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The paper addresses the reasons for the failure of an integrated conservation and development project (ICDP) which was implemented at the World Heritage site of Lopé-Okanda, in Gabon. The analysis is based on a framework provided by Blom et al.’s (2010) list of ‘best practices for ICDPs’. Key study outcomes stress the need to develop and integrate in project designs an understanding of political, sociocultural and economic conditions of the beneficiary area at the national, sub-national and local levels.

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The autor gratefully acknowledgement CENAREST, ANPN – Park Gabon and all key informants who participated in the study.

1The idea to link biodiversity conservation and community development has gained considerable attention over the past three decades. ‘Integrated conservation and development projects’ (ICDPs) have multiplied in African protected areas and elsewhere. Yet, since their implementation, ICDPs have raised much concern about their actual ability to meet either their conversation or human development objectives (Alpert, 1996 ; Barrett & Arcese, 1995 ; Blom, Sunderland & Murdiyarso, 2010 ; Brandon & Wells, 1992 ; Garnett, Sayer & du Toit, 2007 ; Newark & Hough, 2000). In the past few years, a new shift seems to have marked international conservation approaches, with the concepts of ‘payment for environmental services’ (PES) and of ‘reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation’ (REDD) (see Blom et al., 2010 ; Ghazoul, Butler, Mateo-Vega & Koh, 2010 ; Harvey, Dickson & Kormos, 2009 ; Tacconi, Mahanty & Suich, 2010 for a multifaceted overview on PES and REDD). While those new concepts disconnect environment conservation and rural development, they still require sub-national projects, leading Blom et al. (2010) to argue that future REDD project leaders could learn much from ICDP past experiences.

2The paper seeks to contribute to lessons learned from ICDPs by addressing the case of the ‘Ecosystem and relict cultural landscape of Lopé-Okanda’, in Gabon, Central Africa. This World Heritage (WH) site was inscribed on the UNESCO list in 2007 (, May 2013). The inscription was the outcome of a broader strategy which has aimed to conserve the biodiversity and cultural heritage of the site as well as to develop tourism in the area. Launched in the 1990ies, the strategy has until now demonstrated little success in developing tourism, even after the implementation of a twelve-year ICDP, the creation of a national park in 2002 and the WH inscription. As a result, the neighbouring communities are left with limited socioeconomic development opportunities—other development (agriculture) projects having failed as well—, a reduced access to the park and very little means to fight against crop-raiding fully-protected elephants (personal communications, 2011, 2012).

3The purpose of the paper is thus to understand the reasons of such disappointing outcomes. To achieve this, the Mikongo Conservation Center project (MCC) is analysed, using the framework provided by Blom et al (2010). MCC was implemented between 1998 and 2010 as part of the aforementioned conservation and development strategy. Its aim was to develop gorilla tourism, seeking in this way to emulate the tourist-magnetic examples of Uganda and Rwanda (Greer & Cipolletta, 2006 ; Masi, 2010). However, the experience turned out to be far less fruitful in Gabon as MCC did not meet most of its objectives (personal communication, 2011). The paper is organized in five sections. The first section briefly reviews the different approaches to conservation. Particular attention is given to the ‘integrated conservation and development’ paradigm of which MCC is representative. In the second section, Blom et al.’s (2010) analytical framework is introduced and suggested for the study of ICDPs. The section also presents the methodology used for data collection. The third section gives an overview of MCC ; it is followed by the study results in section four. In section five, the results are discussed and conclusions are drawn.

Integrated conservation and development projects

4The ‘integrated conservation and development’ (ICD) approach results from a major paradigm shift in biodiversity conservation in the 1950-1980 period. The shift finds its roots in the socioeconomic shortcomings of the classic ‘fences and fines’ approach (Blaikie & Jeanrenaud, 1997 ; Brandon & Wells, 1992 ; Brown, 2002 ; Newark & Hough, 2000). Indeed, it was increasingly acknowledged that ‘excluding people who live adjacent to protected areas from use of these resources, without providing them with alternatives (…) was (…) politically infeasible and ethically unjustifiable’ (Brandon & Wells, 1992, p. 557). Moreover, rural poverty contributed to local over-exploitation of natural resources (Stallings, 2001, p. 3). This growing awareness and the development of the sustainability thinking led to the emergence of the ICD approach which stresses complementarities between conservation and rural development, and the need for trade-offs in conservation strategies (Brown, 2002).

