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Coastal and marine resources have long been a natural capital asset for West African countries, and have provided an economic activity of primary importance. Over 15 million tons of fish are caught in the sub-region’s waters annually, with an estimated annual wholesale value of more than US$2.5 billion. Guinea-Bissau’s coastal zone is of particular regional importance in terms of coastal and marine productivity. It is characterized by an extensive interpenetration of terrestrial and aquatic environments, including vast estuaries, a large archipelago rising from a continental platform of about 70,000 km², and seasonal coastal plains. These coastal biotopes are known to be among the richest on the coast of West Africa in terms of diversity, productivity and food potential. They are essential for the survival of economically important species as well as several globally endangered or threatened species, like the West African Manatee, Sward Fish, a variety of Marine Turtles, the Black Tailed Godwit, Terns as well as many other coastal birds, who spend the Northern winter season in Africa.

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The national parks of Guinea Bissau

The "National Parks Service" of Guinea Bissau, IBAP

Guinea-Bissau is one of the five poorest countries in the world with two out of every three people living below the poverty line (US$2/day), and one out of every five living in extreme poverty. And yet, the country has set aside 5 large areas as national parks, which are managed by the Instituto Nacional de Áreas Protegidas, IBAP, Guinea Bissau's nation's "National Parks Service" in collaboration with local communities.

The country’s coastal and marine resources contribute significantly to the national economy, with the sale of fisheries licenses and cashew nuts currently being the country’s two best income earners (representing approximately 87 percent of the country’s export earnings in 2004). Beyond these direct economic benefits, coastal and marine resources are a critical element in the subsistence livelihoods of the population, approximately 80% of which lives in coastal areas.

However, in Guinea Bissau, as in other West African countries, the coastal and marine resources are under increasing pressure. Although the coastal and marine environments are relatively healthy compared to neighboring countries, threats to these resources are mounting due to unsustainable exploitation, climate change factors and, potentially significant impacts from proposed mining and petroleum exploration.

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Un-licensed fishing trawler waiting for fine from authorities in Guinea Bissau

Boys mending nets in Orango National Park

Overfishing and illegal fishing jeopardize the livelihoods of local fishing communities

Changes in sea temperature, nutrient-rich upwelling currents, sea acidity, and other climate change effects are already adversely affecting the sub-region’s marine resources. Marine ecosystems are more immediately affected by climate change than terrestrial systems because most key marine organisms have short life spans and are thermoconformers, meaning they are profoundly sensitive to temperature changes. The prolonged and severe over-exploitation of marine resources has made them more vulnerable to the effects of climate change and pollution. Fish catches have dropped very significantly over the past two decades, the size of fish caught has diminished, and many high value species are now rare.

The decline in quality and quantity of coastal and marine resources evidently has significant economic and environmental consequences for Guinea Bissau. However, the most immediate and profound impacts are on local coastal communities which are heavily dependent on marine resources for their livelihoods (income, food sources).

Given the changes being wrought on the livelihoods of coastal communities by the combination of unsustainable practices, climate change and pollution, there is a need to move with some urgency to improve local management of coastal and marine resources, and devise strategies and approaches which will help communities plan for, and adjust to, the changes underway. Communities will necessarily need to become better-informed about the changing conditions, become more actively engaged in monitoring the conditions of their own resources and managing the situation, and must better engage with their local representatives and administrations in devising strategies and gaining public support for them.

Harvesting oysters has been part of the West African coastal cultures since living memory. Oysters grow on roots of mangrove trees and on submerged stones and rocks. Traditionally, they are harvested, processed and sold by women. 

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Women taking oysters from shells in Cacheu National Park Women selling dried oysters and shrimps on the market Women patiently waiting for buyers behind neat piles of fresh life oysters

Several aspects make oysters particularly interesting for monitoring:

  • Oysters are filter feeders which potentially accumulate many pollutants in fatty tissue, thus concentrating pollutants which are below detection levels in the water column and sediments to levels that can be detected in laboratories;

  • The proportion of fatty tissue may reflect the general health condition of oysters, thus reflecting the over-all productivity of the aquatic ecosystem at the location of its sampling;

  • Samples taken from sedentary organisms reflect the conditions of a specific location, which is ideal for monitoring

  • As the estuarine systems of Guinea Bissau are subject to very significant tidal fluctuations - on some locations more than 5 m - the oysters must survive many hours per day outside the water, while often exposed to hot sunshine. This makes them a very resilient monitoring species, as they can survive at least 24 hours without sea water, while being transported to a laboratory.

  • Experiences in many countries in the world have shown that women-communities are very reliable participants in monitoring efforts if they see the benefits for their families.

The national parks in Guinea Bissau all have communities living in them or using some of the natural resources. IBAP has been working with the local communities to promote the sustainable use of resources that bear little or no effect on the natural resources of the park, while introducing methods that bear considerable impact more efficient. A typical example is the case of the oysters. Traditionally the roots on which oysters grow, are cut with a clump of oysters. Extension workers of IBAP now teach the women to just cut off the bark on which the oysters grow, while leaving the roots mostly in tact. 

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Women on Orango discuss IBAP's technical assistance with World Bank task manager Women in Cacheu express their wish to participate in the oyster culture and monitoring programme. Women in Bubaque discuss the oyster programme while cleaning palm oil nuts.

The women are accustomed to cook the oysters in an old oil barrel or large aluminum pot over an open fire. These open fires are extremely inefficient in fuel wood consumption. By teaching the women how to build simple closed fire pits from mud, the fuel consumption goes down with 50 - 75%. This not only reduces the need to harvest firewood in the park, but it also reduces the work for the women to cut and collect it. Moreover, it reduces the release of CO2 into the atmosphere.

In collaboration with WWF in Senegal, IBAP is also experimenting with several women's cooperatives to start oyster cultures. In stead of going into the dense mangrove root jungle, which is infested with millions of mosquitoes, the women have started oyster cultures at more convenient locations and nicely concentrated in densities they can never find in nature. They hang lines with clumps harvested oyster shells about 10 cm apart from horizontal beams or lines. In the muddy environment of the mangroves very little hard substrate is available and oyster larvae readily settle on the empty shells. As the lines are placed in locations with somewhat higher water velocities, the oysters grow faster, being ready for harvesting in 12 - 14 months.

Preparation of the wreath Installation in the mangrove Harvesting of the oysters

As the women see the benefits of the collaboration with IBAP, they happily participate in the oyster raising and monitoring programme, handing over a sample of the oysters to the local ranger of IBAP every 2 months. The rangers supervise and organize the  monitoring logistics, such as transportation to the capital Bissau, where they hand them over to the laboratory of the Ministry of Fishery. As soon as the laboratory results are known, the local ranger informs the community about the findings of their oysters. 

Just in case you wonder what these oysters are like: They are smaller than the European oysters, and for most people it would probably be wise to eat them roasted in stead of raw. I have found them incredibly addicting! When freshly roasted they have a mild smoked taste and are both juicy and soft. Women who live further away from the market dry them in the sun, which is still OK, but there is nothing like a freshly roasted oyster. Sometimes, monitoring can be so much fun. 




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