The Virunga and Bwindi forests are key elements of the Albertine Rift eco-region, which is of major importance at a global level in terms of biodiversity. Most notably, these forests are home to the highly endangered mountain gorilla.
The natural forests of the region play a critical role in regulating the water cycle across a very large catchment. The Virunga volcanoes are particularly important, as rainfall on the volcanoes is more than three times that of surrounding areas.
Within park-adjacent communities, many people have traditionally used non-timber forest products such as bamboo, firewood and natural medicines. Access to such products has been particularly important for poorer, marginalized, and vulnerable groups such as the Batwa pygmies.
Most people living around these forests are very poor. They also include groups, such as the Batwa (pygmies), who have been historically marginalized and are among the poorest people in the region, along with others who have little or no land.
In areas immediately around the Virunga volcanoes, the porous soils cause severe shortages of water in the dry season. Water shortages cause dysentery, which often results in child mortality.
The majority of people live off of semi-subsistence agriculture. Most of the area has volcanic soil with high intrinsic fertility that permits intensive production of a wide range of crops including cash crops (potatoes, vegetables, pyrethrum, tea, etc.). Livelihood security has declined, however, and continues to fall in many areas as production is reduced due to declining soil fertility, a phenomenon resulting from a combination of soil erosion and continuous cropping without adequate nutrient inputs.
Across the region, high population densities and declining soil fertility increase pressures on land and biodiversity. The majority of farmers possess very small plots of land (often much less than one hectare per household). There are opportunities for improving market linkages of and services to farmers; however, market access is limited by lack of information, weak organization, and poor transport infrastructure.
The National Parks’ associated tourism industry generates significant benefits for the countries. However, economic analyses show that communities living closest to the national parks, and particularly the poorer elements of these communities, often experience significant costs, notably damage to crops by wildlife and foregone use of park resources. This raises issues with the equity of conservation costs and benefits.
For many years, a high level of insecurity and political instability has affected the Great Lakes Region, resulting in major negative impacts on the livelihoods of rural communities and the environment. Most countries in the region have experienced civil unrest and sporadic episodes of violence since independence, which have often had cross-border effects in terms of refugee flows and regional tensions. Protected areas, because of their remote location and inaccessible terrain, have been important strategic areas in these conflicts, used by rebels for sanctuary, and national armies for undetected access to neighboring countries.
The situation remains very difficult in Democratic Republic of Congo, although certain areas around the park (southern Rutshuru) have regained a level of stability since mid 2009. Uganda and Rwanda, however, have experienced a protracted period of stability over the last 15 years. National development is making progress. Rural development investments and the devolution of the overall development process are gradually reaching remote areas such as those around the Virunga and Bwindi forests.