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Small farmers take a stand for one of Dakar’s last urban woodlands

Farmers planting vegetables in Dakar, Senegal. Image by Francesco De Augustinis for Mongabay.

  • A forested strip that’s one of the last green areas in Dakar could be razed for new developments under an urban expansion plan.
  • The strip of filao trees is also home to small-scale farmers who grow organic fruit and vegetables for sale in local markets, and whose presence has protected the trees against sand miners and unlicensed development.
  • In June 2021, Senegal’s president authorized a new urban plan that “downgraded” 150 hectares (370 acres) of the filao strip, removing its protected status; 43% of this area will be allocated for new homes, and 21% for new roads.
  • The farmers have protested the plan, saying they contribute both to the protection of the filao ecosystem and to the local economy.

For the past decade, an association of small farmers has been growing vegetables amid a strip of filao trees that grow on the sand dunes along the coastline in the northern suburbs of Dakar, Senegal. Their presence provides both fresh vegetables to the city’s markets and helps guard the trees against sand miners and unlicensed development. But in June 2021, a new urban plan rezoned 150 hectares (370 acres) of the wooded strip, clearing the way for local authorities to replace the trees with new development — threatening hundreds of livelihoods and accelerating the loss of one of the last green areas in the Senegalese capital.

Farmers started planting along the edge of the filao strip in 2011, says Ousmane Sow, president of the Warouwaye farmers’ association. “Since establishing ourselves in the strip, the farmers have expanded their activity. Today, we are 168 farmers growing vegetables for sale in the strip.”

The farmers sell their organic produce in the city’s markets. Their association is a bulwark for the protection of the strip of trees, constantly threatened by the ocean, climate change and, above all, by the frenetic expansion of the city of Dakar.

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History of the strip

Up to 80% of Senegal’s vegetables are grown in the niayes, low-lying areas in the dune systems that stretch 180 kilometers (110 miles) between Dakar and Saint-Louis. Beginning in the late 1940s, filao trees (Casuarina equisetifolia), a kind of pine native to Australia and the Pacific region, were planted to stabilize the dunes, eventually forming a protective strip of wooded land covering more than 9,000 hectares (22,200 acres). But since the 1970s, the filao and the niayes on the outskirts of Dakar have been threatened by the city’s expansion.

The four municipal areas through which the filao strip runs were largely undeveloped in the mid-1980s. But between 1984 and 2019, the proportion of built-up areas grew from just 18% to 75%, putting increasing pressure on the strip of trees, according to researchers Néné Makoya Touré Diop and Giacomo Pettenati.

Dakar is one of the largest cities in Africa, they write in a 2021 study. From a population of 400,000 in the 1970s, its population quadrupled in the space of 20 years, thanks to a rural exodus driven by drought.

The northern districts of the capital received a fresh influx of people in 2011, this time farmers fleeing flooding in other parts of the country. Some began growing vegetables in the filao strip, reaching an agreement with the Senegalese environment ministry’s department of water and forests, the public body responsible for the management of the country’s forests and protected areas.

“The farmers’ access to the strip is not for free,” Sow says, “we must contribute to the protection of the environment of the filao and its ecological function.”

A farmer watering the vegetables that they grow amid the filao trees along the coastline in northern Dakar, Senegal.
A farmer watering the vegetables that they grow amind the filao trees along the coastline in northern Dakar, Senegal. Image by Francesco De Augustinis for Mongabay.

Sow shows Mongabay some of the plots in Pikine district where dozens of people of all ages are working among the filao trees, spreading fertilizer made from peanut husks and watering the crops. All kinds of vegetables are grown here: aubergines, peppers, okra, onions.

“The strip was targeted by people looking for sand for construction, as well as by local residents who don’t hesitate to cut wood for fuel,” Sow says. “So the farmers are here to counter this while they work, contributing to the economy on the one hand, while also monitoring the environment and protecting the strip.”

Omar Boudian is one of the farmers who originally settled in the filao strip in 2011, and later joined the Warouwaye association. “What prompted us to come here is the search for an economic activity, an income. Then we organized ourselves, and we saw that it was necessary to create a system so that we could also participate in protecting the forest,” Boudian tells Mongabay beneath a coconut tree.

“We are developing a horticulture business, but we also work in partnership with the water and forestry authority, with the aim of developing a sustainable business.”

With funding from the European Union and support from CISV, an Italian NGO, the Warouwaye farmers have gradually adopted organic methods to make the sandy soil fertile. “Before our arrival, there was an informal association between farmers, who worked individually,” says Ousseynou Mbodji, CISV project manager. The EU project, in collaboration with the department of water and forests, provided the farmers with tools, credit and training, to stimulate a participatory management system.

“With our project we have worked to organize them better, frame them to organize production in order to more effectively meet the demand for vegetables from neighboring municipalities. Meanwhile, with training courses, we helped farmers to adopt ecological farming methods, eliminating the use of pesticides and switching to organic fertilizers,” Mbodji says.

Map of loss of green space in Guédiawaye district, 1984-2018.
Loss of green space in Guédiawaye district, 1984-2018. Maps courtesy CISV.

Trees under siege

But in the past year, a new threat has emerged. In June 2021, Senegalese President Macky Sall authorized a new urban plan that declassified 150 hectares of the filao strip, depriving it of its protected status, and transferring development authority from the forest department to the local municipalities.

“The downgrading was necessary due to the location of the trees, which are in an area prone to erosion, close to the freeway and in the vicinity of urban areas,” says Pape Mama Fall, from the mayor’s office of Wakhinane Nimzatt municipality.

“Now, after the downgrade, we intend to create a new band of filao on the other side of the freeway, in a place that will be safer, more sustainable and resilient to climate change,” he adds.

Mbodji says he doubts new filao trees will be planted: “I fear that the strip is doomed to die.”

He tells Mongabay the local authorities have issued permits and some new buildings have already been constructed.

“The farmers are worried. They’ve held frequent protests, they go to see the prefect, and the mayor with their demands,” Mbodji says. “But the municipalities have real estate and infrastructure projects for this area, which also put the part of the strip that is still under protection at risk.”

According to the new urban plan, 43% of the 150 “downgraded” hectares will be allocated to build new homes, and a further 21% to new roads.

Filao trees live for about 50 years, after which trees in plantations like those in the niayes need to be coppiced, cut down just before the rains. New shoots then emerge, which, with careful pruning, can grow into new trees. The Warouwaye farmers, relocated to the edges of the capital by flooding a decade ago, have themselves emerged as a model for balancing livelihoods, local food production, and environmental protection.

Encroaching development in Dakar's suburbs.
Encroaching development in Dakar’s suburbs. Image by Francesco De Augustinis for Mongabay.


Banner image: Farmers planting vegetables in Dakar, Senegal. Image by Francesco De Augustinis for Mongabay.

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