5Abbot et al. (2001, p. 1116) identified three strands to the ICD approach according to the rationale underlying development objectives. Development strategies could be designed (1) to compensate for the loss or restriction of access to livelihoods ; (2) to develop socioeconomic alternatives to the use of resources in protected areas ; (3) to enhance the value of such resources, with the aim to provide economic incentives for conservation (e.g., nature-based tourism). However, the effectiveness of ICDPs as well as the validity of the assumptions behind them gradually aroused concerns among scholars (Garnett et al., 2007). Researchers called for rigorous monitoring and evaluation of ICDPs (Hughes & Flintan, 2001) and the testing of hypotheses underpinning them (Brooks et al., 2006 ; Ferraro & Pattanayak, 2006 ; Garnett et al., 2007). Yet, Abbot et al. highlighted that :‘the different modes, scale and length of implementation, and the specific geographical, ecological, cultural and socioeconomic contexts in which they are implemented, make generalizations about ICDPs problematic’ (Abbot et al., 2001, p. 1116).

6Meanwhile, a new shift occurred in international conservation. The new stance moves away from the local and project-based ICD paradigm towards an approach which is global in scale (Humphreys, 2006 as cited in Blom et al., 2010) and more institutionalized (Batterbury and Fernando, 2006 ; Larson, 2005 as cited in Blom et al. 2010), such as PES and REDD. These new concepts still require the implementation of projects at a sub-national level, hence the need to develop an understanding of past ICDP experiences.

Analytical framework and data collection

7To help structure and systematize the study of MCC, the author used the analytical framework provided by Blom et al.’s (2010, pp. 167-170) list of fifteen best practices for ICDPs (see Table 1). In comparison with other ‘best practices’ or ‘lessons learned’ found in the extensive literature on ICDPs (e.g. Brooks et al., 2006 ; Hughes & Flintan, 2001 ; Newmark & Hough, 2000), Blom et al.’s (2010) list offered several advantages : (1) the list was drawn from a recent literature review ; (2) it resulted from a review which took into account the successes and failures of ICDPs and (3) the relevance of each item to REDD (Blom et al., 2010, p. 167). The list thus comprises fifteen broad principles which can be applied to the study of various types of ICDPs, regardless of their heterogeneity. The fifteen principles are introduced hereafter (see Blom et al., 2010, pp. 167-170, for a detailed discussion on each item) ; for the purpose of the paper, they were organized by the author into three categories according to their focus on : (1) intrinsic aspects of projects ; (2) community participation ; (3) and the interaction of projects with external forces (actors and other influences).

Figure 1 : Blom et al.’s (2010) list of fifteen best practices for ICDPs

Figure 1 : Blom et al.’s (2010) list of fifteen best practices for ICDPs

Best practices relating to intrinsic aspects of projects

8Seven key principles seek to respond to problems ICDPs have faced in respect of their design, monitoring process and expertise (see figure 1). A basic principle is that locally-based projects (1) ‘should be applied where [conservation] threats and solutions are local’ (Blom et al., 2010, p. 168). This implies that external threats or trends should not be overlooked when designing a project (Hughes & Flintan, 2001). Locally-based projects cannot be expected to successfully address external and landscape-scale threats (e.g., national infrastructure development, inmigration to project sites, highly organized illegal logging), for which solutions are to be found on a multi-scale level. In accordance with three other principles, a project also needs to : (2) ‘have measurable and clearly defined goals’ (Blom et al., 2010, p. 167), implying that a project design should explicitly determine the primary focus of the project—i.e. conservation or development—and formulate objectives which can be assessed objectively ; (3) have a ‘duration [which] should reflect the time commitment needed to achieve goals’ (p. 167) : some projects require a change in attitudes and behaviours, which is not always compatible with project short funding cycles ; (4) ‘recognize and acknowledge trade-offs between conservation and development’ (p. 168), and negotiate them during project planning : since such trade-offs are almost inevitable, project stakeholders should negotiate and agree on what can be acceptable for each party.

9Moreover, best practices show that projects need to (5) ‘be adaptive and flexible’ (p. 168) in their design and management in an attempt to enhance project resilience to outcomes and changes in context (see Salafsky & Margoluis, 2004 as cited in Blom et al., 2010, p. 168). Appropriate (6) ‘mechanisms [need to be provided] for monitoring and evaluation’ (Blom et al., 2010, p. 167) ; such mechanisms allow project managers to switch to adaptive management when needed. Finally, the project management team needs to (7) ‘engage in activities that [the team] knows, [and] collaborate with others for activities [it does] not’ (Blom et al., 2010, p. 169). Experience shows that ICDPs often engaged in varied activities with the aim to increase their access to funding sources. Some of these activities were undertaken without relevant expertise. As a consequence, ‘ICDPs have gained the reputation for doing many things, none of which they do particularly well’ (Robinson & Redford as cited in Blom et al., 2010, p. 169).

