As we approached the remote island of Formosa at sundown after a two-hour boat ride from Guinea-Bissau’s capital Bissau, I was overwhelmed by the vibrant nature that surrounded us. Fish eagles greeted us with eerie calls, and flocks of pelicans were everywhere. On the mudflats surrounding the shore, thousands of migratory birds feasted on crustaceans in the mud. Ancient forests rose on the shore, protected by the people who call these islands home.
The Bijagos, a group of 88 mangrove and palm forest-covered islands and islets spread over some 10,000 square kilometres, are home to around 30,000 people from the Bijago ethnic group, who inhabit 22 islands. Due to their remoteness and the shallowness of many internal waters, the Bijagos have not been ravaged by the distant-water industrial fishing fleets which are damaging fish stocks elsewhere in Africa. These waters are home to an abundance of sea turtles, manatees, dolphins, and even saltwater hippos, all sacred creatures in the animist belief system of the population.
The biodiversity here is exceptional, as are the people who are largely responsible for the thriving ecosystems. The Bijago still live a deeply traditional lifestyle, working communally in their rice and vegetable fields, and regulating marine areas through respected community councils. Because their entire cultural belief systems revolve around the marine creatures they consider sacred, and harvesting any sea creatures is closely regulated through custom and beliefs, nature and culture are inseparable.
One example I witnessed is the harvest of blood clams, a primary source of protein for the islanders. To protect this important food source, which women harvesters control, for most of the year harvesting from the island’s mud flats for export is strictly prohibited. Exporting processed and smoke-dried clams is only allowed for a few months a year, and exporting live clams is strictly taboo.
When Guinea-Bissau became independent, local activists watched with concern as foreign NGOs took over development projects in the country, often imposing an agenda that didn’t match local people’s needs. In response, in 1991 the feminist leader Augusta Henriques co-founded Tiniguena, which means ‘this land is ours’, to provide local communities a leading role in stewarding the country’s rich natural and cultural resources, and building a future together.
Tiniguena realised this vision in 2005, when it established the first community-led marine protected area (MPA) called Urok covering more than 54,000 hectares across the three Bijagos islands of Formosa, Chedia, and Nago. Since then, communities have developed strong fisheries management plans, reserving many marine resources for local sustenance, patrolling their waters to prevent illegal fishing, and working to monitor and conserve their fragile but healthy ecosystems.
Urok MPA’s work has resulted in good conservation and has brought meaningful benefits to the communities. As we walked to the headquarters of the MPA, Emmanuel Ramos, the co-founder of Tiniguena, pointed to a school, and said: “Before we started working on these islands, there were no schools, nothing. Now we have schools, we set up a health centre, we have a weekly ferry between the mainland and the islands, and people’s lives have improved in so many ways.”
Charlotte Karibuhoye, the director of the MAVA foundation that supports Urok MPA, agrees: “We cannot conserve biodiversity if we do not value local people, cultures, traditions and spiritual identity. Conservation must also deliver wellbeing, social cohesion, and food security.”
Communities that live outside the MPA can see its positive community impact. When we visited the communal rice fields, a woman from a neighbouring island approached Emmanuel to ask how they too could start setting one up, in the hope of having a clinic on their island. Urok MPA has inspired people from further afield looking to protect their resources, including representatives from the southern Casamance region of Senegal who came for a learning exchange in 2011, and decided to set up their own locally-managed marine area, Kawawana.
We share the vision of Tiniguena about the importance of respecting and integrating culture and traditions into conservation, and ensuring local communities are in charge of protecting the ecosystems on which they depend for their livelihoods and identity. Tiniguena’s successful establishment of a community-run MPA that has been recognized as one of the best governed on earth and won the prestigious UN Equator prize in 2019, is a powerful affirmation that indigenous people are best-placed to manage their ecosystems.
We are proud to call Tiniguena our first partner in West Africa and want to support them to keep doing what they are good at: community-led conservation and development. We look forward to building on their work in Urok to help other communities join the growing movement to protect the Bijagos.
What comes next remains to be seen. In line with our communities first philosophy, we need to first listen to the communities and understand their needs and plans for the future. We will explore supporting Tiniguena to create a new community-led MPA in the remote Unhocomo and Unhocomozinho islands, one of the most important turtle breeding grounds in the Bijagos and home to a very isolated community living more than 100 miles from the capital Bissau. Other ideas involve building a conservation corridor to connect the three existing MPAs and involve more communities in conservation efforts.
We will certainly organise more exchange visits to the Urok MPA to show other communities that locally led conservation works, because the most inspiring and powerful advocates for community-led conservation are those who have reaped the benefits of their efforts.
Visiting the Urok MPA was a tremendous, almost sacred, experience for me. The MPA is not open to tourism, out of fear that this could destroy cultural heritage and community cohesion, so visiting was a huge privilege. In saying goodbye and thanking the management team, I told them that I may be leaving, but that a part of my heart would stay behind. I am already dreaming about returning.