Finding the right word for the future



Posted on 28 April 1999  | 
Nouakchott, Mauritania: The birds that winter in the Banc d'Arguin National Park, on the Atlantic coast of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, offer an unexpected view of the Sahara region. What other national parks are there that present such a remarkable convergence between desert and sea?

The millions of cormorants, pelicans, herons, flamingoes, gulls and terns that converge on the Banc each year bear witness to an equal abundance of life in the marine part of the park - yellow mullet, dolphins, groupers, sharks, rays and so on. Such profusion is explained by a remarkable phenomenon. The surface water of the ocean is constantly driven by the trade winds, allowing deep, cold water to rise up with its rich content of mineral salts. When this water reacts to light, there is an explosion of phytoplankton that sustains countless crustaceans and fish, which in turn provide plenty of food for the birds.

Banc d'Arguin became a national park in 1976, following pressure from the conservation organisation WWF in recognition of its importance as a winter sanctuary for birds. The Mauritanian government was less interested in the protection of the area until it became apparent that the Banc also had an important role in renewing and sustaining fish stocks.

The coast of West Africa is very rich in fish, which makes it a prime target for trawlers from Russia, Japan and European nations. The Banc d'Arguin is a vital spawning ground with significant economic implications for Mauritania, which derives the bulk of its income from selling fishing licences to foreign countries. But this provokes a serious conflict of interest. The area is already subject to serious overfishing, which not only threatens the coastal communities that depend on fish for their survival but also has implications for future resources. The problem for the Banc is that it offers at the same time a source of short-term gain and the best hope for retaining abundant fish stocks.

Of immediate concern is the situation of the Imraguens, a semi-nomadic people numbering about 1,500 and occupying six villages. They have lived on Banc d'Arguin for centuries and are the only people authorised to fish off the Banc. But in recent years the Imraguens' way of life has changed: they have abandoned subsistence fishing and turned instead to hunting sharks and a type of ray because there is a market for the fins in South-East Asia.

If nothing is done, these species will disappear within a few years and the Imraguens will have to find other, perhaps more destructive ways of surviving in a world where money rules. They have already taken to using motor boats for fishing, seeing themselves as under pressure from foreign fleets and in response to incursions by other motorised vessels.

For several years, WWF International and other organisations have helped to ensure the protection of the Banc d'Arguin, partly by helping the Imraguen to use their resources sustainably and also by guaranteeing their exclusive right to Banc's fish stocks. For their part, the Imraguen have agreed to sustainable management of their natural riches, undertaking not to use motor vessels for fishing.

Last October, WWF Switzerland - which has taken a close interest in the Banc d'Arguin since it was discovered by the zoologist Luc Hoffman, a member of the family controlling the Swiss pharmaceutical company Hoffman-La Roche and co-founder of WWF International - supplied the Imraguen with three fast patrol boats to guard the fishing grounds. Their first 'victims' were the Imraguen themselves, fishing from motor vessels, and since then no fewer than 72 'pirate' boats have been intercepted.

This intervention is already having an effect. Foreign fishermen are now reluctant to venture far into the coastal waters of the Banc for fear of having their boats impounded. But the arrival of the patrol boats had other consequences, too. It prompted a series of meetings between conservationists and the Imraguen in a vast tent at Mamghar, at the southern entrance to the national park, with the aim of reconciling the demands of man and nature in what is, after all, a World Heritage Site.

For the Imraguen, the priority was to gain compensation for fishing restrictions during the spawning season, by means of development aid. The park management, WWF and the Fondation Internationale du Banc d'Arguin - created by Luc Hoffman - were concerned to convince the Imraguen of the damage that would be caused if current overfishing were to continue.

After long negotiation, the Imraguen agreed to observe the restrictions of the spawning season - but only for 1999. The would review the position, they said, in the light of this year's experience and of the attitudes of the Westerners who claimed to be trying to help them. The conservationists had hope for more, but at least there had been some movement in a process of change that is already dividing the local community.

Traditionalists among the Imraguen are suspicious of such change, while 'modernists' are keen to profit from development aid that would allow them to diversify their sources of income and engage in activities other than fishing.

The notion of sustainable development is a difficult concept for a people whose language contains no word for 'the future', but unless it can be fully understood the threat to one of the world's great reservoirs of biological diversity will remain.

(885 words)

Michel Chevallier is a Press Officer with WWF Switzerland based in Geneva

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