Best practices relating to community participation

10Local people engagement in projects is a critical issue. Since communities are heterogeneous—different social statuses according to gender, age and power—and evolve over time, it is important for the project to (8) ‘develop an understanding of community heterogeneity and complexity’ (Blom, et al., 2010, p. 168). Projects which do not address this question are subject to implementation problems such as disputes among community members for resources, an unfair distribution of project benefits, etc. Moreover, ICDPs need to (9) ‘develop an understanding of community livelihood needs’ (Blom, et al., 2010, p. 168 ; Brandon & Wells, 1992, p. 563) ; project sustainability and resilience would depend on the capability of a project of acknowledging and accounting for the livelihood needs of the local communities (Blom, et al., 2010, p. 168). In addition, ICDPs which provide (10) ‘clearly visible and sustainable community-wide benefits’ at an early stage would improve their outcomes (Blom et al., 2010, p. 169-170 ; Chan et al., 2007, as cited in Blom et al., 2007, p. 169). Based on Luttrell et al. (2007, as cited in Blom et al., 2010, p. 170), Blom et al. argue that ‘an appropriate balance between non-monetary, visible, community-wide benefits and monetary, performance-based benefits may need to be determined on a site by site basis’ (Blom et al., 2010, p. 170).

11An important issue about community benefits relates to the need for projects to provide appropriate incentives and linkages between the protected resources and the activities proposed to local people. Examples of projects which failed to create such linkages tend to show that local people feel less concerned about conservation measures (Brandon & Wells, 1992, p. 563).

12According to Blom et al. (2010) communities should be (11) ‘involve[d] in all phases of the project’. Conceptual models such as ‘adaptive governance (Brunner et al., 2005), adaptive collaborative management (Colfer, 2005) and community-based natural resource management (Fisher et al., 2005), […] allow communities to become invested and engaged in projects, which created long-term project support within the community’ (Blom et al., 2010, p. 169).

13However, Arnoldussen et al. (2008) questioned the operationality of bottom-up models in certain contexts, and in Central Africa in particular. According to the findings of their empirical studies in the region, political and sociocultural barriers would seriously prevent community-based decision-making and management from being implemented successfully.

Best practices concerning external forces which can influence projects

14As suggested by Arnoldussen et al.’s (2008) findings, external forces may condition the success of ICDPs. Blom et al. identify four principles which do not directly or entirely depend on the project. A critical issue is the overall (12) ‘support national policies give to project activities’ (Blom et al., 2010, p. 167) ; indeed, conflicting national decisions or policies may seriously impact project outcomes, e.g., logging, mining, dam construction. Furthermore, (13) ‘law enforcement is needed’ (p. 169)—e.g., to fight against encroachment, poaching, corruption—and has proved to impact considerably on the success of a project (Wells et al., 1999 as cited in Blom et al., 2010, p. 169). Regardless of competition between project leaders or stakeholders, (15) ‘collaboration should be developed with other projects’ (Blom et al., 2010, p. 169) as well as within projects, facilitating in this way experience sharing and integrated decision-making (Colfer, 2005 as cited in Blom et al., 2010, p. 169). Finally, projects which seek to create socioeconomic alternatives should identify (14) ‘real market opportunities’ (Blom et al., 2010, p. 167) before they develop products and/or services.

Data collection

15Archives form the primary information source for this study. Using Blom et al.’s (2010) list of best practices as analytical framework, the author content analysed internal reports from conservation projects and programmes (ECOFAC, Espèces Phares, Zoological Society of London) as well as academic reports (master theses) which were directly connected to MCC. The author also conducted in-depth interviews with six key informants who were involved either directly in the project, in nature conservation or in tourism development in Gabon. The interviews were held in January and February 2011 in Gabon.

The Mikongo Conservation Center Project

  • 1 A more comprehensive list of co-sponsors is available in ZSL (2008). Centre de conservation de Miko (...)

