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Beach clean-ups, community visits, and compensation to fishers build environmental awareness in Nigeria

  • Children visit the Kids’ Beach Garden in Lagos, Nigeria, every week to learn about aquatic creatures, oceans, plastic pollution, recycling, and the environment while they help clean the beach.
  • The project staff and volunteers bring families to join the beach clean-ups; they also visit schools and communities and introduce these themes using demonstrations, activities, and dance and drama presentations.
  • In addition, the team works with fishers to reduce sea turtle hunting and bycatch and build awareness of the importance of turtles to fish lifecycles and the local ecosystem.

Around 400 people spread out across the coastline of a beach in the Lekki neighborhood of Nigeria’s commercial city, Lagos. Hands in gloves and some faces partly covered by disposable nose masks, they burrow garden rakes into the sandy shores of the beach, unearthing plastic bottle caps, PET bottles, flip-flops, syringes, styrofoam containers, toys, lollipop sticks, earbuds, toothbrushes, discarded nets, and beer bottles.

The roar of waves eclipses the chattering among the crowd of students, environmentalists, residents, government officials, and staff of local companies. The din of the crowd rises again once the wave dissolves into a cloud of tiny bubbles.

In addition to weekly kid-focused beach cleanups, the Kids’ Beach Garden project organizes cleanup exercises for adults and families every last week of the month. Image by Linus Unah for Mongabay.

It was the International Coastal Cleanup Day (September 21), and the crowd gathered at the behest of the Kids’ Beach Garden, an initiative of the Lagos-based Mental and Environmental Development Initiative for Children (MEDIC). MEDIC aims to rid Lagos beaches of marine debris, build a generation of young activists, and save vulnerable sea turtles.

“Waste pollution is a very serious issue in Lagos,” said Millicent Adeyoju, communications manager for Green Hub Africa, an environmental sustainability and advocacy platform.  “It’s up to us to minimize the waste they generate.”

But it is not only on special occasions that this sort of crowd comes to clean the beach.

Doyinsola Ogunye, founder of MEDIC, has been working to raise awareness about plastic pollution and recycling since 2009. Her passion for the environment started after her family moved to Ajah neighborhood in 2002. She was astounded to find people living amid litter and cluttered waterways.

“Nobody was paying attention; it was just like a norm in that area,” recalled Ogunye, who studied to become a lawyer.

Building kids’ involvement

The desire to make a difference prompted her to start Kids’ Clean Club in November 2009 to build an impassioned group of children who would push for change by visiting churches, mosques, schools, and coastal communities to talk about waste management and how improper disposal harms marine life.

The children and project staff and volunteers pose for a photo after one of their weekly cleanup exercises. Image by Linus Unah for Mongabay.

At the same time, Ogunye, who often spends time around the coastline, felt they needed to gravitate towards littered beaches.

She noticed that a portion of the shoreline in the Elegushi Beach, on the Atlantic Ocean, was abandoned. Garbage sprawled across the beach surface. Shrubs covered nearly the entire bank.

She and her team of about a dozen volunteers sprang into action and began to clean the beach occasionally. But they realized that maintaining a clean, healthy shoreline required a broader solution.

In 2015, Ogunye leased and named that strip of this sandy beach, an area that spans over 7.2 hectares on the seashore, the Kids’ Beach Garden. Here, some 30 children visit every week to learn about aquatic creatures, oceans, plastic pollution, recycling, and the environment.

The Kids Beach Garden, surrounded by coconut tree saplings peeking out from the colorful tires. Image by Linus Unah for Mongabay.

The project injects a lot of games and fun into its activities to keep the children animated as they learn and clean the beach. Sometimes they sing, jog and clap, make kites, or build sand castles. Often the children engage in the ‘Ultimate Plastic Search,’ a game in which they divide into small teams to scour for bottle caps. The team with the most bottle caps wins.

Every last week of the month, the Kids’ Beach Garden invites Lagosians to join the children in cleaning the beach. Hundreds of residents often show up. On these days, the cleanup exercise is combined with other activities, such as aerobic exercise, volleyball, beachside photography, family sandcastle building, and picnics.

At the end of the day, project staff and volunteers collect the waste and move it to the garden’s recycling and sorting hub for separation, counting, and weighing before it is collected by recycling firms who pay for the recyclables. They usually collect at least 40 bags of trash per cleanup exercise. The project also pays residents who bring recyclables to the hub.

Trash collected by the Kids’ Beach Garden project, such as the plastic bottles on left and flip-flops on right, gets sorted before removal. Images by Linus Unah for Mongabay.

 

Ogunye said she and her team of staff and volunteers were troubled to always find far more bottle caps than anything else — not even seashells — on the shoreline during beach clean-ups.

This spurred them to launch an awareness-raising campaign known as “Kids4Clean Seas” to visit schools and coastal communities to promote proper waste management.

The project staff and volunteers take turns to explain waste sorting and recycling using demonstrations. Local companies collaborating with the project often hire and pay dancers and actors to use dance and drama presentations to explain recycling and plastic pollution to the audience. Parents and community leaders also try to support this campaign, which uses a mix of the local Yoruba language as well as pidgin, which is widely spoken across West Africa.

