The people planting mangroves to revive a Gambian community

Volunteers plant mangrove saplings along a river flat in Sankandi, The Gambia. Photo sent by our Observer.
Volunteers plant mangrove saplings along a river flat in Sankandi, The Gambia. Photo sent by our Observer.

Severe drought has been affecting the town of Sankandi in The Gambia for the last four decades, and it has taken its toll on the environment. Mangrove forests that grew along the river died, which had repercussions on the local community, who use mangroves as a main resource. Our Observer wanted to work out how to restore the mangrove forests and help the struggling local population.

Ansumana Darboe co-founded the Sankandi Youth Development Organisation in 2005 to promote sustainable development in the region and empower local rural communities. Since 2014, the organisation has been focusing on restoring the once-lush wetlands near the river, which Darboe hopes will boost the local ecosystem and so help the community by repopulating the river with fish. The presence of mangroves encourages fish to breed, so mangrove forests are often linked with a high fish population.

The mangrove, a distinctive tree with long roots that grow in salty, brackish water where few other plants would thrive, is a species under threat. Mangrove forests are found in bodies of saltwater across West Africa, but some forests are shrinking due to deforestation, dams and irrigation, and climate change. In The Gambia, some mangrove forests have been severely damaged because of persistent drought.

"When the mangroves died the fish disappeared"

Darboe told the FRANCE 24 Observers about the effects the drought had on the town.

About five communities in Sankandi are affected by the drought. The area is very sparse and huge. Normally it’s a very busy area with lots of activity, but when mangroves die, people migrate and move away so activity dies.

When the mangroves were there there was an abundance of fish in the water. Lots of people lived along the river and they could always get a good catch. But when the mangroves died all of the fish population disappeared.

Dr Mark Huxham, a researcher in environmental biology at the Edinburgh Napier University, has been working with Ansumana Darboe on the challenges the community in Sankandi is facing. He says that the mangrove forests probably died due to a severe dry season and human intervention.

There was a big dieback along the river about 20 years ago. My speculation is that it is to do with dams that were built along the Gambian river in the 1960s and 1970s that would have changed water flow. Most species of mangroves grow in the sea but grow much better where there’s some freshwater. They can’t grow in pure seawater.

Where the Sankandi youth group works is quite a long way up the river, where there’s low salinity water. If you change the river flow with dams, the water could have become more salty and that would have cause dieback. A dry season can also cause the water to become more salty, and you would only need a month or two of that to kill a large number of trees.

Death of mangrove forests hits poorest people the hardest

Huxham says that mangroves not only encourage fish to thrive in the area, but also have other fundamental uses for nearby communities.

More than 90 per cent of people in The Gambia rely on trees for their cooking fuel, which means there’s a lot of pressure on the forest resources here. People could also be using the timber from the mangroves for building houses.

It doesn’t surprise me that people have moved away. That often happens in these communities, because mangrove products and services are particularly important for the poorest people in a society, those who rely on non-market goods like firewood. This would hit the poorest people hardest because they’re relying on those resources day-to-day.

The Sankandi Youth Development Organisation began in 2005 and initially focused on community development and empowering local women and girls. The mangrove planting project began in 2014, and won a grant in 2018 from the environmental organisation Earthwatch Institute.

Everything run with volunteers

The planting project has been well-received in the community, with many locals volunteering to plant saplings. Darboe is hoping to garner more external support for the organisation.

People in the community like the project. They’re very supportive. Whenever we do a planting exercise everyone goes down to the riverbank to see it being planted, everyone wants to see it happening. We’ve already planted 150,000 mangrove saplings. The area is huge though, so we need billions!

Our number one challenge is funding. We want more research on mangrove planting and the results, data collection and evaluating what we’ve done. We also want to teach people about sustainable development, we want to communicate on that and empower people to do more themselves. We have to buy the mangrove saplings we want to plant. We also have to provide food for the locals if they work with us: they are not paid, so we cook for them. Every time we plant more than 200 people get involved. It’s the entire community.

Since it began, the organisation has launched other initiatives aside from replanting mangroves: it trains locals in beekeeping, setting up hives and empowering members of the local community to set up their own apiculture businesses.

Article by Catherine Bennett (cfbennett2).