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.
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.

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.

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.

Enforcing the rules

After a few short years of plenty, however, Mangagoulack’s next wave of problems began.

Sitting outside his home on a plastic chair as his cellphone rang incessantly, Mamina Goudiaby, Kawawana’s president, explained how the association became a victim of its own success.

“There was a drastic change, and some people started fishing for the first time,” he said. Amateurs began showing up in the bolongs to catch a few fish to sell, without the training or techniques needed to protect the environment.

Meanwhile, professional fishermen with bigger boats from as far as northern Senegal and neighboring Guinea-Bissau had also got wind of Kawawana’s success, having exhausted their own stocks back home. They fished indiscriminately in the old way, threatening the gains made in the villagers’ livelihood.

So Kawawana began to form the second phase of its strategy: surveillance.

After the group paid for its members’ training with the state fisheries agency, Kawawana was allowed to patrol its waters to halt and fine offenders operating without a license or breaking the ICCA’s rules.

“If we catch someone in the Mitij bolong, we confiscate all his equipment and the fish, and he could face a fine of 300,000 CFA [$530]. We would keep all his equipment for three months,” Diatta said.

The motorboat Kawawana uses for surveillance. Fishing by outsiders in restricted areas or using prohibited gear remains an issue. Image by Jennifer O’Mahony for Mongabay.

Grazia Borrini-Feyerabend, global coordinator for the Switzerland-based ICCA Consortium, worked with Kawawana to organize zoning of the area and gain state approval for its plans. She told Mongabay the level of authority afforded to the association was highly unusual.

“They have more power in surveillance and in blockage of operations than I have ever seen, and in many countries,” she said. “It’s very rare that agents who are not state agents are allowed to apprehend violators and even sequester their goods.”

For this, the group occasionally received death threats. Nonetheless, it persisted, drawing on the expertise of a biodiversity division founded in 2009 that regularly counts and monitors the presence of fish and animal species, along with rainfall and salt levels.

In 2012, the division found that fish numbers had increased fourfold at certain monitoring points, and saltwater levels had declined substantially.

After receiving outside training from French conservationists, the division also began to monitor deforestation, complaining to the state forestry agency if it found evidence of illegal wood cutting.

Then the oyster collectors began targeting women who were permanently damaging the oyster beds, imposing fines on those who harvested indiscriminately or otherwise ignored the Kawawana rules. “We tax those who do these things, not out of spite but to teach them to follow the recommendations,” Aissatou Sambou, president of the Kawawana oyster collectors’ division, said with a frown.

Oysters cling to the roots of the mangroves in the waters of the Casamance River. Image by Jennifer O’Mahony for Mongabay.

But the poaching problem persists today, and is a microcosm of the wider pillaging of Senegalese waters by foreign trawlers. A 2014 paper in the journal Fisheries Research estimated that Senegal was losing $300 million annually — roughly 2 percent of its GDP — to illegal fishing.

Although fish are still plentiful in Mangagoulack, the number of people fishing in the waters remains much higher than capacity, and they are often motivated by profit rather than sustenance.

Alassane Diedhiou, a fisherman close to retirement, gave his gloomy assessment: “There is still a big threat,” he said. “We have fish but the number of people fishing has increased massively compared with before. We are close to returning to how things were.”

The fishermen of Kawawana only fish at night, as their cotton nets are visible to fish during the day, and rest during daylight hours, leaving the river waters vulnerable. Goudiaby, Kawawana’s president, said poachers from Casamance’s largest city, Ziguinchor, fished “from morning until night,” often using banned monofilament nets.

In 2016, the fishermen lost one of their two motorized surveillance boats in a storm, and have been unable to raise the money to replace it.

New threats

Beyond their battles with outsiders, Kawawana is facing two other severe threats, one from an incomplete dam, and the other from changing attitudes to traditional lifestyles in the community.

In 1980, construction ended on the dam close to the Kawawana-affiliated village of Affiniam, with Chinese investment. Never properly finished, it rapidly raised the level of salt in the water along nearby riverbanks, effectively ruining the surrounding rice fields and drinking-water wells.

In the Kawawana-affiliated village of Bodé, further downriver, a blind village elder explained the repercussions he had observed over four decades, as his granddaughter clutched his left hand: “On the banks were orchards, wells and rice fields, but today people are complaining that all this has disappeared and that their livelihoods are gone because of the dam,” said Ousmane Soumaré. “Eighty percent of people here don’t have land to cultivate rice. People here used to grow rice in the same way as other communities. We would only eat imported rice in the rainy season.”

Drinking water was usually collected by children, but now requires a mile-long round trip, he added.

Climate change has only exacerbated the problem in the intervening years, leaving the villagers with few options but to increase their living costs by purchasing imported food.

Casamance was traditionally seen as the “bread basket” of Senegal, where everyone once produced enough to eat. However, rising saltwater levels have put Casamance under threat, compounded by the loss of income from a tourism industry that has yet to recover from a long-simmering separatist conflict. The country as a whole is even worse off; this year, 357,000 Senegalese are in a “crisis situation” regarding food, mostly in the drought-hit north, according to the U.N.’s World Food Programme.

A visit to Senegal this summer by Chinese President Xi Jinping had raised hopes the dam’s problems would finally be corrected, but for now improvements remain a rumor.