16MCC is an ecotourism ICDP which was set up at Mikongo, in the north-eastern part of the Lopé-Okanda Wildlife Reserve (LP-O). The main reasons why the site was selected to host the project included the high density of wildlife species and the possibilities the site offered for easy forest walks. Moreover, LP-O is one of the first and most accessible protected areas in the country (originally a wildlife hunting reserve founded in 1946 under the French colonial government). MCC was initiated in 1997 within the scope of a larger project called ‘Projet Vision de la Faune’ (Zoological Society of London (ZSL), 2008). Major financial backers encompassed ECOFAC (‘Programme régional de conservation et valorisation des Ecosystèmes Forestiers d’Afrique Centrale’), the Gabonese ‘Département de la faune et de la chasse’ and the US Peace corps1.

17The aim of MCC was to develop gorilla ecotourism, the revenues of which would have benefited the local communities and contributed to the funding of management activities in the LP-O (RAPAC, 2005, p. 72). Gorilla ecotourism would have diversified tourist supply in the LP-O. Once launched tourist activities were meant to be taken over by private investors. In concrete terms, MCC involved habituating gorillas, building tourist and research facilities (a tourist camp, a camp for researchers and a camp for guides and trackers), training trackers and tourist guides as well as developing and managing tourist activities. The habituation process started in 1999, and the first tourists came in 2001 before habituation had reached completion. First project outcomes were rather positive as tourists could participate to gorilla tracking and were able to see the gorillas, the site gained a good reputation. Yet, the project team could not find any private buyer for the tourist facilities and activities (ECOFAC, 2003).

18Consequently, MCC was extended several times (see figure 2), which implied repeated changes in management schemes and funding sources (ZSL, 2008). The project gradually revealed its weaknesses : Habituating western lowland gorillas turned out to be far more difficult than expected at the outset of the project ; gorillas became aggressive, leading the project team to cease gorilla watching activities and offer alternative guided walks in the rainforest. In 2005 the ZSL (ZSL) and the official authority of the LP-O (which had meanwhile become a national park) took over the project ownership. The ZSL raised increased concern about the economic viability of MCC tourist activities (ZSL, 2008), and eventually decided to stop the project in 2010. The project had neither achieved its habituation objectives nor succeeded in developing an economically viable tourism product (personal communication, February 2011).

Figure 2 : The three stages of the MCC project

Figure 2 : The three stages of the MCC project

MCC successes and failures

19MCC satisfied four of Blom et al.’s (2010) fifteen principles ; four others were partly satisfied, and six were not satisfied (see figure 3). Based on Arnoldussen et al.’s (2008) findings, the author decided to analyse but not assess the project in respect of the principle which required the community to be involved in all phases. As will be highlighted hereafter, the study revealed major weaknesses in the project. Firstly, MCC failed to provide clear and sustained community-wide benefits, and to develop an understating of the complexity of the community. Secondly, its goals were not translated into measurable objectives, and involved too much risk. Thirdly, the project engaged in activities for which it did not have any expertise, i.e., tourism development, community participation. Fourthly, the project design did not take into account national and sub-national barriers to law enforcement and tourism development.

Project design, management and team expertise

20In comparison with other gorilla tourism development schemes, for instance those in Uganda and Rwanda, MCC did not directly aim to protect gorillas. Given the possible impacts of habituation and tourism on gorillas (Blomley et al., 2010 ; Homsey, 1999 ; Hodgkinson & Cipolletta, 2009), the whole project represents a trade-off between conservation and development. The primary goal of MCC was to enhance the economic value of the LP-O, and thus contribute to the legitimacy of protected areas at the national and sub-national levels. Gorillas were chosen for their potential to attract international visitors and create in this way a flagship tourism product (Gami, 1999). Whether—and to what extent—the project would have benefited local conservation if it had been a success is not known ; several external variables would need to be taken into account to answer the question : effectiveness of tourism and park management ; model of profits redistribution, effectiveness of anti-poaching efforts, political response to opportunity costs, etc.

  • 2 This added difficulties in comparison with humid forest the swamps of which were used in tracking p (...)

21MCC was one of a few pilot projects undertaken with the aim to habituate western lowland gorillas. The activities it engaged in were totally new. Knowledge about the behaviour of western lowland gorillas in the wild was scarce at the time, and there were few similarities with mountain gorilla habituation (Bermejo, 2005 ; Doran-Sheehy et al., 2007 ; Graziani, 2005). Although a group of western lowland gorillas had already been habituated at Lossi, Congo Republic, conditions for habituation at Lossi turned out to have been exceptionally favourable (Gami, 1999). The experience of Bai Hokou (Central African Republic) and Mondika Research Centre (Congo Republic) showed that the expertise of trackers (often Ba’Aka) and an adapted tracking protocol had been decisive in the success of habituation at both sites (Doran-Sheehy et al., 2007 ; Masi, 2010). Yet, Bermejo, primatologist, stressed the difficult tracking conditions at Mikongo (primary forest2) and questioned the expertise of MCC trackers (Bermejo, 2005). Habituation still remains largely unforeseeable as it can take years to identify a potential group of gorillas (Doran-Sheehy et al., 2007).

