10/12/2010 09:20 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Rebirth of Gorongosa National Park

This is the second in a series of posts about the Parque Nacional da Gorongosa and associated Gorongosa Restoration Project. The first is here.

Fifty years and three months ago, Mozambique's first national park was born. In making that decision, the Portuguese colonial government joined a worldwide 20th-century effort to ensure that at least some undeveloped landscapes stayed that way.

For a few years, Gorongosa National Park was a safari mecca. It's a stunning place, and the tourists' Super 8 movies (appropriately silent) give a sense of what it used to look like. Herds of buffalo and wildebeest being stalked by cagey lions across a lush flood plain fringed by palms and fever trees. People eating lunch before stuffing themselves into VW Microbuses.

As Gorongosa National Park was entering the world, the shreds of European imperialism in Africa were falling away. It took 11 years of guerilla war to make it happen in Mozambique. After that, no peace, just an awful civil war, eating the new republic alive. Tourists had stopped visiting Gorongosa long before the civil war ended in 1992, and the first ones back through what remained of the gates weren't tourists, but hunters who quickly dispatched what remained of the large wildlife.

You might mark 1994 as the death of Gorongosa National Park. In 1960, the average baby born in Mozambique could expect to live just under 35 years. By coincidence, and a set of factors far too complex to unpack here, Gorongosa National Park hit that mark almost exactly.


In the United States, we tend to view our national parks as static entities. Most of us know that this isn't quite accurate -- that ecosystems are dynamic, and that national park boundaries and management priorities change over time. But the idea of national parks as pristine, primordial wildernesses is appealing, and it remains one of the popular national myths that we inherit and cling to, with the contrary evidence all around us, simply because it's kind of fun to pretend that you're the first human ever to see a place. That's why we pack out our garbage and pretend to "Leave no trace." My sister once spent a summer working as a Junior Ranger in Denali, where a big part of her job was to go around to campsites and move rocks away from illegal firepits so that nobody would notice that someone else had made a firepit.

The fact is, though, that even the very model of what a national park ought to be has changed a lot since Congress gazetted Yellowstone in 1872. Even within the US, the goals have fluctuated: first we killed all the wolves, then we changed our minds and put them back. But exporting the US model to other countries adds a whole new layer of complexity. For one thing, before you could have American national parks as we know them, you had to obliterate a large population of native Americans. Today, genocide is no longer politically correct; it wasn't even considered politically correct, for the most part, in colonial Africa, where the humanitarian bar was set fairly low.

In short, our evolving standards of how we should and shouldn't treat our fellow humans, our evolving beliefs about what nature is and how to conserve it, and our confrontation with certain biophysical, geopolitical, and socio-economic realities have forced us to continually redefine national parks.

So what should a national park be? You can ask ten people and still get ten different answers. But most people would probably agree that the purpose of national parks is to ensure the continued existence of unbuilt landscapes, sites of cultural importance, beautiful scenery, and biodiversity (a young but powerful concept); that they should provide opportunities for recreation, education, and contemplation; and that when you make them (or make them bigger), you shouldn't screw anybody over too badly in the process -- that national parks should contribute to economic development and increase human well-being rather than exacerbate poverty. As for how exactly to accomplish all these things, opinions differ.


That was the global context into which Gorongosa National Park was born again.

This was the local context: Mozambique is one of the poorest countries in the world, if not the poorest. The population -- especially the rural population -- is exhausted and scared to death. They're deeply traumatized by what they've seen during the civil war, by what's been done to them, and by what they've done to others. The average person lives on the equivalent of $0.38 per day, and one in every four babies dies before age five. The Gorongosa ecosystem, having been a major battle zone, lacks functional populations of virtually all its large herbivores -- the animals that keep the grass down and the fires from burning out of control. People displaced by the rebels, the government, or both have taken refuge on the previously sacrosanct upper slopes of the mountain outside the park, where their farming threatens downstream water quality and the very existence of the rift-valley floodplain that underpins the entire ecosystem. The Mozambican Government, rightly recognizing Gorongosa as a major potential asset, wants to bring the park back to life, while simultaneously catering to the needs of the long-suffering people. How do they do it?

A lot of people and a lot of factors have contributed to the rebirth of Gorongosa National Park, but one crucial catalyst has been an unusual coupling between the Mozambican government and an American philanthropist named Greg Carr. Carr first visited Gorongosa in 2004, and in 2007, his foundation entered a 20-year deal with the government to co-manage the park; explicit in the 122-page agreement are commitments to both ecological restoration and sustainable economic development. The Carr Foundation shoulders much of the financial load for the project, and in return the government cedes much of the responsibility for both day-to-day management and long-term planning.

The ultimate goal, of course, is for the park to pay the price of its own existence, which means covering not just its operating costs, but also its opportunity costs. The park needs to provide the jobs and entice the tourists to spend the money necessary to make the people next door better off than they'd be if they used the same land to make a living some other way.

In other words, Gorongosa is aiming for what one ecologist has called "Phase II conservation". Phase I is the old school: draw lines on a map, kick people out, post guards with guns, and arrest the poachers and squatters. When the poachers come back, arrest them again. This is a war of attrition that the conservation area will always lose. Phase II is the effort to embed the conservation area in society, such that its right to exist ceases to be questioned. It pays its own way both literally, by generating things like clean water and tourist revenue, and also figuratively, being perceived locally as a welcome member of society, like a herd of cattle, a health clinic, or a university.

And before Gorongosa can fully do that, it needs to become a functional ecosystem again. Zebras, elephants, and hippos multitask. They are lawnmowers and weed-wackers and sediment stirrers. They are firefighters. They are prodigious poopers whose very pooping keeps the nutrients flowing and the plants fertilized. Perhaps most importantly of all, they are spectacles, by virtue of their own vulnerability. Because we humans have pushed them out of so many places where they used to exist, we are now willing to pay large quantities of money to sit in cars and watch them poop. (We humans will pay a lot of money for a lot of stuff, as long as the stuff is rare enough.)

The dedicated and professional staff of Gorongosa are doing their part. Together with help from partners in both public and private spheres, they are putting Humpty Dumpty back together again. The end result will look different than it did before -- that's a given. But that's also perfectly fine. Gorongosa doesn't need to be a precise wax-museum replica of itself circa 1960, 1860, or 16,000 B.C. It just needs to be something that the world will treasure.