On arrival at a high-end facility right at the feet of the Volcanoes National Park , the reclusive facility looks no different from the other Safari Lodges owned by international brands. Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge , which sits on eight hectares of a well kept forest of eucalyptus trees and other species, is owned by communities living around the Virunga National Park , the home to the rare mountain gorillas. It is located 17 kilometres from Musanze town. It belongs to Sabyinyo Community Livelihoods Association (Sacola), to which all residents subscribe. Managed on behalf of Sacola by Governor's Club , renowned for managing up-market tourism establishments, the lodge is a testimony that tourism fares better when communities are involved. The October World Bank report dubbed: "Tourism in Africa : Harnessing Tourism for Growth and Improved Livelihoods," cited the Silverback Lodge project as an exemplary project that ought to be embraced everywhere. "It is a public-private partnership that secures community land ownership, protects critical bio-diversity, and enhances community welfare," the report adds. The project is a high-end facility. The least expensive of their abodes goes for $400 a night, and on our visit last week, the managers said it was booked until mid January. At full capacity, it accommodates 18 clients. Genesis of the Lodge Jean Leonard Harerimana , the assistant manager at the lodge, said the idea of starting the lodge dates back to 2006, following running battles between the park authorities and the local community. People in nearby villages, he said, used to encroach on the park, which posed a major threat to the gorillas and other species in the park. "They never cared about the park and some actually thought it was their right to encroach on it," Harerimana recalled. He said with support from partners like International Gorilla Conservation Programme and other donors, government mobilised resources to have the lodge constructed and handed to Sacola, comprising residents mainly from the sectors of Kinigi and Nyange. How it works According to Harerimana, every tourist who spends a night at Silverback Lodge , remits $64 to Sacola. The number of tourists visiting the lodge depends on the period but management says they have an average of at least 12 people per day. "We owe much to the communities and we give back to change their livelihoods," Harerimana says. "Besides the outright $64 that a tourist spends per night at the lodge, we also give to the community 7.5 per cent of our after-tax profits," he said. Deliverables According to Emmanuel Hakizimana , the accountant of Sacola, the contributions from Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge have improved people's lives in the surrounding villages. The association receives at least Rwf15 million from the lodge monthly. Hakizimana said prior to this project, people practically lived in forests with almost no civilisation. These have since acquired modern houses in community settlements (Imidugudu) worth Rwf58m, and over 200 cows worth Rwf20m given to the most vulnerable, mostly widows of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. Many houses were connected with power in both Nyange and Kinigi, and Sacola played a major role in the anti-thatched housing campaign in the district, donating 2,600 iron sheets to 130 vulnerable families. Students from most vulnerable families are being supported and over Rwf5 million has been spent on them. Hakizimana said Sacola also spent over Rwf26m to construct and renovate houses of vulnerable widows and contributed Rwf30m towards the construction of the fence around the park to tame stray animals, among other programmes. Community members are now engaged in tourism-related activities. They were trained in artisanal works which enable them to make objects that they sale to tourists. Those who talked to The New Times said they have benefited from the association, saying they had lived miserably before getting proceeds from Silverback Lodge . "I and my family lived in a thatched house for long and Sacola built a modern house for us. Life in the forest was unbearable and my children got periodical malaria bouts," said Daniel Niyonzima , a resident of Kinigi. He now says he has a modern house with a kitchen, latrine, water tank, and a cow," he added. Anonciate Akimanizanye, the secretary of Twisungane cooperative, whose members are only Genocide survivors, said Sacola mid this year gave them 180 chickens. "We sell eggs and we have since saved more than Rwf800,000," she said. The Head of Tourism and Conservation at Rwanda Development Board , Rica Rwigamba, told The New Times that there was a plan to roll out the Sabyinyo concept to other parts of the country, where communities can be helped to directly benefit from the parks, which she said only bolsters conservation efforts. "A concession policy is now in place and the model can be replicated elsewhere. We are ready for this and encourage it, but ultimately, it has to be a private investment," Rwigamba said.
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