Alternative livelihoods strategies and technological improvements are being suggested to reduce the pressures on mangrove forests and to improve the well-being of traditional salt producing women.
In some communities along the coast of Benin in West Africa, women produce salt by evaporating seawater over fires of mangrove wood. Unfortunately, this traditional practice contributes to the destruction of mangrove forests and harms the women’s health. Environmental NGOs and other groups are collaborating with women to solve these problems by developing new livelihoods that preserve mangroves, and their solutions could be applied in other countries in Africa and beyond.
Mangrove forests are rich ecosystems that thrive along the coasts of tropical countries across the globe. Mangroves contribute to the well-being of surrounding communities by providing crucial ecosystem services such as supplying timber and fuel wood, preventing saltwater intrusion, and protecting areas from floods, storms, and erosion. They are also important habitat for valuable species of fish and crustaceans. From a global perspective, they are important carbon sinks, and so the conservation and restoration of mangrove forests is increasingly being promoted as a nature-based solution to climate change as well as a way to help communities adapt to a more volatile climate.
In the area around Benin’s Birds Island, in the south-west corner of the country, the cutting of mangroves and the resulting degradation of the ecosystem increases the threats of sea level rise, tidal waves, and flooding. One contributor to that degradation is local women burning mangrove wood for salt production in their homes – a practice that severely affects the health of women and their families by exposing them to harmful smoke, which can cause respiratory problems, and put them at risk of burn wounds.
In order to address both the environmental and health problems caused by this method of salt production, the Beninese Environment Agency (ABE) began working on solutions in 2002. For example, it proposed that women evaporate saltwater on tarps exposed to sunlight, a method that is more efficient than evaporating water over mangrove wood fires. But the agency encountered hurdles while attempting to implement its new methods at pilot sites. Not all salt-producing women endorsed the project; some were strongly attached to their traditional production methods. And while evaporating saltwater on tarps is successful in Sahelian countries such as Mauritania, long rainy seasons in Benin mean it is not possible to produce salt on tarps during many months of the year.
More recently, ABE and Eco-Benin – an environmental NGO involved with the conservation and restoration of mangroves – ran projects that encouraged women to develop their own ideas for alternative livelihoods that would be at least as profitable as salt production. The women’s main suggested activities were tomato gardening and fish farming of clarias and tilapia. A third proposed solution was to improve the women’s cooking stoves so they run on gas instead of mangrove firewood, but the economic profitability of this idea would need to be assessed through a pilot project.
Other countries in West Africa are facing similar issues. In Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, and Senegal, women are processing fish by drying it in the smoke of mangrove wood fires, which poses environmental and health problems like those observed in Benin. The Organization for the Environment and Sustainable Development in Cameroon has implemented a project around Kribi, in the country’s southern coastal region, that engages women in developing strategies to diversify their incomes, which generates a higher sense of ownership. Building on their experience with fisheries, the women developed activities around aquaculture: first shrimp farming, which created other problems such as water pollution and diseases, and later crayfish farming, which proved more successful. The women now control the entire value chain of a crayfish farming operation, from production and processing to transport and sale of the end product. Additional activities included changes in fish-smoking techniques aimed at reducing mangrove deforestation, cultivation of medicinal plants, and advocacy for mangrove protection.
To be successful, strategies to reduce pressures on mangrove forests and improve the sustainability of traditional activities such as salt production and fish smoking must be highly context-specific. The women of Benin could benefit from a new livelihoods diversification project that builds on the knowledge gained from various pilot projects carried out in recent years. It could potentially be developed in collaboration with the Abidjan Convention Secretariat as part of the Mami Wata project, run by GRID-Arendal, which is working to protect ecosystems and communities along Africa’s Atlantic coast.
Louis PILLE-SCHNEIDER & Dr. Zacharie SOHOU
Pictures : Alison Amoussou (Abidjan Convention secretariat) and Marco Vinaccia (GRID-Arendal)