The Riverwatcher: Salatou Sambou

 

As part of our Stewards of the Wild portfolio featuring individuals on the frontlines of conservation, Atmos speaks with Kawawana conservationist Salatou Sambou who, for years, has worked to revive traditional fishing practices in the Mangagoulack communities and patrolled southern Senegalese waters to ensure that regulations on where and how fishing takes place are being respected—and, ultimately, to save the area from destitution.

INTERVIEW BY JENNIFER O’MAHONY

PHOTOGRAPHS BY DENISSE ARIANA PÉREZ

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Salatou Sambou is a cofounder and spokesman of Kawawana, an Indigenous and Community Conserved Area (ICCA) of fishing villages in the municipality of Mangagoulack, southern Senegal. Kawawana is an abbreviation of “our local heritage to be preserved by us all” in the local Jola language. For more than a decade, Mangagoulack’s traditional fishing communities have thrived while fish stocks have rapidly declined elsewhere in this West African nation. Kawawana has revived traditional practices to allow fish to breed undisturbed, while regularly patrolling the waters to ensure that regulations on where and how fishing takes place are being respected. The community has also transformed the activities of women oyster farmers to make this other source of income environmentally friendly and has revived ancestral wisdom about forest management to create a sustainable supply of fuel and building materials. Sambou spoke with Atmos about how close Mangagoulack came to destitution due to overfishing and how the community has adapted the lessons of the past for the demands of today.

Kawawana is a coastal and marine area of 9,665 hectares fully governed, managed, and conserved by local initiatives and people like Salatou Sambou.

Jennifer O'Mahony

Tell me a little about why you founded Kawawana and who was involved in setting up the association.

Salatou Sambou

Until the 1990s, our waters were so full of fish that we were able to use harpoons to catch them and there were very large species visible in the river. Then we started to notice declining numbers of stock. No one had ever anticipated that our resources would start disappearing like that. By 2008, the situation had gotten so bad that we founded our community fishing association to enable us to tackle the problem. We held extensive meetings in the village to find a solution with our elders, religious leaders, and existing community groups.

Jennifer

The Jola [Mangagoulack’s main ethnic group] are distinctive in language and customs from the rest of Senegal. Could you tell us a little about being Jola and how the Jola culture preserves its traditions?

Salatou

Our culture is really distinctive, and that’s what we want to uphold. The heritage left to us is something we believe in deeply, given its power and how effectively it has served us. Our way of living is the main staple of Jola culture, and it is a power we pass down from generation to generation, in a way that does not happen anywhere else. Being Jola means treating people equally and being united and strengthened by a democratic decision-making process for the community. We don’t have a village chief in the way most people would understand it, because all the big decisions are taken collectively in village meetings. The bonds that hold our community together are incredibly strong.

Jennifer

What are the main principles of the Kawawana method of conservation?

Salatou

Firstly, we run security patrols to check there is no poaching in our waters and to intercept illegal fishing in them. We also have a monitoring program, which checks the numbers of fish, birds, and mammals in our area. We also make regular checks on fishing families’ incomes and on the health of the forest and mangroves. Finally, we regularly run radio call-in shows to spread awareness of our activities in the region and to educate other fishing communities in our methods.

Three zones of conservation have been established in the Kawawana conservation areas, all marked by colors: red, orange, and yellow.
Red= a no-take area where no fishing or collecting shells or wood is permitted. Orange= reserved to fishing for the local market and consumption. Yellow= open to fishing, but with limitations of allowed fishing methods and gear.

Jennifer

What were the main practices you revived from the past?

Salatou

We banned nylon nets in the Kawawana fishing zone. Fish need freedom just like people do, and when fish are free, above all during the day, they visit breeding sites. However, if they are disturbed 24 hours a day, they will start to look for alternative spots. Beyond that, nylon nets destroy things very easily, and the fish tend not to have a very long shelf life. The nets also break apart, and the sections left in the water kill the fish, which will never be consumed. The sea is polluted by rotting fish stuck in these nylon nets. The next thing we did was the oyster harvest. Jola people have observed periods of harvest and periods of rest for oysters since ancient times. The women now leave signs which let people know that picking oysters is banned, which gives the oysters time to grow. When the season begins, they remove them, and the harvest begins.

Jennifer

How has Kawawana changed things for you? What is the current situation for fishermen today in southern Senegal?

Salatou

The current situation for fishing communities on the Casamance River has been transformed. In the designated zones that we have established, there is a good haul of fish, and what we can make at market is similar to what we made before the decline in stock. In fact, it is really only in the Kawawana-managed zones now that you have fishermen making a decent income in our area. Having said that, we now face the new difficulty of poachers coming to our waters in search of fish, having exhausted their own supply. We do not have a moment to rest, and we struggle to maintain 24-hour surveillance due to a lack of funds.

Sambou is currently engaged in promoting the expansion of ICCAs in Casamance and the region at large.

Jennifer

You mention the difficulties of life before Kawawana. Could you expand on that?

Salatou

Before Kawawana, I would describe life as a constant struggle, for the fishermen and also for the women who sell the fish at market. Our main resource was gone, the good life was behind us, and it was a constant worry for us and also those who were used to eating our fish. It was a problem we all had in common, which helped us achieve a cohesive vision for the whole community, not only for the fishermen. Many of us were so indebted it was difficult to buy food.

Jennifer

Kawawana is now a reference in Senegal and more broadly in West Africa as an example of sustainability and community engagement in fishing. What is your advice to others who may be in a similar situation to the one faced by Mangagoulack?

Salatou

Indigenous people must understand that conservation of our natural resources is not only beneficial for their survival but also for their cultural identity. They have the obligation to value ancestral knowledge and practices as a heritage bequeathed to future generations. Conservation is also job creation, tackling juvenile delinquency and keeping young people close to the soil that belongs to them. We must not allow people to exploit our resources whenever, wherever, and however they want. Everything has to be properly regulated if we are to have the results that we want. Respecting our rules is also advantageous for fishermen coming from outside Kawawana’s zone. If they take all of our fish and all that is left is water, then they will realize that you cannot live off water alone.

This article appears in Volume 03: Flourish/Collapse of Atmos.

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