After reviving fish and forests, Jola villages tackle new threats

Reviving traditions

Thirteen years ago, this community was indebted and hungry, with overfishing, rising saltwater levels and rampant deforestation of mangroves contributing to a downward spiral.

Fishermen began to talk amongst themselves. What had gone so wrong? Why were the fish that 90 percent of families depended upon suddenly so scarce?

They began consultations with others in the community: oyster pickers, village elders, wholesale fish merchants, and farmers. All reported that their methods had changed significantly since their grandparents’ era.

Where their elders had used cotton fibers, now fishers were dragging huge nylon nets along the riverbed, sweeping up all marine life in sight. People were cutting oysters off at the root, whatever their size, and the bivalves never grew back. They had started gathering wood to sell outside the village, and simply chopped down trees as they pleased.

Before long, the 12,000 residents of the rural municipality realized their elders’ insistence on respecting certain rules within the natural environment may not have been as quaint as they thought.

Map shows the location of Mangagoulack in the Casamance region of Senegal. Image courtesy of Google Maps.

They formed an association of fishermen in 2006 with the aim of formalizing some of the traditions they had relearned, along with new regulations to reflect the presence of motorized boats.

Four years later, the group joined a global consortium of ICCAs, a quasi-acronym denoting traditional lands conserved by indigenous and local community groups, and adopted the moniker “Kawawana ICCA” for general use. Kawawana is an abbreviation of “our local heritage to be preserved by us all” in the local Jola language. By then, the group had extended far beyond its base of fishermen to represent almost every family, and all the territory, of the eight villages in the 97-square-kilometer (37-square-mile) municipality of Mangagoulack.

“We raised awareness in the villages, to make people understand the creation of our association,” Bassirou Diatta, who is now secretary of Kawawana, said as he repaired a net in front of his home one afternoon this past August.

“At the beginning it was difficult, but we knew we had to be united, to keep talking and to practice what we preached. We also had to include the state, including the mayor, and the forestry and fishing agencies,” he added.

The community drew up a code of conduct for every aspect of human interaction with the river, trees and farmland, constantly maintaining a commitment to consensual decision-making.

A fisherman pulls in a barracuda at sunset on the waters of the Casamance River, accompanied by an apprentice. Image by Jennifer O’Mahony for Mongabay.
A fisherman pulls in a barracuda at sunset on the waters of the Casamance River, accompanied by an apprentice. Image by Jennifer O’Mahony for Mongabay.

First, the fishermen divided up the bolongs, or channels, in the Casamance River. Some were reserved for residents only, while one, the Tendouck bolong, was open to all but subject to restrictions. The Mitij bolong, an area residents regard as sacred, was closed to all fishing activities in order to avoid angering its protective spirits and allow fish to breed there. Its entrance was marked with fetishes placed by women who are feared and respected in the community for their assumed ability to communicate with these spirits.

The Jola ethnic group, which is concentrated in Casamance, has long followed animist traditions alongside Islam or Christianity. In this way, the community used the ancient traditions of the region to demarcate territory and scare off potential invaders. A council of elders mediates disputes with fishermen who poach illegally in the community.

Next, Kawawana banned nylon nets and the use of motors in the fishing areas, respectively for causing overfishing and for disturbing species while mating.

Then they pledged to resist taking NGO money, after seeing so many initiatives in the region fall through when outside funding or interest waned. Kawawana, they vowed, would be entirely independent from the government or any local or foreign organization.

Kawawana did accept $46,000 from the Global Environment Facility and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) following its inception, as well as some small donations from other sources, but now operates independently. The UNDP awarded Kawawana its Equator Prize for sustainable development in 2012.

Kawawana also set about replanting trees in areas where mangroves had started to retreat due to tree felling and to rising saltwater levels brought on mainly by climate change, targeting 19 hectares (47 acres) in 2008. They refurbished ancient anti-salt dikes that redirected freshwater so that villagers could keep growing rice. They talked to women who kept cutting wood and told them it could only be used within the village, and not sold for profit.

A map uses red to show the sacred Mitij bolong, or channel, where Kawawana has prohibited fishing; tan to show bolongs reserved for fishing by Mangagoulack residents; and yellow to show the Tendouck bolong, where anyone can fish if they follow certain restrictions. Image courtesy of Kawawana ICCA.
A map uses red to show the sacred Mitij bolong, or channel, where Kawawana has prohibited fishing; tan to show bolongs reserved for fishing by Mangagoulack residents; and yellow to show the Tendouck bolong, where anyone can fish if they follow certain restrictions. Image courtesy of Kawawana ICCA.

Older women, who collect, grill and sell oysters to boost household incomes, also adapted their methods to allow the prized mollusks to regrow. They limited their harvest season and enforced the practice of leaving small oysters behind, rather than cutting them all off the mangrove roots they cling to.

By 2012, the river was full of fish once again, including some species that had disappeared when the village elders were young, and oysters were plentiful among the mangroves. Before long, otters, dolphins, crocodiles, pelicans, larks and cormorants could be seen dipping and diving in the river’s waters, feeding on the fish.

“The population was really relieved to see the fish return and to have a bit of money to spend, especially on our kids. We needed that to send them to school,” said Kawawana secretary Diatta.

Oyster collectors also saw a difference in their family finances. “When Kawawana appeared, things started to resemble how they were before,” said Dienaba Diedhiou, an oyster collector in her 70s, as her grandchildren played at her feet. “People started to harvest them properly.”

“I can earn 1,000 CFA [$1.76] per pot, and I collect 15 or 20 per day. Before, people didn’t respect the rules on the seasons and it was hard to get that,” she said.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

South Africa Today – Environment


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