Senegal oyster growers fend off rising seas with mangroves


WAIST-DEEP in brown water, Maria Ndong inspects a cord with rugged oysters clinging to it just below the surface. She raises a knife and cuts the string, slick with algae, measuring her catch before flinging it onto the deck of a nearby boat. 

As recently as a decade ago, the oysters would have been stuck to the roots of the dense mangroves that cover this corner of southern Senegal’s roughly 5,000-sq-km Saloum Delta. Then, Ndong and the other women of her village, Dassilame Serere, would have cut the tree itself to harvest the mollusks that are their livelihood. 

But three years ago, Ndong and her fellow villagers began replanting the mangroves, which were overexploited for decades by villagers seeking firewood, farmland or oysters, and have been battered by rising seas caused by climate change. 

The mucky, tangled forests of the West African coast absorb and blunt storms, nurture a diverse range of life — including young fish, crabs and shorebirds — and store vast amounts of carbon in their root systems. For the villagers of Dassilame Serere, the mangroves offer protection against the rising tide and the crashing waves that eat away at Senegal’s coastline. “Without the mangroves, the animals would disappear, and so would we,” says Ndong, 40.

A few years ago, Ndong noticed how some of the plants and animals that were common in her youth were no longer present in her corner of the delta. Around the same time, a group of researchers at the Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar connected the disappearing animals to the declining mangroves.

From 1950 to the early 2000s, Senegal’s coastline receded by an average of 7.2ft a year. During the same period, almost a third of the mangrove forest disappeared, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (UN). 

The roughly 530km Atlantic coastline, where roughly half of Senegal’s 17 million people live, continues to erode. It’s crumbled so much in the country’s far north that in the city of Saint-Louis, 1,500 people have already moved inland to camps miles from the sea. Authorities warn that 15,000 people or more are at risk of being displaced. 

Like much of Africa, Senegal is paying a disproportionate price for climate change. Rising sea levels have caused widespread erosion and flooding in low-lying areas, and heat and drought accelerate the evaporation of water and increase salinity, killing off mangroves. 

“Culturally, economically and socially we’re linked to the mangrove,” says Mamadou Bakhoum, head of the regional intervillage association. “We need to fight to preserve them.” 

With a grant from the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development, Bakhoum led the villagers in the replanting of the mangroves. Slowly, the forest began to grow back. 

But replanting the trees wasn’t enough. As they harvested parts of the mangrove along with the oysters, the villagers were killing the mollusks’ natural habitat and further destabilising an already fragile ecosystem. 

To protect the remaining forest, the women started putting stakes with thin ropes in the mud for the oysters to latch onto. In addition to reducing the pressure on the remaining mangroves, it lets the oysters grow bigger. Ndong now sells fresh oysters by the piece to hotels in seaside resorts for a much higher profit. 

All around the young mangroves, the villagers have seen the return of fish, crabs and other species that had disappeared. The land recovery process advances slowly but surely, Bakhoum says. “Soon we’ll be able to plant in spots that had become desert and sandy and which have again become suitable for reforestation.” 

On the other side of the delta lies a future the people of Dassilame Serere are trying to prevent. 

In Djiffer, a small fishing community perched on a shrinking piece of land, two dozen young men were dragging heavy stone blocks and tipping them into the sea on a day in September. A slender man in a dark blue kaftan oversaw the work, shielding himself from the sun with a bright red umbrella. 

Mouhamadou Lamine Gaye had paid 300,000 West African CFA francs (RM1,965) from his own pocket for a truckload of rocks, so villagers could build a barrier toward the ocean hoping to slow the erosion, if only temporarily. 

“Every year the ocean gets closer, and every year the authorities promise they’ll do something to halt the rising water — next year. Djifer might not have another year. That’s why we decided to take matters into our hands,” said Gaye, a local Muslim religious leader. — Bloomberg / pic AFP

  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition