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From Seashells to Ministers

During the ResilienSEA project’s Regional Technical Workshop in Joal-Fadiouth (Senegal) in March, part of the project team visited the local women’s mariculture and reforestation association, “Mboga Yaye”. At low tide, a local pirogue took us to their current site to see and chat with the women, hard at work harvesting seashells. The mood was jovial, and as we approached, the women greeted us with some songs. 

We watched them sort out seashells with plastic buckets and sieves, and clean them from the mud they were lying in. The shells they gathered in the muddy waters are mainly ark shells, clams and mussels. The women also harvest oysters who grow on the mangroves bark and on nets installed between the trunks. This is why the association is involved in mangrove reforestation, to ensure the sustainability of oyster harvesting.

Bintu Sonko harvesting oysters from the mangroves. Credit: Guillaume Collanges.

Bintu Sonko, President of the Mboga YayeAssociation, told us that they were suffering from a lack of adequate equipment, such as diving boots, gloves, pirogues, life vests, etc. This gear shortage makes the harvesting arduous. The association is 110 members strong, exclusively women; each member contributes a yearly fee to the association, which is then redistributed during Eid-Al-Adha. The Muslim celebration, called Tabaski in the region, is the most important time of the year for the Serer community.

In 2004, the Senegalese government created around Joal-Fadiouth a Marine Protected Area (MPA) to better conserve the resources (namely fisheries) and all the related ecosystems that help biodiversity thrive, such as seagrass and mangroves. According to Colonel Boucar Ndiaye, Director of the Direction des Aires Marines Communautaires Protégées (DAMCP – Directorate of the Communal Marine Protected Areas), who also attended the workshop, “the creation of the MPA in 2004 has helped improve the sustainable management of seashell harvesting by the Mboga Yaye association, and others. The task at hand is to help the women earn a decent revenue by ensuring that this ancestral tradition can be continued while respecting natural processes”.

Since then, the women spend roughly a month on each harvesting site, before moving on; alternating between sites in the MPA allows for the necessary biological rest-period for the resource to regenerate itself. Periods in which a particular site is open for harvesting are decided in consultation with other women associations from Fadiouth and the MPA manager, Captain Cheikh Diagne.

The result of a hard day’s work: a bucket full of ark clams. Credit: Rob Barnes.

Once harvested, the product transformation is quite simple; the seashells are sundried and sold as is. The association could double their sales by selling the product fresh, but this has proven more complex, as special authorisations are required, and conservation is more difficult. The association is trying to modernise itself and train its members towards this direction.

The revenue generated from the mariculture helps cover the household’s expenses, but in some cases, allows the family to pay for school fees. The most brilliant students then obtain scholarships to study at university in Dakar or even abroad. It is not a coincidence that Léopold Sédar Senghor, the poet who served as the first president of Senegal from 1960 to 1980, was a native of Joal. Multiple ministers (François Bopp, Joseph Ndong, Aïssatou Sophie Gladima Siby, André Sonko, etc.) were born here, and in many cases their education’s funding can be traced back to revenue generated by women collecting seashells.

It was important for the ResilienSEA team to visit this association and see whether the link between seagrass conservation and this economic activity could be made. Seagrass and mangrove ecosystems deliver multiple services to the local environment, people, and economy. These range from providing nurseries for numerous species of fish, sea turtles, and manatees, to stabilising the sediment and protecting the shoreline against storm surges, to sequestering carbon. Another significant ecosystem service is that of water quality regulation. As Mohamed Ahmed Sidi Cheikh, a seagrass expert from Mauritania puts it, “seagrass meadows play an important role in improving water quality; seagrass beds contribute to the purification of coastal waters through the absorption of multiple substances (nitrogen, carbon and other trace metals).”

Healthy seagrass ecosystems are vital for Bintu Sonko and her association, as she explains that “the creation of the MPA in 2004 increased our knowledge about seagrass ecosystems; we now know the crucial role they play in our mariculture activities. Any reduction in the extent of the seagrass meadows in the MPA would have serious consequences for us and our revenues.

Abdou Karim Sall, the President of the Senegalese fisherman’s association, is aware of the role seagrasses play for fisheries, but also for seashell harvesting. He has been advocating for the sustainable conservation of seagrass ecosystems for years. He told us that “ark clams are fundamental for the local economy as an income generating venture. Seagrass meadows are at the bottom of the food chain and are essential for ark clams, for fisheries, and for food security in Joal-Fadiouth as a whole.

The team that made the visit included amongst others the ResilienSEA Project Manager, Tanya Bryan and some journalists from Dakar. Credit: Rob Barnes.

At the end of the visit, Tanya Bryan, the ResilienSEA Project Manager, said “I was really impressed by the communal aspect of this association, and how well the women are organised. Harvesting of seashells has been a part of the Serer culture for generations, but to see this develop into a sustainable economic resource for these women and their families shows once again how valuable seagrass ecosystems are to the people, the economy and the environment in Joal-Fadiouth, and in West Africa in general.”

Working hard during the low tide to harvest ark clams. Credit: Rob Barnes.

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