THE BLOG
09/22/2014 05:53 pm ET Updated Nov 22, 2014

Tea Time With Our Gorilla Neighbors

If you stood in the middle of one of our tea plantations at dusk, you would hear the forest come alive. Bird calls, insects buzzing and behind it all, a gentle whomp-whomp of something powerful moving through the brush. That would be our gorilla neighbors enjoying their tea time.

Here in Uganda's Kisoro District, many of the residents among the people are indigenous Batwa pygmies. They used to dwell in the forests too. But over the last decade they and the rest of our Bafumbira community have been working to not only protect the Mgahinga Gorilla National Parks, but to also improve all of our livelihoods.

There are almost 100 villages in the area. During the 1990s, the community's dependence on forest resources hit a peak. So in the 2000s, we developed ways and means of reducing that pressure on forest resources and building local incomes at the same time.

We set about domesticating bamboo and planting trees. Lush tea plantations now help provide a buffer zone for protected areas where the mountain gorillas are free to roam.

As a woman here, I know all about roaming. It is mostly women and children who are tasked with walking between three and eight hours a day to collect drinking water and carry heavy loads home to grateful families.

To improve safe water access for everyone, we raised a quarter of a million U.S. dollars and built a series of communal rainwater tanks that hold almost 8,000 gallons (30,000 litres), plus shades. The cost of water dropped from 40 U.S. cents per jerrycan to four cents. That's a tenth of what it used to be. It is a blessing that even the poorest can count.

The women in our community stepped up without hesitation to look after these tanks. It has allowed them to be more productive with their time and energy and, importantly, incidences of domestic violence have dropped as a result. Kids have felt the effects too with more time to learn and play. School enrollments have increased and we all know the importance of education in breaking the poverty cycle.

Energy saving stoves were made available to homes here too. With almost 5,000 households in the region, there is now much less reliance on forest wood for fuel. Hand in hand with the planting of trees, green cover returned to bare lands.

Rare and endemic animals and globally threatened species, like our mountain gorilla neighbours, now have much greater security in these high conservation areas.

Our partnership with authorities not only saw government agencies help us strengthen our planting efforts, but we also reached a revenue sharing agreement with the Ugandan Wildlife Authority, which is tasked with protecting the gorillas. Everybody benefits.

I've come to New York during the World Conference on Indigenous People and Climate Week to exchange ideas with other local communities working on sustainable projects, including those at the United Nations Development Programme Equator Prize.

There are so many grassroots initiatives like ours across the world, I want to go home and tell my neighbors -- human and gorilla alike -- that we are not alone on the frontlines. There are others just like us who have paused during tea time to listen and figure out the true value of the natural resources on their doorsteps.