Bijagós Archipelago

Report By
Amy Corbin and Ashley Tindall
Nelson Dias of IUCN for reviewing prior to publication.
September 1, 2007
September 1, 2007

The cluster of islands off the coast of the West African nation of Guinea-Bissau—the Bijagós archipelago—are a semitropical land with abundant flora, fauna and natural resources. Despite centuries of slave trading and colonial oppression, the ethnic Bijagós people have remained fiercely independent and continue to practice their land-based religion, which restricts access and activities within sacred sites. These traditional management practices have contributed toward conserving the islands’ biodiversity. Today, in the face of threats like industrial fishing, ship breaking and the growth of international drug trafficking, it is even more important that Bijágos values be maintained. “These traditional practices of the Bijágos that limit periodically the free access to certain areas and their natural resources effectively assists in the preservation of the sites for flora and fauna,” Gonzalo Oviedo, of the World Conservation Union, said. “An interesting overlapping is that the most valued sites for biodiversity also happen to be the most sacred ones.”

The Land and Its People

The Bijagós archipelago consists of 88 semitropical islands, only 23 of which are inhabited. Early settlement in the area that is now the nation of Guinea-Bissau started from the interior of Africa and moved westward, and it is believed that people arrived on the coast by 9000 B.C. Members of the broad Senegambian ethnic group who settled the islands became known as the Bijagós (Bissagos) people, a matriarchal and matrilineal society in which women choose their husbands and that is guided by female priests. Traditionally a hunter-gatherer society, they were famous for their almadias, large ocean-going canoes that could hold up to 70 people.

The islands contain a high degree of biodiversity, with mangrove forests, saltwater swamps and palm trees interspersed with zones of dry forest, coastal savanna and sand banks. Island rivers release nutrient-rich freshwater into the ocean, creating a breeding ground and habitat for many species, including crocodile, fish, crustaceans and mollusks, and the symbolically important sea turtles, manatees and hippopotamus, which are important in Bijagós cosmology. Each year, around 1 million local and migratory birds from as far away as Siberia and Northern Europe settle in the archipelago to breed.

Portuguese traders and slavers began colonizing Guinea-Bissau in 1446. At its height, the Portuguese slave trade centered around Guinea-Bissau, but the Portuguese couldn’t establish dominion over the archipelago—whose wild terrain enabled the Bijagós to elude capture—and in the 18th century, the trade shifted south to Angola before coming to an end in the 19th century. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Britain, France and Portugal each sought to conquer the the island of Bolama, or at least subdue the population, but were repeatedly confronted with strong resistance. Portugal ultimately took possession in 1870, and in 1936, after five centuries of ongoing colonial presence along the Bissau coast, they declared the Bijagós archipelago “conquered.”

For the first half of the 20th century, the Bijagós suffered under a system of forced labor, climbing palm trees to gather the fruits from which kernels and oil were extracted, and building the factories and machines used by the Portuguese and British who were industrializing the harvesting process. The Bijagós led a prolonged revolt throughout the archipelago from 1917 to 1925, resulting in further Portuguese oppression, including a policy of complete segregation of the indigenous peoples from the colonials. Guineau-Bissau finally gained independence from Portugal in 1974, after a decade-long liberation struggle, one of Africa’s most famous and bloodiest.

Today, the Bijagós are still a traditional people of about 25,000, the majority of which practice their animist faith and speak their ethnic language, in addition to the Portuguese-African creole spoken by the majority of the citizens of Guinea-Bissau. The impressive biodiversity of the Bijagós archipelago has captured the attention of ecologists in recent years. The small islands are also valued by animal geneticists because they have unique gene pools and can provide clues about species evolution. A strong correlation has been shown between restricted sacred sites and high levels of biodiversity. For these reasons, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated the islands a biosphere reserve in 1996.

Part of what has kept the region so pristine is that the Bijagós animistic faith prohibits economic and subsistence activities in the many sacred areas, which include mangroves, beaches and small islands. Thus, large areas have never been inhabited and their resources never touched. Some sacred sites are monitored by family clans, who have close ties with the deities that govern those areas. These clans establish guidelines for ritual and other behavior within the sites, rules that are followed by other islanders. Other sites are also reserved for initiation rituals, with access restricted to those who have completed certain ceremonial duties. Still others are meant only for men or women. Many sites carry prohibitions, including bans on constructing permanent settlements, shedding blood and allowing access to uninitiated individuals.

Current Challenges

The fifth poorest country in the world, Guinea-Bissau is thus particularly vulnerable to foreign businesses that promise short-term profits at the expense of the environment. In 2003, the Spanish company DDY de Comercio Exterior SA proposed setting up a ship-breaking area around Bolama Island. Ship breaking is the practice of dismantling and sinking commercial ships, and often takes place where countries have looser environmental regulations; Guinea-Bissau is a target for ship breaking because it is not a signatory to the Basel Convention, an international treaty that regulates the transport and disposal of hazardous substances across national lines. This results in oil and toxic materials like asbestos and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls, which are commerical coolants) released into the water.

DDY, acting on behalf of other Spanish companies with refrigeration boats requiring disposal, signed an “intention protocol” with the government of Guinea-Bissau to develop an industrial center for ship breaking. The government agreed not to tax the company’s operations on the rationale that it was bringing a “sustainable” business enterprise to the islands. DDY also claims that ship breaking is an environmentally sound practice, a charge disputed by environmental organizations like Greenpeace and the Basel Action Network, which have led the campaign against unregulated ship breaking around the world.