“The dam deprives us of many things and has done a lot of damage, and so people complain, and they’re right to do that,” said Mangagoulack Mayor Ousmane Diedhiou. Two visits from the agriculture minister have yielded nothing, he said.

Mamina Goudiaby, president of Kawawana, in front of his home. Image by Jennifer O’Mahony for Mongabay.

Beyond the dam, Kawawana is also suffering as ambitious and better-educated young people turn away from farming, fishing and other manual occupations in the hope of working for the government, or at the very least in an air-conditioned office in the capital. Most of the fishermen and oyster collectors who founded the association are close to retirement, while some have since died. All are acutely aware of the need for fresh blood in their movement.

For this they turn to Mayor Diedhiou, who at 35 is one of few authority figures close in age to the teenagers in the community who may be plotting their exit to a big city. He organizes outreach sessions each summer during the school holidays to hear youth concerns, and to persuade them to give rural life a chance.

“We really have to sit down with young people and stop them from leaving us. We are an area that is overflowing with talent, but that potential is not tapped,” he said.

“For most young people, if you don’t live in a big city like Dakar or Ziguinchor that’s failure, and it’s not true. There are people who live here and live successful lives,” he added. “In the cities most of these people are working as security guards, which is a precarious job that barely pays, they earn maybe 50,000 CFA [$90] a month.

Almost 6,000 Senegalese arrived by boat in Italy last year, typically after enduring a Saharan crossing in a smuggler’s truck, and the threat of kidnap and enslavement in Libya.

Strength in numbers

Although persuading youth to come back to the land remains a sticking point, the Kawawana model has spread fast across Casamance and into neighboring countries, offering the original community a potential lifeline.

In 2012, the KaBeKa (short for “We organize to protect ourselves” in Jola) advocacy group was founded, with the aim of coordinating indigenous conservation groups and encouraging dialogue across village borders. Today, its president, Alexandre Yacinthe Coly, says 18 different associations exist across Casamance, some focused on fishing, others on forests, and some even demanding support to combat the emerging threat of zircon mining. KaBeKa is in the process of establishing a regional network of indigenous groups for the first time, with a view to a national ICCA network within a few years.

Kawawana was the first of these groups, and appeared to offer a teachable model, Coly said. “We said, well, we need to take a look at other communities in Senegal who are organizing themselves in this way, maybe also in the forests, or protecting animal species,” he said.

Once a group is identified, KaBeKa helps it get official recognition, and then advises villages on possible sanctions for infractions on their land or waters. “We have to make sure their sanctions are in line with the law, so we train them in existing (legal) codes. That way they can draw up their own code which will be applicable, respected and recognized by the state,” he said.

KaBeKa is helping to standardize elements of these codes of conduct, while maintaining specific provisions for each community. Eventually, Coly hopes, the codes will be shared and communities can collaborate more frequently to correct points of weakness, such as surveillance.

Several fishermen said fishing violations often fell between the cracks of environmental regulations and criminal law, with judges refusing to impose criminal charges.

The only paved road in the Mangagoulack community. Image by Jennifer O’Mahony for Mongabay.

Malick Djiba, the executive secretary of the Casamance development NGO Agada, said the true value of KaBeKa’s planned network would lie in its bargaining power with the state, and the capacity to force reform.

“We are still faced with legal questions linked to the penal code, because [judges] don’t refer to the fishing code but to the penal code,” he said. “We have to update the penal code to reflect infractions in the fishing sector. Senegal has signed basically all the international conventions linked to the environment, and revised its fishing code. But when it comes to applying the law? That’s something else.”

Borrini-Feyerabend of the ICCA Consortium concurred. “If they stay isolated in their own corners nothing will ever change in terms of legislation and policy, and there is no way to do advocacy either, so the idea is to make sure that out of these isolated cases some networks are created,” she said.

Every month, Kawawana representatives travel to Ziguinchor to take part in radio call-ins. It remains one of the principal ways in which Casamance’s people learn about conservation groups springing up in their area. During a recent broadcast, they were joined by Ibrahima Diedhiou, a prominent member of an ICCA in the village of Badala, which focuses on land use.

“What Kawawana and KaBeKa have done is make communities aware of their role in preservation but also in looking at what has disappeared,” he said. “Can we replant plant species for example? If people keep felling trees, we have to stop them.”

Aissatou Sambou, president of the Kawawana oyster collectors’ association, stands in front of a tree by her home. Image by Jennifer O’Mahony for Mongabay.

For the members of Kawawana, the question of conservation is ever-present when they recall the precarious state of their lives a few short years ago.

“My first son had to abandon school because we had no money. Today, we have sorted out oyster harvesting and I have enough money for the family. We can also afford electricity,” said Sambou, the president of the oyster collectors.

“It has also strengthened us as a community. Before people didn’t know each other well enough and didn’t talk much. Now, because of the regional meetings, there is a mutual understanding.”

Jennifer O’Mahony is a freelance journalist working across West Africa. Her Twitter handle is @jaomahony.


Belhabib, D., Koutob, V., Sall, A., Lam, V.W.Y., Pauly, D. (2014). Fisheries catch misreporting and its implications: The case of Senegal. Fisheries Research 151:1-11.

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the editor of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.

Article published by Rebecca Kessler
, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,