There is a marked contrast between Cobiana and other places along the west coast of Guinea-Bissau, where a range of communities with various religious beliefs have strongly preserved their cultural traditions, and other parts of the country.

It is a three-hour drive down a two-lane road from the capital, Bissau, to the Bafata region in the east. There was not much traffic during a recent trip, but more than seven trucks piled high with chopped wood were spotted along the way. Authorities permit the cutting of dead trees to make charcoal for sale, but there are few, if any, mechanisms in place to monitor if fresh wood is being mixed in with dead.

Bafata is majority Muslim, and, in contrast to the west coast, conservationists in the area say there are fewer people who practice animist religions here, so there are very few forests marked as sacred; this eastern region was the hardest hit during the 2012-2015 logging boom.

In Bafata, 48,000 hectares (118,600 acres) are destroyed each year by slash-and-burn agriculture alone, according to Kafo, a national federation focused on subsistence agriculture.

“It’s true that in reality it’s difficult. It’s more difficult in this region,” says Abdou Cassama, general secretary for Sahel 221, a civil society group focusing on conservation. “The conservation in sacred forests, we don’t do that here because it’s Islamicized, so if we compare where it works and where it doesn’t work, here it’s much more difficult.”

To combat deforestation, national groups have focused their efforts on a system of community forests. Kafo says there are 27 such forests in the country, and Sahel 221 says 18 of those are in the Bafata region. The group sees community forests as a way to increase the value communities put on preserving their forests in regions where the religious and cultural rules don’t already dictate that value.

“What we want is that we have at least 10 percent of the country’s forests are community forests for reforestation activities and to make sure they have responsible slash-and-burn methods,” said Mohamed Sarr, a spokesman for Kafo.

Guinea-Bissau’s first community forests were established a little more than a decade ago. Support from NGOs for income-generating activities such as gathering wild fruit for sale has helped communities realise economic value from protecting the forests.

Currently there are 26,050 hectares (64,370 acres) of community forests in Guinea-Bissau, which only represents 1.3 percent of the forest in the country, according to Sarr.

While sacred forests rely on tradition to safeguard the trees, protection of community forests depends on public outreach.

“Through education and from local radio people are started to change their mindset,” Cassama says. “It’s not like before. People are much better at conserving their forests.”

One community forest that has thrived is in Ga-gurdo, where a space of lush green can be reached along a narrow dirt road canopied by trees. A lone white cow is the only other traffic, but along the road are many areas that have been cleared to plant crops.

Each community forest has a 15-member committee, and Tidiane Dembo heads up the committee in Ga-gurdo.

One morning this year when he was out on his daily morning surveillance of the forest, on the lookout for anyone trying to defy the ban on cutting down trees, he spotted footprints. The traces in the mud were fresh enough to follow. He stepped one by one in the trail of someone he did not know, until he finally arrived at the scene he had feared: the remnants of a tree that had been chopped down.

Luckily, the footprints did not end there. Dembo was able to track the suspected perpetrator back to his home, and what he found surprised him. It was the chief of the village who had defied the ban on cutting trees in the community forest.

Dembo called together the rest of the committee to decide on the next course of action.

Eventually, they gathered the community and confronted the chief, who confessed. People caught illegally felling trees usually fined and have their tools confiscated. In this case, the wood confiscated, and the chief promised to never defy the ban again. (Neither he nor anyone else has cut down trees in the forest since, Dembo told Mongabay.)

The women of Ga-gurdo work to help protect and preserve the community forest in their town. Image by Ricci Shryock.
The women of Ga-gurdo work to help protect and preserve the community forest in their town. Image by Ricci Shryock for Mongabay.

Although Ga-gurdo’s community forest and the sacred forest in Cobiana protect the trees in very different ways, they both stress that their motivation is to conserve for future generations. Regardless what decision is made by government when the moratorium on logging expires in March 2020, the future of protection for Guinea-Bissau’s richly biodiverse forests will rest on the efforts of communities like these.

Banner image: Albino Moreira Mendes is the baloberu, a kind of spiritual gatekeeper, for the Cobiana sacred forest in Guinea Bissau. Image by Ricci Shryock for Mongabay.

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