By Olga Adhikari
In the light of the recent German-Senegalese Young Naturefriend cooperation and their exchange, it only seems appropriate to provide some context about the country itself from a political and environmental perspective in order to understand in which circumstances the actions of the Association Sénégalaise des Amis de la Nature (Senegalese Naturefriends) are placed in.
The Political Background of Senegal
Senegal is often applauded in the media as a bastion of political stability in Western Africa as it enforces many democratic practices, such as widespread civilian participation in political discourse, and independent media. Recently, President Macky Sall also reduced the presidential term from seven to five years – operative following the end of Sall’s term. Overall, the political condition of Senegal serves as a model of an African democracy in the mainstream view, however, that does not directly imply that it is a nation devoid of internal skirmishes and issues. On the other hand, certain aspects of Senegalese life must be appreciated as well.
Senegalese politics are enabled through the implementation of a semi-presidential, democratic republic, where the prime minister of Senegal is the head of government and the head of state, the president, has control over executive power. Since 2012, the post of president has been held by Macky Sall – his reduction of the presidential term was the focal point of his campaign as presidential term limits are incredibly long in certain African states, which has led to near-dictatorial regimes, such as the Robert Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe.
Overall, Senegal possesses a multi-party system which is guaranteed by the constitution allowing democratic civic participation which is further enforced by the existence of trade unions and municipal societies. The country itself is divided into 14 regions over which governors administrate while certain urban communes, like Dakar, are ruled by an elected municipal council. All these measures provide for a very politically involved society. Nevertheless, the political stability in Senegal does not apply to everything, recently Amnesty International reported on unjust trials of the opposition and it also appears that President Sall has been taking measures to limit the possibility of political success for his opposition.
Environmental issues in Senegal
Deforestation is the process of riding a widely forested area of its natural microenvironment and trees, as you probably already know. However, many people tend to focus on the fact that the logging of trees prevents the production of oxygen, nevertheless it is also very important to acknowledge that in order to produce oxygen, carbon dioxide is needed from the atmosphere – with fewer trees, CO2 remains in the atmosphere, contributing to the greenhouse effect, while less oxygen is in circulation. It is even estimated that deforestation contributes to 15% of greenhouse gas emissions.
The main cause of deforestation is, of course, the logging of trees – but for what purposes? Some deforestation occurs naturally, through the spreading of natural fires for instance, however, predominately it occurs as a result of demand for lumber for the purposes of fuelwood or manufacturing. Sometimes forests are torn down for agricultural lands, such as the deforestation of the rainforest in Malaysia for the purposes of palm oil plantations. In Senegal, owing to the popularisation of mass-agriculture as a means of living and providing food to their expanding population in order to cut down on imports, stretches of forest are being cut down in addition to people using the forest as a source of income – they cut down trees and produce charcoal or log illegally to be sold.
Reforestation is currently being used in Senegal as a means to counteract deforestation with one of the focuses being the planting of trees for the purposes of agroforestry through which, in addition to absorbing carbon dioxide, provides the people with a source of food and products which they can manufacture soaps from to sell. It also aids in the protection of subsistence crops such as sorghum and millet when planted around the fields.
Owing to foreign industrial fishing which has been occurring on the coast of Senegal, often illegally, has depleted the supply of fish and deprived many local traditionally trained Senegalese fishermen of their livelihoods. The fishing industry is crucial to Senegal and supplies many jobs as following the daily catch the fish are transported to trucks, which distribute them to various fish processing plants and then to markets in Senegal and neighboring countries. However, now with the international intervention in Senegalese coasts, fishermen are struggling to make catches as bountiful as they were before, severely impacting local Senegalese communities as 60% of the protein intake of coastal communities in Africa is made up of fish. The current situation is alarming, causing food insecurity and impacting the fishing economy.
At times, the industrial fishing taking place in Senegal is illegal, undertaken by large ships with permits to fish in other areas of the ocean but barred from Senegalese coasts. These vessels have the capacity to take in tons of fish with each haul in addition to using unsustainable methods of fishing, such as trailing fishing nets over the seabed in order to maximise their catch, which seriously harms the environment. Owing to these illegal fishing practices, the West African fishing industry is losing ca. $1.3 billion worth of fish every year. In order to make a living, fishermen regularly have to catch juvenile fish – fish which would’ve produced the next generation of fish, keeping the circle going and securing their abundance. All these factors put together foreshadow a bleak future for fishing economies, however, Senegal is focusing more and more on agriculture, so maybe that will counteract the nutrition-related effects of the fish crisis. What will happen to the thousands whose jobs are linked to fish, though?
Land erosion in Senegal is most commonly brought upon by sand mining and the logging of mangroves – trees which play a large role in controlling land erosion through binding and building soils. Villages and homes are being taken by the sea leaving former habitants displaced and forced to move to the city, the countryside or to houses which the government is planning to build. Land erosion has many effects: flooding, the salinization of water and soil, and the degradation of ecosystems, amongst others. A result of land erosion of Senegal which affects most is the salinization of water and soil which renders lands infertile, however, farmers and the overall Senegalese population are taking measures to prevent soil erosion such as the building of rock walls and planting of trees and plants in order to hold the soil together.
