New Vision for National Parks Brings Peace to War-Torn Communities, Transcends Politics


By Russ Feingold

Peace in the African nation of Mozambique is within reach, and there is, in part, a national park to thank for it. Gorongosa National Park, which was declared a “Peace Park” by the President of Mozambique on August 1, 2019, is healing war-torn communities, protecting Africa’s natural resources, and offering a new model for nature conservation in the 21st century. 

Gorongosa National Park, known as the “Jewel of Mozambique,” was created in 1960, while the African nation was under Portuguese rule. Studies of the park in the late 1960s revealed an abundance and diversity of wildlife, and biologist E.O. Wilson called Gorongosa the most ecologically diverse park in the world. But over the next 30 years, Gorongosa would become a shadow of itself.

Soon after Mozambique won its independence from Portugal in 1975, war tore through the country. The fifteen-year Mozambican Civil War turned Gorongosa into a battlefield. The armed rebel group entrenched themselves in the resource-laden landscape of Gorongosa, killing large animals for food, exchanging ivory tusks for arms, and burying landmines to deter trespassers.

As the nation recovered in the years after the war, poverty became the biggest threat to Gorongosa. Surrounded by small, impoverished villages, and suffering from minimal oversight, the park’s forests were logged for timber, poachers stalked what little wildlife remained, and farmland began to encroach inside the park boundaries. 

In 2004, the Gorongosa Restoration Project launched as a partnership by the Mozambican government and the US-based Carr Foundation to heal rifts in the community, lift people out of poverty, transcend political disputes, and restore the national park.

And it’s working.

On August 1, Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi and the leaders of the opposition chose Gorongosa National Park as the location of the “Gorongosa Accord, which outlines a definitive cease-fire between the two groups and opens the door for several hundred fighters who live inside the park (with their families) to disarm and reintegrate into society. 

Gorongosa National Park has offered to employ the reintegrated fighters (and family members) with positions in construction, coffee production on Mount Gorongosa (a business venture that is helping to support the community while reforesting a section of the park), and farming. Some may be trained as park rangers, protecting the wildlife in a park that was once their battlefield. Gorongosa’s leadership team knows that to find success in the park, they need to raise the fortunes of everyone around it. To that end, the staff spends more time and money outside the park than inside its boundaries.

Gorongosa National Park provides healthcare for more than 100,000 people each year and supports 50 local schools with its signature “Girls Club,” an after-school club that helps keep at-risk girls in school and out of early marriages. The park has plans to build 100 primary schools for over 40,000 children and is committed to gender equality with a goal of employing females as one-half of their workforce.

The success in the community mirrors biological success within the park. In just 14 years of smart and passionate effort, wildlife numbers have rebounded and, in some instances, surpassed the populations recorded the late 1960s. 

Embracing the lessons learned from Gorongosa in other parts of the world could be helpful as nations discuss significantly increasing land and marine protection globally. Earlier this year, a major report from 150 leading scientists showed that up to a million species are threatened with extinction, many within decades, and that the threats posed to people from the destruction of nature are just as serious as those posed by climate change. 

In response, countries are working through an international treaty called the Convention on Biological Diversity to develop a global deal that can be approved in the fall of 2020. To be successful, scientists and experts have said that this deal must include transformative actions and commitments, including a new goal of protecting at least 30 percent of the planet’s lands and waters by 2030 - essentially twice as much land and four times as much ocean as is currently protected. 

We have the opportunity to utilize Gorongosa National Park as a model for a new type of national park in growing nations, one that protects biodiversity while driving economic growth and helping to heal rifts in a divided community. 

In Mozambique, Gorongosa is relied upon to help to keep the peace. From the ashes of civil war, the landscape is rising to the task. Around the world, we can rise with it.

Russ Feingold represented Wisconsin in the United States Senate from 1993 to 2011 and was a member and chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Subcommittee on African Affairs. Feingold was also U.S. Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region of Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo from 2013 to 2015.