Negotiating Nature’s Edge – Swamp & Safari Land vs. Small-Scale Farming

Baboon at Bigodi Swamp, Kiibale, Uganda.

Baboon at Bigodi Swamp, Kiibale, Uganda.

I was standing at the end of a wetland sanctuary, and the beginning of a farmer’s field of sweet potato and maize. I was at the edge of ecosystem. In the “interface between two mediums”…stepping through the space that permaculturalists describe as “interesting and beautiful” and even “more productive” (Mollison, 1999).

To my right was the Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, an eight kilometer long swamp, home to over two hundred different species of birds, nine different species of primates, and hundreds of types of trees, shrubs, ferns and flora. The wetland serves as an important wildlife corridor of the Kibale Forest National Park located in western Uganda.

To my left was a farmer’s field, sprouting green with annual crops, including maize, climbing beans, and sweet potatoes, planted amidst a scattering of coffee trees. The community of Bigodi is also home to roughly four thousand people – many of them practicing small-scale agriculture.

Farmland vs. Protected land in Uganda.

Farmland vs. Protected land in Uganda.

I wondered how these two landscapes, stitched together by a dirt foot path, were interacting in practice. Sure, it was interesting. And beautiful. But was it true that it was more productive?

Suddenly, a large male baboon emerged from the swampland, crossed the divide, and sauntered into the farmer’s field beneath the flowering coffee trees.

“He’s heading for the sweet potatoes,” explained Ben Twinamugisha, our local guide, with a grin. “Baboons can swallow and stash food crops in their cheeks.”

The baboon was soon followed by an entourage of two other males who only briefly cast their long, solemn faces in our direction.

“Baboons are somehow clever,” laughed Ben, “because they can distinguish tourists from farmers. Tourists carry cameras. Farmers carry stones.”

Sticks and stones: an angry farmer’s arsenal against a primate that, according to the farmer, would seem to be more supported and protected than small-scale agriculturalists  – even though it’s estimated that 80% of Uganda’s population relies on the food they grow to feed, clothe, shelter, medicate, and educate their children (and most are lucky if they can grow enough to provide three of the five basic needs).

Yet a small-farmer would be imprisoned for killing a baboon, along with any other fur or feathered creature within a protected landscape like the Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary.

Environmentalists may sharply disagree, but let me pose the question: if your family’s livelihood and well-being depended on growing food, how would you feel about a clan of clever sweet-potato swallowing baboons, or worse yet, a family of forest elephants who breach the swamp’s border at night and silently trample a month’s worth of work in a few minutes flat?

There’s a lot of controversy happening at the edge between protected landscapes (swamp, safari and forest alike) and farmland in Uganda today – where the wild is rubbing up against the cultivated, and the protected spaces against the vulnerable ones. It’s not easy to negotiate, let alone appreciate, nature’s edge, when there’s an elephant in the room, or rather…garden?

Guide at community-run Bigodi Swamp.

Guide at community-run Bigodi Swamp.

Community-Managed Edges – Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary

Next to the more tourist-frequented Kibale Forest National Park (home to over a thousand chimpanzees), dwells another tourist attraction: the Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary. What makes the stretch of 8 km swampland so interesting; however, isn’t necessarily primates jumping through the trees (even though it’s home to nine species of them), but how the wetland is being 100% protected and managed by the local community surrounding – many of whom are also small-scale farmers.

It isn’t often that you hear about government handing over natural landscapes (that have the potential to generate dollars from tourism) to be managed by small communities. But that’s exactly what happened in 1992 in the community of Bigodi, Kibale, after members rallied together to form a community based organization called the Kibale Association for Rural and Environmental Development (KAFRED).

KAFRED “strive[s] for the conservation of biodiversity and the development of its local community through ecotourism and other environmentally sustainable business.” Tourists and travelers pay $15 for an educational walk around and through parts of the wetland – to marvel and learn from the biodiversity of birds, primates, ferns, flowers and wetland life. Over the years, funds generated have been delegated by the community towards the construction of schools, a health centre, police station, and entrepreneurial training for poor families. It’s also provided employment and guide training for local citizens, and extended education campaigns into the local schools for hands-on learning of science, biology and wetland conservation.

Amazing walk through flora and fauna at Bigodi, Uganda.

Amazing walk through flora and fauna at Bigodi, Uganda.

Most importantly – the funds generated through KAFRED’s ecotourism activities have also directly benefited the farmers, who even though have become sensitized as to the value of conserving the wetlands, continue to face losses from crop-raiding baboons, birds, and other mammals. I was impressed to learn that KAFRED has used a portion of their profits to establish a revolving fund for farming families who are affected by crop-raiding. The revolving fund provides security to small-scale farmers should their crops be raided or damaged by baboons, other primates, and even forest elephants.

To me – what made the walk through the wetland so enjoyable wasn’t the flora and fauna, but rather, seeing firsthand how farmers were interacting with resources from the wetland. While it is, indeed, illegal to kill or harm animals who venture out from the wetlands into farmland, it’s not illegal for Bigodi citizens to use vegetation and organic materials from the wetland for the benefit of their gardens.

Community harvests papyrus from the swamp.

Community harvests papyrus from the swamp.

And just because the sanctuary is a protected space doesn’t mean that it’s a private space. Along the walk, I noticed a woman harvesting raffia, a type of palm tree, for mulching her cabbage seedlings. We passed a high school student wearing rubber boots and carrying a butterfly net – looking for samples for a biology assignment. There were several children collecting water from an open pond on the outskirts of the wetland. And of course, the papyrus plant that grows thick in swampland was being used for drying to weave baskets and mats.

NATURE5“Successful and permanent settlements have always been able to draw from the resources of at least two environments. Similarly, any settlement which fails to preserve natural benefits…is bent on eventual extinction” (Mollison, 1999).

It seemed to me that while Bidogi’s “edge” wasn’t an absolute utopia (Ben explained some farmers were still pressuring for culling crop-raiding baboons); it had the advantage of being a local “community managed edge” versus an edge controlled by distant forces who don’t understand the complexities of its day to day interactions.


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