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Banc d'Arguin: The Imraguen guards of culture and nature
afrol News - In 1989, the Mauritanian national park Banc d'Arguin was admitted to the UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites. Fringing the Saharan desert's Atlantic coast, the park is made up of sand dunes, coastal swamps, small islands and shallow coastal waters. It is however even more known for its biodiversity (birds, fish, turtles, dolphins, etc.) and its fishery resources, carefully managed by the local Imraguen fisherman. Foreigner's overfishing off the park however remains a threat.The Banc d'Arguin National Park is located on the Atlantic desert-coast of Mauritania, midway between the capital Nouakchott in the south and Nouadhibou in the north. Its shallow, marshy waters, containing one of Africa's most productive ecosystems, makes the marine and terrestrial park, barren only at the first look, a unique resource.
Banc d'Arguin scenery
|© Mauritanian govt|
Some 1,000 Imraguen fishermen carry on the tens of thousands of years of documented human population. Earlier, due to a more humid climate, population was higher and remnants from the Almoravide civilisation are found on a number of the park's islands.
Photo: Mauritanian govt.
The Imraguen, or "those who gather life", carefully gather the resources of the park. The government has no fear of resource exploitation by the Imraguen, on the contrary. Carrying on with age-old life styles and fishing techniques, the Imraguen themselves constitute a valuable cultural resource, managing the natural resources in a sustainable way.
They almost exclusively harvest the migratory fish populations using traditional sailing boats, and fishing techniques, unchanged at least since first recorded by 15th century Portuguese explorers, include a unique symbiotic collaboration with wild dolphins.
The park originally was established by the Mauritanian government in 1976 to protect both the natural resources and the valuable fisheries, which make a significant contribution to the national economy. There was also an insterest in protecting scientifically and aesthetically valuable geological sites. The park administration thus places major emphasis on patrolling the area to prevent illegal fishing and disturbance to nesting waterfowl.
Further, the park aims to fully integrate the Imraguen populations with park policies, aid them in their socio-economic development and ensure maintenance of traditional customs. Permanent entry points have control of access into the park and are used survey work. The wardens undertake maritime patrols and control access to the isles.
Since 1985, the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) and the Mauritanian government has worked to implement management plans for the area, notably for the monk seal reserve. The WWF already in the 1970s lobbied for the establishment of the park, and has remained an important pressure group. Contribuiting with valuable management competence, it however from time to time has threatened to marginalise the Imraguen's voice.
Thus management agreements between the the Mauritanian government, the WWF and another Wester conservation organisation, the Fondation Internationale du Banc d'Arguin, lead to fishing restrictions in the park, especially during the spawning season.
Restricting the Imraguen's access to their traditional resources had the consequence of splitting their society. One part "modernised", abandoning subsistence fishing and turning instead to hunting sharks and a type of ray. They took to using motor boats for fishing, also seeing themselves as under pressure from foreign fleets and in response to incursions by other motorised vessels directly outside the park.
For the Imraguen, the priority lately has been to gain compensation for fishing restrictions by means of development aid.
Banc d'Arguin National Park
Location: On the Atlantic desert-coast of Mauritania, midway between Nouakchott in the south and Nouadhibou in the north, approximately 150km south-south-east of Nouadhibou. The park extends from Cap Timiris in the south, includes the Ile de Tidra, Ile d'Arguin and Cap d'Arguin to Pointe Minou in the north. There is an isolated extension at Cap Blanc. The boundary extends a maximum of 60km into the shallow sea and inland by 35km into the Sahara desert. Situated in Nouadhibou and Azefal provinces.
Establishment: Created on 24 June 1976 by Decree No. 74 176/P/G and established in 1978. The wetland area was designated a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention in 1982. Two outlier satellite reserves, Baie du Lévrier Integral Reserve on Cap Blanc and Cuevecillas Integral Reserve on the Côte des Phoques, were added in 1986. The national park decree provides all protective, legal and administrative mechanisms for the region. Inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1989. The Mauritanian government has the tenure rights.
Size: 1,200,000ha (nearly 12,000 km2); 50% marine and 50% terrestrial (the Ramsar site covers 1,173,000ha). The altitude ranges between 5m below sea-level to 15m.
Physical features:The park provides an unique example of a transition zone between the Sahara Desert and the Atlantic Ocean. It is a vast area of islands and coastline, largely composed of windblown sand of Saharan origin, together with a large expanse of mudflats, with particularly well developed tidal flats in the vicinity of Tidra Island. Of the 15 named islands there are several up to 1km wide and 5km long, the largest, Isle of Tidra is 8km by 35km. The coastal waters between Cap Blanc and Cap Timiris are very shallow, and only reach 5m deep at low tide even up to 60km offshore. The 3,100ha mangrove swamp in the park is a relict of a previous humid geological period when Banc d'Arguin was a vast estuary mouth for rivers flowing from the Sahara.