Upon learning of the environmental damage being wrought in India, Pakistan and other Asian countries, the main locales for ship breaking, the Bijagós were determined to stop the industry from developing in their waters. The hazardous materials released into the waters could destroy the pristine marine environment that serve as a breeding ground for so many marine species and harm the indigenous fishing industry. Public outcry and the opposition of political and business leaders in Guinea-Bissau eventually led the government to reject DDY’s proposal.

While this first proposal has been rejected, the Bijagós remain wary of future prospects for ship breaking because of the ambiguity of international ship-disposal protocol. In March 1996, the International Maritime Organization, the trade organization for the shipping industry, released a deeply flawed draft treaty that does not hold developed countries responsible for their own maritime waste materials; in fact, its proposed regulations are looser than the already-signed Basel Convention. Until the international community agrees on universal guidelines for safe disposal of old ships, companies will continue to look toward unmonitored waters in developing countries as dumping grounds.

Meanwhile, industrial fishing also faces little regulation. Ships from China, Japan and South Korea flock to the 70,000 square kilometers of water that is one of West Africa’s most fertile fishing regions. Smaller boats also come from other African countries. Recently, the harvesting of large numbers of sharks and rays that are fished for their fins, a popular delicacy in Asia, has attracted the attention of conservationists. In May 2007, the IUCN brought together all stakeholders of this industry—including Bissau-Guinean government officials, fishermen, fish processors, scientists and island residents—to discuss how the industry as it currently operates is a threat to the environment, both marine and terrestrial, and to think strategically about how to regulate the industry in a way that allows some economic development. The immediate problem is that the government of Guinea-Bissau simply does not have the resources to enforce regulations: fuel shortages restrict the number of trips, and the waters to be patrolled are twice the country’s land base. There are only six small vessels in its navy, and every time they leave port to patrol, collaborators radio the ships to let them know that the patrol is coming, preventing government officials from catching fishermen in the act.

The government knows how valuable its maritime resources are, with 45 percent of national revenue derived from fishing. Guinea-Bissau has struck a five-year fishing deal with the European Union that allows E.U. companies access to local waters in exchange for a licensing fee of 51 million euros. Even if fished sustainably and legally, however, the fish are transported to other countries for processing, which translates into the loss of up to a thousand potential jobs for Bissau-Guineans. The impoverished country’s other natural resources— oil, gold and diamonds —are all industries that have been relatively untapped but may soon be more aggressively pursued, leading to environmental destruction.

Most recently, drug cartels from Latin America have begun using the isolate Bijagós archipelago as a weigh station for smuggling illegal drugs into Europe. Not only are the far-flung islands of the archipelago physically ideal for hiding speedboats and large amounts of drugs, but the government is unable to patrol the archipelago and pursue drug enforcement. The easy money of harboring drug smugglers is also realistically attractive to the economically strapped Bijagós people.

Preservation Efforts

Ecotourism, if implemented properly, would be one way for the islanders to rise out of poverty without sacrificing their sacred sites and natural resources. The archipelago is the only place in the world where one can see hippos swimming in ocean; the islands are also home to five endangered species of sea turtles and rare migratory birds. These could attract those interested in adventure tourism, nature-watching and fishing; however, the industry is limited by delapidated infrastructure and political instability. The government recognizes that the islands’ potential for the economy depends on maintaining their pristine ecosystems, and has plans to market Guinea-Bissau as the “Land of Biodiversity.”

Two island groups are national parks: the southern Orango group, home to saltwater hippos, and the eastern João Vieira group, a breeding ground for a number of endangered sea turtles. Guinea-Bissau also hopes that the Bijagós archipelago might be the country’s first UNESCO World Heritage site. The country submitted the archipelago in May of 2006, but it remains on the tentative list. Also in 2006, a new international initiative was launched to safeguard sacred natural sites. Backed by the U.N. Development Program and indigenous peoples’ groups, the Conservation of Biodiversity Rich Sacred Natural Sites project selected a number of pilot sites with globally important ecosystems, among them the Bijágos archipelago.

Sustainable economic development is the current challenge for Guinea-Bissau if the country is to protect its people and environment, and it is receiving needed attention from international institutions and the European Union, which has expressed interest in investing the $3-$4 million needed to establish refrigerated fish-processing plants on Guinea-Bissau to prepare fish for direct sales in Europe. However, the nation also needs the financial wherewithal to augment the policing of its waters, improve its port infrastructure and attract foreign investment. Cooperation between conservation-minded international agencies like UNESCO and the World Conservation Union (through its West African Regional Coastal and Marine Conservation Program) and the international investment community should result in the development of a truly sustainable fishing industry. Such a development would allow the Bijagós to stay true to their traditional way of life while earning money.

What You Can Do

In July 2007, the NGO Palmeirinha, established through IUCN’s Guinea-Bissau office, conducted a public-education project called “Towards better management of biodiversity and natural resources,” which disseminated information through six and community radio broadcasts, 36 school visits, and six organized video and radio debates. To support Palmeirinha’s efforts to protect biodiversity and the livelihoods and culture of the Bijagós people, contact IUCN’s country office in Guinea-Bissau. In addition, the Regional Coastal and Marine Conservation Program is continuing to organize the NGOs and governments of the coastal West African countries around issues of conservation and sustainable development. Contact the Program’s Director Ibrahima Niamadio for more information.


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Campredon, Pierre. Arguin, Saloum and Bijagos. Film. Programme Régional de Conservation de la zone côtière et Marine en Afrique de l’Ouest, 2003.

New Initiative Will Conserve Sacred Sites Rich in Biodiversity.” Environmental News Service, March 19, 2006.

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