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Text and photographs: Tim Jackson. Article from the June 2012 issue of Africa Geographic Magazine.
Ecotourism is almost non-existent in the Republic of Congo. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, European tourists visit 170 other countries before venturing there. So it comes as something of a surprise to hear that Denis Sassou N’Guesso, the country’s president, recently declared that he wants to see 10 per cent of GDP generated from tourism revenue within the next five years.
Can it be done? The answer may lie, in part, with developments at Odzala-Kokoua National Park.
If tourism generates none of Congo’s revenue, how does the country survive? It’s all down to oil. In 2011, the black gold represented more than 90 per cent of exports and 85 per cent of revenues. Now, the president is looking to spread the country’s financial eggs among a few more baskets.
Congo has three standout destinations that should appeal to visitors. These are its national parks: Conkouati-Douli on the coast, bordering Gabon, Nouabale-Ndoki in the north and Odzala-Kokoua in the north-west. Until recently, none provided suitable facilities for visitors. Clearly, meeting the president’s demands will prove a real challenge.
Odzala-Kokoua National Park offers a ray of hope. Driven largely by Henri Djombo, the country’s Minister of Forestry Economy, the sanctuary is currently seeing a rejuvenation in both management and visitor appeal that is aimed at kick-starting the tourist industry in the national parks.
Odzala is the largest and oldest of the trio, sprawling across 13 500 square kilometres of pristine rainforest in the Congo Basin. Home to western lowland gorillas and forest elephants (both highly endangered), it also surrounds a number of bais – swampy, grassy clearings that are visited by the forest’s animals.
Odzala sprawls across 13500 square kilometres of pristine rainforest in the Congo basin
The park’s change in fortunes can be attributed to the coming together of parallel forces that are driving both conservation and tourism forward in a unique way. One of the main catalysts in this process is the Leadership for Conservation in Africa (LCA), an organisation established by African businessmen primarily to link business and conservation and to influence national and international leaders in their field to support investment in the development of the continent’s conservation-related resources.
‘For conservation to work we really have to get rid of this whole “begging bowl” approach and integrate business principles into it,’ says Chris Marais, CEO of LCA. It’s an approach the organisation has been applying across Africa to expedite conservation projects since 2006. ‘We do not manage parks, nor do we manage tourism operations. We facilitate the processes by getting the right people – the stakeholders – around the table and focusing their energy in one direction. Once the project gains a momentum of its own, we can move out.’
LCA’s goal is to set up a public-private partnership that will enable its plans to be managed by an independent foundation. ‘After the inaugural meeting, we were approached by representatives from the Congolese government.’ “We want you in Congo,” they said.’ Marais went to see Minister Djombo and recommended that the first thing to do was to form a national LCA chapter. The who’s who of business were invited to take part. In this case, LCA’s primary objective was to use tourism as a tool to foster conservation and community development.
However, the matter of sound park management was not far behind. ‘Management is the most fundamental requirement for making sure that a park works,’ confirms Peter Fearnhead, CEO of African Parks, an initiative that specialises in protected area administration across the continent and is now in charge of Odzala in partnership with the Congolese government. ‘People often say money is the solution, but it’s not. Good, dependable management is the best tool for success,’ he explains. ‘There are examples of projects that have plenty of financial backing but where the situation in the park is still disastrous.’
It was initially at the request of the European Union (EU) that African Parks became involved in Odzala. Having supported the project financially for 20 years, the EU was concerned about the park’s limitations and outputs, and in 2010 its support programme, ECOFAC, parted ways with the Congolese government. African Parks stepped in to fill the void and today receives support through a national grant and from the Reseau des Aires Protegees d’Afrique Centrale (RAPAC), the EU-funded entity that facilitates conservation in the Congo Basin. ‘We built a strong relationship with the EU through our project in Garamba in the Democratic Republic of Congo,’ says Fearnhead, ‘and we started discussions with the Congolese government.’
It was fortuitous that African Parks’ approach coincided with that of the LCA. Fearnhead explains, ‘LCA focused on tourism development inside Odzala. We concentrated on integrated management, which needs to be in place for tourism to be successful.’ The two organisations took up complementary roles in support of the government’s move to put Odzala firmly on the map. it was very useful to work hand in hand with LCA,’ Fernhead adds. ‘We have a shared vision.’
Another important player in Odzala’s turnaround is undoubtedly LCA patron, successful businesswoman and philanthropist Sabine Plattner. Publicity-shy, she revealed the origin of her passion for Odzala in a rare interview with Africa Geographic’s Peter Borchert. ‘I grew up in forests, so I’m part of nature and I’ve always lived with animals,’ she said. ‘When I was 14 I saw a documentary about chimpanzees and human behaviour. I have always been keen on chimpanzees and gorillas and I think this is where it started.’
Since 1971 Plattner has made regular visits to explore Africa. ‘On one trip to Mala Mala Private Game Reserve (outside South Africa’s Kruger National Park), I realised I wanted to be in the bush, but I did not want to be a tourist in the bush. I lost interest in being driven around, I wanted to go deeper,’ she recollects. She became more and more interested in Africa in general, wanting to know what was happening and getting to grips with comments such as ‘The Africans will not make it’.