22It is also believed that tourist activities started too early at MCC, before completion of habituation. While this was not a problem at the first stage of the habituation process (as gorillas showed curiosity about human presence), it soon became one at the second stage : (1) tourist participation in tracking is believed to have hindered habituation as trackers were sometimes prompted by tourists to disregard the protocol and extend contact with the primates (Bermejo, 2005) ; (2) when gorilla tourist activities had to be stopped for safety reasons, the tourist product changed and offered a more general experience of the primary forest. This caused dissatisfaction among tourists who still came to watch gorillas in the wild. Moreover, the new product based on less charismatic elements required particularly high interpretation skills. According to a key informant, the MCC guides never achieved such a level of skills despite training sessions by tourism consultants and professionals in 2001-2002 and in 2009 (personal communication, February 2011). Tourism operations and relationships with local people were supervised by scientists or volunteers who had neither expertise nor experience in the tourism sector or in community participation. The need for such specialists was highlighted by the ZSL, who considered it a key requirement to improve product quality, development and marketing as well as community participation (ZSL, 2008 ; personal communication, February 2011).

23The goals of MCC were clearly identified from the beginning : to habituate gorillas, develop gorilla-based tourist activities, and distribute tourism revenues to the community adjacent to the project and to the authorities of the LP-O. However, those goals were not translated into measurable terms (Rapac, 2005 ; Bermejo, 2005), as recommended in best practices. While this is understandable as regards gorilla habituation—given the lack of knowledge on western lowland gorilla habituation at the time—, this could have been possible with respect to tourism objectives. Measurable objectives as well as management tools—e.g., a business plan—could have helped project coordinators to evaluate the outcomes which could have been expected at different stages of the project. They also would have determined the conditions (visitor numbers, prices, organization and diversification of visits, etc.) the project should have satisfied to achieve economic viability.

24One question which needs to be asked is whether economic viability ever was an objective. ECOFAC’s 2003 report was not clear on the issue. Although ECOFAC reported a deficit up to 36,500 Euros on tourist activities (USD 51,500) (ECOFAC, 2003, p. 68), it found the outcomes encouraging and regarded the absence of potential investor as surprising (ECOFAC, 2003, p. 68). However, ECOFAC also expressed concern about barriers impairing tourism development in Central Africa, and questioned its role in such projects : Should ECOFAC have sought private investors before implementing projects or was ECOFAC expected to take risks and prove that such projects were worthy of investors’ interest (ECOFAC, 2003, p. 41). Despite its concern about the economic viability of MCC (French, 2009 ; ZSL, 2008), the ZSL faced similar difficulties when the organisation had to decide whether it would stop the project. The question was : Should a conservation project be self-supporting even if based on tourism ? And, if it doesn’t need to, who should or could fund it, how, and why (personal communication, February 2011) ? No external support was found to fund tourist activities the last few years of the project ; those activities relied on funds initially dedicated to habituation and research (ZSL, 2008 ; personal communication, February 2011).

  • 3 Blom defines minimum park management as the ‘absolute minimum management option, that would allow f (...)
  • 4 Effective park management is defined by Blom as management that enables the area to at least mainta (...)
  • 5 These additional costs exactly cover start-up costs, replacement costs, technical assistance costs, (...)

25Another objective was not defined in measurable terms : the level of possible and desired contribution of MCC to park management costs. Using Blom’s (2004) estimated ‘costs of an effective system of protected areas’ in the Congo Basin, French showed that—with its 2008 rates, capacity and at full occupancy rate—MCC could have contributed to 24 % of the costs of LP-O minimum park management3, 7 % if park management was effective4, and 3 % if additional costs5 were included (i.e., start-up, monitoring, and opportunity costs such as financial compensation for foregone community-wide revenues) (French, 2009, p. 46). However, Rwanda and Uganda examples indicate that MCC contribution could have been enhanced if gorilla viewing had been more or less guaranteed (see Hatfield & Malleret-King, 2007 ; Nielsen & Spenceley, 2010).