The project works with local companies to inject drama and dance during awareness campaigns. Image by Linus Unah for Mongabay.

“I was very excited to listen to them when they visited our school because we didn’t know about these things before,” said Adegbuyi Emmanuel, a 17-year-old secondary school student on the outskirts of Lagos.

Most residents of these communities are fishermen, and most women there sell fish. In the past, the fishermen and their families buried their waste or simply threw it into the ocean. As part of the Kids4Clean Seas project, residents in some coastal communities received trash bins and disposable bags and are taught how to separate waste. The project staff and volunteers often collect recyclables during awareness rounds, while the Lagos waste agency is now working in some of these communities to pick up bagged trash.

So far, the “Kids4Clean Seas” has reached 80 public and private schools across Lagos, including 20 schools and five coastal communities in the city this year.

Sea turtle protection

Ogunye and her team are also protecting, conserving and rehabilitating sea turtles, which are highly susceptible during their nesting season.

A green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) rests on the sea floor near sea grass. Image by Alexander Vasenin via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Of the five species of sea turtle commonly found in Nigeria’s waters, loggerhead, olive ridley and leatherback are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as Vulnerable, the green turtle as Endangered, and the hawksbill as Critically Endangered.

Nigeria is signatory to several international treaties protecting these turtles and offers them additional protection under the Sea Fisheries Decree (No 17) of 1992.

However, poachers collect eggs and kill the turtles for their meat, skin, and scutes to sell for food or medicine. Destruction of nesting beaches for development and accidental capture largely by artisanal fishermen, complemented by poor awareness about their conservation status and weak law enforcement, also threaten the turtles’ survival.

Ogunye tells communities and students how the turtles might be entangled by marine debris or might mistake plastic waste for food, leading to harm or death. The litter and shrubs along the coastline could prevent hatchlings from reaching the ocean, she emphasizes to the students and community members.

She and her team explain how killing sea turtles could result in a spike in jellyfish populations and how this could affect the fishing industry their communities rely on. Leatherback turtles, in particular, primarily feed on jellies, so their presence helps prevent a jellyfish boom that could lead jellies consuming larvae of more commercial fish.

The goal is to make the message simple yet compelling enough to spur action.

“Sometimes I tell a story of a pregnant woman that is about to deliver and then she gets kidnapped on her way and gets killed,” Ogunye told Mongabay. “When I tell that story, a lot of people are like ‘Oh! that’s really disheartening’ and I say ‘that’s exactly what you do to sea turtles because they come ashore to lay their eggs.’”

Doyinsola Ogunye, founder of MEDIC, has been working to raise awareness about plastic pollution and recycling since 2009. Here, she tells students about plastic pollution and how to recycle plastics. Image by Linus Unah for Mongabay.

The Kids’ Beach Garden usually buys new fishing nets for fishermen who report bycatch and agree to cut their net to let an accidentally captured turtle back into the sea. The project has rescued hatchlings and more than a dozen sea turtles about to be sold across Lagos.

Working on land

To further improve beach conditions, Ogunye and her team of over 50 volunteers and twelve staff run a tree-planting project to restore coconut trees that have been removed due to development pressures and population expansion.

Under its “Tree Adoption Sustainability Plan,” parents, businesses, schools, and even the kids can adopt and name a tree by funding its maintenance. Fees range from $42 to $196 (15,000 to 70,000 naira). Funds raised from this model have helped the team to hire four gardeners and build a borehole that now supplies water to nearby communities. Dozens of Lagosians and businesses have signed up for this project.

Today, about 400 trees dot the shoreline. More than 30 trees have grown well above the colorful tires that surround and protect them from wind and livestock grazing around the area.

Some of the coconut trees planted by project staff and volunteers have grown above the tires. Image by Linus Unah for Mongabay.

Positive impacts

Growing awareness about recycling, plastic pollution and their threat to sea turtles has resulted in “huge behavioural change,” Ogunye said, adding that they receive phone calls from local communities and residents asking them to come and rescue sea turtles.

In September, Lagos state authorities started a recycling and waste sorting initiative – the Blue Box Programme — and has worked with Kids’ Beach Garden to raise environmental awareness and distribute disposable bags for waste separation.

Nigeria lacks both marine reserves and a nationwide sea turtle recovery plan, which makes Ogunye’s work an uphill task.

Nonetheless, Ogunye says they are happy to work with children to spearhead the “revolution.”

“I have learned a lot about our environment and aquatic animals like sea turtles,” said 14-year-old Joseph Nwachukwu, a member of Kids’ Beach Garden. “I am happy to be coming here always.”

Schools in Lagos and from neighboring states often visit to learn about the group’s work. Ogunye also organizes paid summer camp programs for teenagers who want to spend some nights by the sea, while taking lessons from the volunteers.

“It’s important to catch them young, to let them understand these things in their formative years when behavior is formed, changed or corrected,” Ogunye said.

“It’s easy to be inspired by a child,” she added. “If you see a child recycling and championing environmental causes, you will be moved to act.”

 

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