the diverse flora and fauna .
Mr. Masaba promised that UWA would soon add the new product to the official tariff and that the guides skills would be further upgraded through regular training.
The chief guest at the launching ceremony, Ms Grace Aulo said government of Uganda had identified bottlenecks to full realization of the tourism potential including inadequate infrastructure, accommodation and undeveloped tourism products. She promised that the tourism ministry would write to the Works ministry to ensure paving the road from Kisoro town to Ntebeko, the national park headquarters.
She urged the stake holders to develop similar products to other national parks to complement the already other existing activities. Aulo hailed partners for supporting the development of the product and urged them to support the marketing.
The function was graced by the Kisoro district chairman Milton Bazanye,the director for IGCP Mr. Eugene Rutagarama,acting ED UWEC Mr. James Musinguzi and the chief of party,USAID-STAR Mr. Kaddu Sebunya among others.
The colorful function was marked with the premiering of a documentary about the Batwa trail with traditional music and dances while the visit to the Garama cave was the climax of the trail walk.