26MCC lasted twelve years in total. This rather long duration misrepresents time spent dealing with renewals : assessment, design of new project schemes, approval by financial backers, funding (see figure 2). MCC stakeholders, such as ECOFAC (2003) and ZSL (personal communication, February 2011) highlighted that the project goals, i.e., gorilla habituation, conservation and tourism development, were too ambitious for short-term projects, and some emphasized the need for a 10-year projects with mid-term assessment (ECOFAC, 2003, p. 9). Although no measurable objective was clearly defined, monitoring and evaluation mechanisms were in place for both habituation and tourism goals. However, those mechanisms changed several times as each new project coordinator implemented her/his own approach (Graziani, 2005 ; Venturoli et al., 2005).

27MCC was able to adapt its project design to new situations, for instance, it was decided to separate tourism and habituation activities, to close a tourist camp, to organize training sessions for guides. However, this flexibility does not seem to have been planned from the start ; no plan B was found in archival reports. Moreover, some political and/or sociocultural barriers, which could have been predicted, were not integrated from the start in the project design. This had unfortunate consequences : As the government delayed the adoption of regulations as regards revenue sharing with the local communities (ECOFAC, 2003), the latter started to express negative feelings about MCC, the motivation of local employees gradually decreased and researchers were physically harassed by some local community members (personal communication, February 2011). The project eventually adapted its design and helped local people to develop tourist activities—i.e., handicrafts, dance shows, culinary tastings ; this succeeded in reducing frustrations but never really solved the problem (personal communication, February 2011).

Figure 3 : MCC’s successes and failures

Figure 3 : MCC’s successes and failures

Community participation

28Archival reports and interviews provided no information as concerns community involvement in decision-making at the design stage of the project. Attempts to set up community-based tourist activities (e.g., dance shows, culinary tastings) were only made at the end of the project. Reports and interviews left an impression that community participation was essentially operationalized by formulating financial objectives (i.e., a share in tourism revenues and jobs) (ECOFAC, 2003 ; personal communication, February 2011). It is worth noting that other ICDPs initiated by ECOFAC in Central Africa showed that an increase in rural communities’ purchasing power did not necessarily contribute to community development ; revenues were sometimes used to buy alcohol and other ‘nonessential’ commodities (ECOFAC, 2003, p. 8). On the other hand, community-based management proved to be very difficult to implement in Gabon—not to say inappropriate. Decentralization of power took years to be introduced in Gabon, and the option chosen by the national authorities does not give any legal basis for community-based management (personal communication, January 2011). Moreover, according to the director of a national conservation NGO in Gabon, rural communities would not be ready for such model of governance. Several interviewees highlighted that rural communities often lacked a sense of ownership, considering themselves as beneficiaries (i.e., salaried employees) rather than actors in projects (Prunier, 2006 ; personal communication, January-February 2011).

29The government delay in adopting regulations, the lack of reliability from partners or employees as well as the problems encountered in implementing community participation tend to show that too much might have been expected from the national institutions and local partners. MCC failed to develop an understanding of social, sociopolitical and sociocultural aspects of the local community. Whereas the project understood the livelihood needs of local people (ECOFAC, 2003), it could not—neither wanted to—satisfy those needs. MCC was designed to first serve a conservation strategy ; job creation and tourism revenues were perceived as incentives for national and sub-national engagement in conservation measures. The benefits of ECOFAC’s development strategy for the community were not clear compared to what local people expected from the project. The analysis of archival reports and interviews reveals a discrepancy between those expectations, which were based on what the logging industry provided in neighbouring villages (e.g., medical and education centres and supplies), and the planned objectives of sharing tourism revenues (ECOFAC, 2003 ; personal communication, February 2011).

  • 6 A respondent who was involved in the governance of protected areas at the time of the project expla (...)

30ECOFAC and MCC were thus in a situation in which, on the one hand, the protected areas were promoted as development opportunities6, on the other hand, the proposed ICDPs could not fully meet local people’s expectations, and their basic needs in particular. Moreover, linking community benefits to the revenues/profits generated by tourist activities had three consequences : (1) benefits could not be provided during the initial phases of the project as revenues were low and there were no profits ; (2) revenue/profit distribution depended on a third party (for the adoption of new regulations), hence could not be totally guaranteed by MCC ; (3) sustaining benefits constituted a challenge, especially in a country where tourism development remained at an embryonic stage.