Then in 1994, when other investors were fleeing South Africa, Plattner began investing in the country. In 2004, she listened to Marais’s embryonic ideas about LCA. ‘I saw a chance to get into Africa and do something. At the first council meeting I agreed to become a patron in my own capacity. Then I started becoming involved in conservation across the continent because whatever charity I support, I donate money only if I’m involved.’
Today Plattner works very closely with LCA. ‘Now I am in Congo and I have this project at Odzala which brings a lot of difficulties, a lot of hardship and costs me a fortune personally – but I am committed,’ she says. Her real passion is forests, and she confesses that discussions about chopping down rainforests make her feel ‘radical’. ‘People sometimes ask, “What are your gorillas doing?” and I tell them, “I am not saving the gorillas, I am saving something of substance”. The bigger ecosystem must be protected to save the micro ecosystem. The gorillas have to be saved, but let others do that.’ If Odzala works, then her vision is to take this model throughout the Congo Basin to try to save the rainforest, or at least the main parts of it, through sensible and sensitive programmes.
Plattner wants the local people to be committed to fighting for their forests. It’s a concept already incorporated in the mission of LCA which, in 2011, launched its ‘Vision 2020′, a drive to conserve 20 million hectares of Africa’s rainforest by the year 2020. To get the tourism infrastructure developed for Odzala, and to provide the local communities with work and education, she financed the building of a camp for operators Wilderness Safaris. She has pledged to help with money for the community too. ‘Luckily,’ she says, ‘there are not too many people; just 40 000 who live in three main communities on the park’s borders.’
The forest belt in the north of the country is home to very few people, it’s definitely the forgotten Congo
Chris Roche from Wilderness Safaris agrees. ‘The forest belt in the north of the country is home to very few people,’ he says. ‘It’s definitely the forgotten Congo.’ With financial backing from Plattner’s Congo Conservation Company, the operator is set to run its new-found ecotourism venture in Odzala, starting this month. ‘The DRC has the “sensationalist Congo”, the old Belgian Congo, but the territory once called French Congo (Congo Brazzaville) doesn’t feature on anyone’s radar,’ Roche adds. For Wilderness Safaris, one of Africa’s largest safari operators, it certainly made sense to collaborate with Odzala. ‘We are proud of the number of biomes we operate in and where we bring a measure of sustain- ability, but the one glaring gap in African conservation ecotourism is in the rainforests. If conserving rainforests is part of our agenda, where can we do that best?’
Odzaia definitely fits the profile, although Roche admits that one of the biggest challenges facing his company is convincing people that there are two Congos. Marketing Odzaia as a new destination, putting it on the map, employing and training members of local communities – these are all standard practice for the business.
Making ends meet, let alone contributing to the country’s tourism coffers, is going to need patience. Roche expects to lose money for the first couple of years. Establishing a new venture in Kenya, which has a thriving tourism industry, and setting up a similar operation in Congo are at different ends of the continuum. ‘All of the usual challenges are amplified,’ he says. ‘Odzaia is a blank canvas, it could be the apogee of ecotourism to date, bringing together researchers, the conservation entity, diversity and the community. Hopefully it will prove the catalyst to get Congo working again.’
Together the organisations that have laboured so diligently to make Odzaia work hope to see their model replicated throughout the Congo Basin. In late 2010, all the elements came together to give rise to the Odzaia Foundation, a unique public-private partnership whose board members include LCA, African Parks, RAPAC, the Congolese government and the local communities.
‘The Odzaia model is already being replicated with the assistance of LCA and African Parks in Nouabale-Ndoki, where the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has been working for some 17 years,’ says Chris Marais. ‘There, they face the same sort of tourism development problems as Odzaia does, even though WCS has undoubtedly done a good job with conservation. We are helping it to work within a more public-private partnership context – and this is where Minister Djombo has the vision. He realises that this is what’s going to make it work, and is not trying to control everything.’
It seems that while the president’s demands for an increase in GDP from tourism may take some time to mature, the signs indicate that Congo is moving in the right direction.
Odzala is a blank canvas, it could be the apogee of ecotourism to date, bringing together researchers, the conservation entity, diversity and the community
Odzala-Kokoua National Park
Area At 13 650 square kilometres, it is also the country’s largest national park.
Vegetation Mainly rainforest, with 4 400 plant species recorded, including distinctive groves of Senegal date palms Phoenix reclinata. More than 100 saline clearings, called bais, form a hub of activity for many of the forest’s animals.
Animal life The area has a reputation as a stronghold for the forest elephant and the western lowland gorilla, although elephants have suffered recently at the hands of poachers.
Birdlife Recognised as an Important Bird Area, the park shelters more than 400 bird species.
Management Since 1992 the European Union has actively supported conservation in Odzala through its EC0FAC programme (Ecosystemes Forestiers – Afrique Centraie), in collaboration with the government of Congo. More recently, the EU has committed €5-million to African Parks to manage the sanctuary. African Parks also receives funding from RAPAC and WWF The Netherlands.
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