In West Africa, a model for worldwide conservation takes root

Anna Badkhen writes: An hour before sunup the Bani River uncoils through the dark Sahel in bright silver curves, a reflection of a day not yet dawned, hardships not yet known, hopes not yet broken. Onto such a magical surface the Bozo fishermen of Sindaga shove off with bamboo poles and float downstream in redwood pirogues, one silent man per boat. The fishermen work standing up: solitary Paleolithic silhouettes keeping perfect balance against the river’s luminescence, each man one with his boat like some pelagic centaur, performing one of mankind’s oldest rites. They cast their diaphanous seines into the night. Handmade sinkers kiss the surface, pucker it lightly, drag the nets under.

By the time daybreak trims burgundy the sparse savannah, the fishermen row their day’s first catch back to the village. In squat banco houses that crowd the river, the men take breakfast of rice and fish sauce. They patch up the nets while their wives and mothers sort the morning haul into giant wicker baskets and lug it to the nearest market town. After midday prayer, the men cast off again.

Such has been their fishing schedule for centuries, aligned with the orderly procession across the West African sky of 26 sequential constellations. Each new star signifies the advent of a windy season, of weeks of life-giving drizzle or days of downpour, of merciless heat or relentless malarial mosquitoes dancing in humid nights. Each star announces the arrival of the blue-tinged Nile perch, of the short-striped daggers of clown killi, of the lunar disks of the Niger stingray, of the toothless garras that like to nibble the bare ankles of laundresses, and that, in the West, are used for pedicures in foot spas.

Or so it used to be. Mali has been growing drier and hotter since the 1960s. For the past three decades, the weather has been chaotic, out of whack with the stars. The rainy season has been starting early or late or not arriving at all. Droughts throttle the land and wring dry the river. Flash floods wash away harvests and entire homesteads hand-slapped of rice straw and clay. Acres of deforested riverbank dry out and blow away, or collapse into the water. The fish run off schedule. “The river is becoming broken,” said Lasina Kayantau, a Sindaga elder. [Continue reading…]

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