MCC and external influences

31Despite the magnetic pulling power of gorillas over tourists, reaching potential markets was a key issue. Gabon had serious weaknesses. At the time of the project, the country did not have a clear national strategy for tourism development, and basic (roads, water, electricity and transport) and tourism infrastructures were poorly developed. ECOFAC took actions to enhance market opportunities : Workshops were organized with national inbound and foreign outbound travel agents and tour operators ; and MCC was promoted at tourism trade fairs (De Mérode, Bermejo & Illera, 2001). The number of visitors increased in the early years of the project, but things changed once tour operators and tourists realized that gorilla viewing could not be guaranteed and offered. In 2008 a new promotion campaign and the release of a tourist guidebook on Gabon positively impacted visitor numbers, with an increase of 189 % in the number of independent travellers. However, the occupancy rate of the MCC camp remained low with 21 % (French, 2009, p. 42) for total revenues of XAF 54,622,351 (Eur 83,000 or USD 118,000) and no profit (ZSL, 2008, p. 11).

32Legal issues, such as the lack of an officially and legally approved model for tourism concession contracts, constituted barriers to private investment (personal communications, February 2011). Gaps in the law and weak law enforcement also created a challenging operating environment (ECOFAC, 2003 ; personal communication, February, 2011). For instance, there was no legal status for guides and park permits. Moreover, the presence of the project team in the park, including international NGOs, seems to have prompted the authorities to neglect their park management and patrolling responsibilities : In 2003 only six guards were assigned to the LP-O (4,900 km²) while they were eleven at the beginning of the project (ECOFAC, 2003, p. 7). Deeper reasons could also help understand the lack of human resources in national parks. Indeed, Nkoghé (2006) argues that anthropological, sociological and psychological barriers prevent Gabon citizens to work in rural areas, and keep rural inhabitants from working in an unknown and financially not attractive tourism sector (in comparison with the extractive or timber industry). Even though the project team, by its very presence, had a deterrent effect on encroachment into the north-eastern section of the park (Venturoli et al., 2005), the withdrawal of forest guards caused concern as regards the protection which would be given to future habituated gorillas after the end of the project (personal communication, February 2011).

33In order to develop a common framework for legal and law enforcement issues (e.g., follow-up on park permits), MCC tried to build synergies with other tourism projects and national parks in the country. According to a key informant, those attempts were unsuccessful as some partners were reluctant to the idea of establishing control mechanisms (personal communication, February 2011). MCC was also involved in other networks with the aim to facilitate and benefit from shared knowledge and experience. One example is the ‘Réseau des Aires Protégées d’Afrique Centrale’ (RAPAC), through which MCC could, among others, collaborate with another gorilla habituation scheme, at Lossi Sanctuary in the Congo Republic (Bermejo, 2005 ; Mbété et al. 2007).

34National support to conservation and ecotourism evolved during the time the project was in place. The creation in 2002 of thirteen national parks is often pointed out by the authorities as a major step forward (, 2011). However, as was stressed by informants from the Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux (ANPN – Park Gabon), national parks were totally new tools for the authorities and the people. It took a certain time for them to fully understand what parks implied in terms of regulations, access, governance, management, etc. (personal communication, February 2011). Stakes were high politically and economically, with the consequences that the legal act creating the national parks was only adopted in 2007 ; five years after the president announced their creation (personal communication, January 2011).


35The paper has aimed to develop an understanding of the reasons why ICDPs implemented in Gabon, and in the LP-O in particular, achieved disappointing outcomes with regard to (tourism) development. To this end the author used Blom et al.’s (2010) ‘list of best practices for ICDPs’ and analysed the 12-year long MCC gorilla tourism ICDP, which ended in 2010 and met few of its objectives. The study has shown that MCC satisfied only part of Blom et al.’s (2010) principles. The lessons learned allow for some general implications for coordinators of conservation and/or development projects.

36Firstly, the case of MCC has shown that project goals relied on too many assumptions and involved too much risk. Considering the unpredictability of gorilla habituation, the multiple barriers to tourism development in the country and the sociopolitical and sociocultural challenges of rural development, the project appears to have taken up far too many challenges at once. Setting up realistic objectives should therefore be a basic principle when designing such projects. Tourism development objectives could have been disconnected from gorilla habituation in a first phase, focusing on the development of local skills, for instance, on the management of tourism SMEs and the tourism interpretation of cultural and natural heritage. Secondly, as highlighted by Blom et al. (2010), the project should involve experts for each of the main components of the project. The MCC team had experts in primates and rainforest biology, but it did not have any expert in tourism product management nor in rural development or in community participation. Thirdly, the vested interests of each party impacted by the project should be clearly identified and taken into consideration. MCC suffered from conflicts with the local community, from the lack of reliability of some employees, from structural barriers impairing legal reforms and enforcement. All this suggests that MCC did not develop a full understanding of the different interest groups impacted by the project, including at the national and sub-national levels. In order to identify strategic interest groups, project coordinators could make use of analytical frameworks designed and applied by rural development organisations (see de Sardan, 2003 for an example of such framework applied in Africa).

