Story | 06 Dec, 2022

The Restoration Initiative: A Guinea-Bissau story

Helping local communities turn the tide on degraded mangrove forests in Guinea-Bissau

For centuries, rice farming has transformed the coastline of Guinea-Bissau, altering the landscape that mangroves need to thrive. Now, locals are working to save their way of life by restoring forests, rehabilitating rice fields and exploring new sources of revenue.

Coastal farming villages in Guinea-Bissau tread a thin line between too much or too little water. Irregular rainfall and rising seawater levels, a consequence of climate change, are threatening the viability of harvests and livelihoods. In order to mitigate the adverse effects of these conditions, the TRI Guinea-Bissau project joined forces with ten at-risk villages as they work to reverse a legacy of coastal degradation.

Implementing changes to prepare for the future is essential. “In five years, we won’t be able to live here anymore,” says Dominique Djata, Village Chief of Jobel, a village located on the country’s north-western coast. “We can’t even imagine being here in 15 years,” he explains.

Djata’s community knows that without the mangroves to protect the coastline, water will enter the houses as the sea level rises. With this in mind, the TRI Guinea-Bissau project expanded its efforts in 2021 to restore the viability of these rural communities along three fronts: 1) re-establishing mangrove ecosystems, 2) helping households diversify their incomes and 3) rehabilitating traditional rice production.

Coupling mangrove restoration with rice field rehabilitation

The farmers of Guinea-Bissau, over decades, have established a rich, traditional farming heritage of using mangrove rice cultivation. Coastlines are all but cleared of mangroves, save a few that act as a buffer against storm surges and erosion. Farmers have built dykes – embankments of earth – to prevent seawater from ingressing and ruining their crops and to divert the salty water away from the rice stalks. With sea-level rise, rice fields are increasingly abandoned because the dykes are no longer effective at protecting the crops.

In exchange for assistance reinforcing earthen dykes and the incorporation of advanced hydraulic management in strategically important areas, rice farmers working with the TRI Guinea-Bissau project and the French NGO Universsel committed to flattening out the dykes around abandoned rice fields to once again allow seawater to reach mangrove seedlings, or propagules, which have taken root on their own. This process of facilitating the natural renewal of mangroves is called assisted natural regeneration and is being supervised by national NGOs, Tiniguena and AD, and the Biodiversity Agency of Guinea-Bissau.

Still, clearing away the dykes and allowing mangroves to distribute on their own is not always sufficient. Propagules are also being planted by hand. Since 2020, around 168000 mangrove seedlings have been planted and 464 ha of mangroves have been restored with the help of over 1300 villagers.

In Guinea-Bissau, rice field rehabilitation must go hand-in-hand with mangrove restoration, especially in the most vulnerable villages. Rice field rehabilitation ensures food security and sustainability and by protecting and optimizing the harvests from fields already in use, it slows the conversion of untouched ecosystems into modified landscapes. Moreover, it merges traditional farming customs with more efficient technologies, which help villages overcome the negative impacts of sea-level rise and irregular rain.

A key dimension supporting rice field rehabilitation includes the distribution of rice seeds that are more resistant to saltwater and more resilient in the face of water shortages. In 2021, the TRI Guinea-Bissau project supplied 20.4 tonnes of rice seeds to seven partner villages along with important machinery, such as rice threshers and huskers and more efficient wood stoves. Three rice seeds are provided but the two main varieties are the kablac and the yaka sow. The kablac is a short-cycle variety, which reaches maturity in up to 130 days. This is an advantage when the rainy season is shorter. However, it requires systematic water management and the continued use of the dykes. The yaka sow has a longer cycle but produces more: nearly 3 tonnes/ha. Importantly, the rice seeds provided by the TRI Guinea-Bissau project have been certified and are more likely to sprout compared to the seeds used by local farmers, which are often considered genetically degraded due to the cross-breeding of different varieties.

Support interventions to advance restoration on multiple fronts

Concentrating solely on rice production is not enough to ensure the survival of coastal communities in Guinea-Bissau. To help local communities diversify sources of household income away from rice production, the TRI Guinea-Bissau project is supporting farmers, especially women, to establish new horticulture areas, solar salt farms and oyster farms. In 2021, nearly 600 women from seven villages were involved in preparing areas for gardening. In each of the villages, a designated area was fenced off and wells were dug, which allowed for onions, tomatoes, chilies, peppers, okra and African aubergines to be planted.

The TRI Guinea-Bissau project provided equipment and training for an additional 68 women to produce solar salt. Solar salt is created by pulling saltwater into shallow ponds. With exposure to sun and wind, the water evaporates leaving behind salt crystals. Like farming, there is a season for production, which will run from February to May 2022. Each woman received three UV-resistant synthetic fabric covers, which have a potential production capacity of 50 kg of salt per day. Another 50 women received oyster farming equipment and training sessions. They expect to collect their first harvest in October 2022. The TRI Guinea-Bissau project has committed to continue introducing 50 women every year to this promising source of revenue until 2023 when the project ends.

Together, the efforts of the TRI Guinea-Bissau project, its partners and local communities are helping create a more sustainable path forward for the people dependent on and devoted to these magical coastal ecosystems. The TRI Guinea-Bissau project provides a holistic package of support to restore mangrove ecosystems, facilitate the renewal of traditional rice production, distribute vital materials and share knowledge. All of which will serve to advance the well-being of Guinea-Bissau’s unique coastal villages and the revival of mangrove forests in the face of an uncertain future.

TRI Guinea-Bissau project provides a holistic package of support to restore mangrove ecosystems, facilitate the renewal of traditional rice production, distribute vital materials and share knowledge.

This story is from TRI Year in Review 2021