Climate: Rainfall is irregular and very low with an average of 34mm-40mm per year. Temperatures are fairly similar all year, with a mean monthly minimum in December of 8°C and maximum in September of 34°C. Strong winds up to 8m/sec, have been reported.
Fauna: Of the estimated seven million wading birds which use the Atlantic flyway, approximately 30% spends the winter at Banc d'Arguin, which hosts the largest concentration of wintering waders in the world and one of the most diversified communities of nesting piscivorous birds in the world. Land mammals include Dorcas gazelle, jackal, fennec, sand fox and hyenas. Marine mammals regularly recorded include several whale and dolphin species and monk seals. Four species of turtle frequent the area. Fish are one of the most important components of the fauna. The shallow tidal flats act as important breeding and nursery areas.
Cultural heritage: Archaeological sites of the Neolithic period and vestiges of the Almoravide civilisation are found on a number of the islands. The local people, the Imraguen or Amrig, relate many of their customs to the natural environment. Even their name literally means 'the ones who gather life'. Imraguen tribesmen still maintain their age-old life styles, based almost exclusively on harvesting the migratory fish populations using traditional sailing boats. Fishing techniques include the unique symbiotic collaboration with wild dolphins to catch schools of grey mullet.
Human population: The 1000 or so Imraguen tribesmen live in seven villages within the park, but are dependent on water supplies collected outside the boundary. They base their economy on subsistence fishing using traditional methods. Use of the area by nomads is decreasing due to the area becoming more desertified. The Baie du Levrier and the harbour of Nouadhibou have become important bases for international fishing fleets.
Tourism: The area was closed for access up to 1986 and is considered unsuitable for large-scale tourism. The park is now administratively autonomous, but dependent on the Presidency of the Republic. No hotels nor restaurants exists, and an authorisation to enter the park must be obtained by the park administritation in advance. Address: Parc national Banc d'Arguin, BP 124, Nouadhibou.
Local community however is divided. Traditionalists among the Imraguen are suspicious of such change and to fishing restrictions at all. 'Modernists' however, partly excepting restrictions in change for aid, 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 question remains open what these changes make to the cultural value of the Banc d'Arguin park. Justification for the national park establishment had included its outstanding example of man's interaction with his natural environment; the Imraguen's traditional fishing and resource managament.
The most obvious threat to the Banc d'Arguin park has however been overfishing by international fleets in the waters just off the park - probably a direct cause behind the cultural and manageral transition of the Imraguen. Overfishing by mostly European Union vessels is severely depleting fish resources within the park as well and causes a decline of the breeding colonies of fish-eating bird species.
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. Local small fishing boats, on the other hand, are forced to fish further and further out to sea or to concentrate their activities in sensitive coastal areas.
According to the WWF, fish stocks off the entire West African coast have been devastated by damaging fishing techniques that have caused a decline in species like dolphins, sharks and turtles. Julie Cator, WWF's European fisheries expert, says the EU is partly to blame, as it subsidises European fleets to overfish off West Africa; an agreement with Mauritania alone costs EU taxpayers 266 million euros (about 240 million dollars) a year.
Within the Banc d'Arguin National Park, control with the fisheries however has increased over the last years. In 1998, the WWF supplied the Imraguen with three fast patrol boats to guard the fishing grounds within the park.
Their first 'victims' were actually Imraguen themselves, fishing from motor vessels, and within half a year, no fewer than 72 'pirate' boats were intercepted. There was a quick effect in decreasing ventures by foreign fishermen far into the coastal waters of the Banc for fear of having their boats impounded.
By protecting their own resources, the Imraguen have become the "defenders" of the park, providing a level of surveillance from their own sailboats and patrol boats that the park administration would be unable to carry out alone. Having people living within a park surely has been a solution rather than a problem in Banc d'Arguin.
Pierre Campredon, Executive Secretary of the International Foundation for the Banc d'Arguin, concludes that, "What is needed is not only adequate funding, but also more enlightened fisheries policies in Europe and Asia, and an end to irresponsible and destructive practices by distant water fishing fleets - in short, greater international solidarity - to help Mauritania safeguard this complex and beautiful World Heritage site."
The question of the park's "defenders" and traditional managers is however complex. The Imraguen are among the poorest people in Mauritania. The question is raised whether it is morally right turning their culture into a museum, thus denying the Imraguen the right to participate in the country's economic development while living on their ancestral lands.
Through external interference, the Imraguen have already partly been pushed into a market economy and the very foundations of their society have been profoundly shaken. Does that make them unfit to live on and harvest off their ancestral land?
By staff writer
© afrol News
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