37The study has also raised questions with regard to the practicality of community participation in conservation and/or development projects in Central Africa. This led the author to attach less importance to Blom et al.’s (2010) principle, advocating the need for an involvement of ‘the community in all phases of the project’. The issue certainly deserves more attention. While involving local communities in decision-making, project planning, monitoring and evaluation (Blom et al., 2010, p. 169) has been supported by many, theoretical and empirical studies tend to show that the participatory approach suffers from severe limitations in Central Africa (Arnoldussen et al., 2008) and in other developing countries (Tosun, 2000). Tosun highlighted that barriers are operational, structural and cultural (see Tosun, 2000, for a discussion on those barriers) ; implementing a participatory approach ‘requires a total change in socio-political, legal and economic structure of developing countries (…) a change in attitudes and behavior of decision-makers to deal with hitherto excluded, which may lead to new patterns of distributing power and controlling resources’ (Tosun, 2000, p. 628).

38A very basic question—but which still needs to be asked—emerges out the considerations above : Should we expect from conservation and/or development projects to change the societies in which they are implemented ? Or should project design and incentives be adapted to the prevailing political, social and economic conditions in the beneficiary countries and communities ? In the MCC project, community participation was limited to a share in the benefits of tourism development. However, there is no empirical evidence that this narrow approach of community participation was one of the reasons why MCC failed to establish good relationships with the local community. Indeed, conflicts rather focused on revenues which had not been distributed as was planned in the project design.

39In conclusion, Blom et al.’s (2010) list of fifteen best practices for ICDPs has proved to be useful to identify the reasons for the failure of an ICDP. A critical issue was the capacity of a project team to develop an understanding of the political, cultural and economic conditions in beneficiary countries and local communities. This has two implications as concerns Blom et al.’s (2010) framework as well as the design and management of conservation and/or development projects. Firstly, the design of such projects would need to take those conditions into consideration when determining project objectives and suggesting implementation strategies and mechanisms. The scope of Blom et al’s (2010) principle would need to be extended and include the national and sub-national levels. Secondly, the understanding of those conditions could reveal itself useful to consider whether a participatory approach is appropriate or not, and establish or not the relevance of Blom et al.’s (2010) community participation principle in the context under scrutiny. The above conclusions would need to be tested and developed in future research. Finally, there would also be a need to devise time- and cost effective tools capable of collecting and analysing such data, tools similar to the ECRIS method (de Sardan, 2003) but with a wider scope.

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1 A more comprehensive list of co-sponsors is available in ZSL (2008). Centre de conservation de Mikongo, Bilan financier 2005-2008, unpublished, pp3-5.

2 This added difficulties in comparison with humid forest the swamps of which were used in tracking protocol at Mondika Research Centre (Doran-Sheehy et al., 2007).

3 Blom defines minimum park management as the ‘absolute minimum management option, that would allow for a permanent presence and possibly protection of core areas’ (Blom, 2004, p. 2667).

4 Effective park management is defined by Blom as management that enables the area to at least maintain ‘its species assemblages and at such densities as to allow them to fulfill their ecological function, except for natural fluctuations, extinctions or additions’ (Blom, 2004, p. 2664).

5 These additional costs exactly cover start-up costs, replacement costs, technical assistance costs, national institutes overhead, survey costs, monitoring and evaluation costs and local opportunity costs (Blom, 2004, p. 2669-2673). ‘Opportunity costs are defined as foregone potential revenue that could be generated by converting protected areas to alternative land-uses such as logging, mining or agriculture’ (Blom, 2004, p. 2672).

6 A respondent who was involved in the governance of protected areas at the time of the project explained that national parks were presented in some areas as being a major development opportunity capable of reversing rural exodus (personal communication, January 2011).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1 : Blom et al.’s (2010) list of fifteen best practices for ICDPs
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Titre Figure 2 : The three stages of the MCC project
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Titre Figure 3 : MCC’s successes and failures
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Isabelle Cloquet, « Integrating tourism development projects at Gabon protected natural sites: Lessons learned from an aborted attempt », Via [En ligne], 4-5 | 2014, mis en ligne le 26 octobre 2014, consulté le 01 décembre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Isabelle Cloquet

Laboratoire Interdisciplinaire Tourisme, Territoires et Sociétés, IGEAT - Université Libre de Bruxelles

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