The Senegalese branch of Naturefriends has five main aims and I decided to ask a member of Naturefriends Senegal a few questions to see how environmental organisations like Naturefriends work in Senegal and implement change.
Youssoupha Traore – an active member of Amis de Nature in Senegal on the Naturefriends movement in Senegal
OA: According to you, what is the biggest challenge of working as a Naturefriend in Senegal?
YT: First of all, the biggest challenge is battling the naysayers. In countries like Senegal, it is hard for most to believe that there are individuals who are neither rangers nor environmental authorities but who decide through passion to act as volunteers for the wellbeing of the environment. Therefore, when you become a Naturefriend in the eye of the society, you become a weird person as a result of the ideologies and actions you are undertaking. For instance, where everyone accepts and takes plastic bags or cups – you refuse. When everyone just jumps into cars and other fuel-based transport – you hold on and think about how you can travel without impacting the environment. Or when you see people harming the environment through their activities and you try to explain to them the impact of their actions … and so on.
“Unusual” thoughts and behaviour such as this in Senegalese society render you a very boring person. In this case, people often funnily say things like ‘you are not a ranger nor a member of the environmental ministry so why you tired yourself and us by the way about environmental issues?’. These criticisms are not without effects – I have seen some people who were very active in environmental organisations give up the cause of pledging for the protection of the environment because they came to the conclusion that the society does not deserve their efforts because the latter always criticises them instead of listening. Nevertheless, we, I mean myself and other youth workers, we persist and today some people have started to see us as people, whose stance on environmental issues should be followed.
OA: Naturefriends Senegal is currently leading a children’s non-residential forum – through which methods do you engage the children and effectively pass on knowledge of the environment to them? It’s not that easy to raise awareness in children as a result of their perspective on life and the world.
YT: Yeah definitely – it is a bit hard to raise awareness when it comes to children. However, they are the perfect target if you want to have a positive impact in the future. So in activities that involve the children we conceal the message in activities the children like the most. For example, if we take the activities we created with the children in the last camp, we initiated games and animations in which the children learned how to help the turtles, what to say to your fishermen parents about the nets they use to save thousands of sea species. The children really did have a lot of fun amongst each other and they all end mastering the importance of the message. So this is just only one way we deal with children.
OA: How do you involve the local community in your projects? Are they willing to contribute to make their environment a better place? If so, how do they help?
YT: At university, we used to say “Everything you are doing for me, without me, is against me” – I follow this principle. Any activities we do in a given local area are often planting or sensitization, we do our best to ensure that the local community themselves get involved, sometimes even over 90% participate. We are always transparent with the communities and make sure that they have a sense of awareness about what we plan to do in their locality, the importance of the activity, and how they can contribute to their own surroundings. Fortunately, they are often willing to nurture their environment if they see a group of people coming from elsewhere to motivate them, they will join in.
OA: Climate protection is one of your activities, what measures do you enact in order to achieve this within the Naturefriends movement?
YT: Here the Naturefriends movement organise activities like communication, sensitization, education and raising awareness about climate changes through organising panels. We often invite experts about climate protection to discuss with students at universities, however, from a more material angle, we also reforest frequently to minimize “injuries” of the climate.
OA: How does ecotourism benefit local communities in Senegal and what do you do in order to promote and enable ecotourism in Senegal?
YT: Ecotourism is itself a means of development – it is one of the most promising sectors for rural development. However, it isn’t without its limitations – one of which is simply the luck of the rural inhabitants whose activities are largely dependent on the balance of our ecosystem. Through living within such a balance they are much more competent to deliver the most appropriate promotional strategies and benefit from the activity of ecotourism than others. Some sell art items like African drawing boards, carvings etc or become eco-guides.
In order to promote and enable ecotourism in the country, we use strategies like showing our most beautiful natural sites like Djoudj National Park or Delta du Saloum and others to the tourists coming from abroad but also to the whole world through the internet, our websites and social media. The idea is to promote Senegal as a destination for ecotourism.
OA: What is it like for you to cooperate with other groups of Naturefriends? Do you notice any differences in your approaches to spreading environmental awareness and endorsing eco-tourism?
YT: The cooperation with other groups of NatureFriends is really important because cooperation with them helps put into action a lot of plans related to the protection of the environment and the empowerment of the Naturefriend Organization itself. What is also important in the cooperation is that it helps discover new approaches to spreading environmental awareness to others and more. Our cooperation, for example, with Naturfreundejugend Deutschland, made us notice that we have many differences in our approaches of raising awareness. Ultimately, it was something mutually beneficial and crucial to our development because we have been able to add those strategies to ours to become more efficient.