As his wooden pirogue putt-putts through the dense mangroves of Senegal’s Sine-Saloum Delta, Mamadou Bakhoum is in a race with the tide. Dressed somewhat incongruously in an ill-fitting beekeeping suit, he keeps a weather eye on the congested mass of roots beside the boat. If the water rises much higher, his latest honey haul will have to wait.
“Sometimes the tide here is hard to predict,” says the muscular agricultural engineer, one hand resting on the tiller of his rusty outboard. “Reaching the hives across the mangrove mud is difficult at the best of times. When the water’s up, it’s impossible.”
Bakhoum lives with 500 other souls in Dassilame Serere, a scattering of thatched huts, mud-brick buildings and sandy roads next to a stretch of the Saloum River.
Situated just north of the Gambian border, the Unesco World Heritage-listed, 1,800-sq-km delta is one of West Africa’s ecological jewels. Formed where two rivers – the Sine and the Saloum – converge on the Atlantic, the delta’s labyrinthine network of shallow bolongs (creeks), lagoons, mangrove forest and sand islands is home to monkeys, hyenas and a huge variety of birds and fish.
“For an agricultural engineer, the delta is a bountiful paradise,” says Bakhoum, with a smile. “When the tide doesn’t get in the way.”
Coastal mangrove forests are some of the most productive ecosystems on the planet. Connecting land and people with the sea, they provide millions with food, clean water, raw materials and resilience against the effects of climate change, which include increasing storm intensity and rising sea levels. They also mitigate climate change by absorbing five times more carbon than terrestrial forests.
Senegal’s mangroves sit at the northern limit of their West African range. In the Sine-Saloum Delta, where the vast majority of the population is engaged in fishing and agriculture, more than 100,000 people depend on them for their livelihoods. But over the past half century, these coastal forests have been hugely degraded.
“Mangroves have disappeared from more than a quarter of the delta since 1950,” says Pape Diomaye Thiare, a media coordinator for Wetlands International Africa (WIA), the African arm of a global, non-profit organisation dedicated to the conservation and restoration of wetlands. “Successive cycles of drought, as well as unsustainable timber harvesting and road construction, have all taken their toll.”
Not only do mangroves prevent soil from being washed away, they feed and protect young fish, provide shelter for oyster colonies and filter out salt from the water. The loss of mangroves has, unsurprisingly, had a devastating impact on the Sine-Saloum region, rendering swathes of agricultural land useless for growing crops. Fish stocks have plummeted.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” says Thiare. “When communities lose their crops, they have less money for food and fuel. They cut down more mangroves and travel farther offshore, where they frequently overfish.”
It was in 2013 that village leaders in Dassilame Serere, together with those from the neighbouring villages of Sourou, Bani and Nema Bah, decided that something needed to be done. With financial assistance and expertise provided by WIA, they set up the Association Inter Villageoise de Développement (AIVD).
“Until that point, some villagers had tried to improve the way we did things,” says Bakhoum. “But with some people doing their own thing, and some people doing nothing, our efforts were uncoordinated and ineffective.”
One of the first jobs of the WIA was to convince everyone in the AIVD area of the need for healthy mangroves.
“Mangrove reforestation simply cannot be successful if it is enforced from the top down,” says Thiare. “Local people need to be involved in every stage of the decision-making process, and they need to be wholeheartedly committed to restoration and long-term preservation. Above all, they need to see the benefits.”
Since 2013, mangrove seedlings have been implanted into 97 hectares of fertile delta mud. But the AIVD has also worked to reduce anthropogenic pressure on the mangroves. In the past, villagers would harvest wild oysters clinging to mangroves by simply hacking away at the roots.
Since 2015, however, villagers have employed a so-called “garland” system, drilling holes in carefully harvested baby oysters and threading them onto pieces of string. These are then suspended on poles and allowed to grow naturally in tidal water. When the oysters are sold in the local market, half the money goes to the community and half is reinvested in infrastructure development.
Both the mangrove reforestation and oyster garlanding have proven so successful that they have been replicated in other villages across the delta.
“People from Dakar thought we were crazy when they heard we were planting mangroves and farming oysters,” says Ramatoulaye Diouf, a women’s leader in the village of Diamniadio, about 50km to the north of Dassilame Serere. “Now they’ve seen how we’ve benefited, they’ve stopped joking.”
Every day at dawn, dressed in colourful headscarves, Fatou Kor and Khady Diouf make their way to the outskirts of Dassilame Serere. It is here that the local “garden”, a 13-hectare plot of land, is also providing succour to the mangrove ecosystem. Kor and Diouf are members of a 129-strong team of women now engaged in the AIVD garden. As healthier mangroves stabilise the salinity of the soil, so the plot is yielding ever improved harvests of vegetables and fruit.
“In the past I would forage in the mangroves for oysters,” says Diouf. “Now I prefer to grow okra and beans.”
WIA has also helped the AIVD set up a thriving apiculture business, providing villagers with hives, protective outfits, production equipment and training. Annual honey harvests have risen from 200kg a year in 2013 to 2,000kg in 2015.
“Bees love mangroves because they get a year-round supply of nectar and pollen,” explains Bakhoum. “They also help to protect the mangroves because villagers stay away for fear of being stung.”
AS THE SUN SETS over the placid waters of the Saloum River, hundreds of birds fly in to roost. Squadrons of ungainly pelicans, wheeling flocks of white egrets and solitary Goliath herons alight noisily in the tops of the rustling mangroves.
The fantastic birdlife is just one draw for the increasing number of tourists who visit the Sine-Saloum. Villages such as Dassilame Serere are taking advantage by setting up campsites as well as selling their honey to overseas guests and organising boat rides through the mangroves.
“The local mentality here has really changed,” says Bakhoum. “Of course, we still face pressures from climate change. But I think most people appreciate now that the mangroves are our friend. Without them, our future is far more uncertain.”
Getting there: Emirates, Air France and Turkish Airlines all offer flights to Dakar from Hong Kong via intermediate cities. The town of Toubacouta – the perfect place from which to explore the Sine-Saloum Delta (and close to Dassilame Serere) – is a four-hour drive south of Dakar. The Toubacouta-based Keur Saloum Hotel offers airport pick-ups, good accommodation and a range of activities.