We work to conserve this natural space and the Bijagó culture, carrying out cooperation projects.

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Preserving the Bijagó culture

Okinka Pampa’s destiny was to be Queen of the Bijagó society, on the very islands where we’re based. It was her courage, non-violent nature and commitment to protect her people that made her successful in peace negotiations with the Portuguese. The Kingdom of Portugal was advancing on the west coast of Africa: the mainland of Guinea Bissau had already been conquered and the islands, a few hours from the capital, were the ideal place to expand its ports and prosper.

The Portuguese gradually took over the islands, forcing the locals to give up their land and enslaving them. It was Queen Okinka Pampa, who had initially doubted her ability to lead before she took up office, who was able to stand up to the injustices of her people and negotiate on their behalf with the Portuguese leaders. She gave up everything she had: cattle, food and drink for the army in exchange for peace for her people. And she got it.

She also carried out a number of reforms to improve women’s rights and end slavery. Today she’s remembered throughout the country as its most beloved queen.

“The example provided by Okinka Pampa, her willingness to take care of her community, to preserve her beliefs, her culture and her people, is what inspires us to continue this project started by her over a hundred years ago”

During this time, we’ve dedicated ourselves to helping the local people reclaim their traditional dances, to recreate the typical costumes and relearn old trades such as carpentry. We’re supporting this work because we want these traditions to last and be shared with others. We’ve seen how globalisation can reach even remote islands such as these, and this is only natural. Young people leave for the mainland and other countries in search of new opportunities. We want to help them develop an interest in their cultural identity and, even if they leave the islands, to be strengthened by it.

We have secured funding to implement a large number of micro-projects from different organisations and people who’ve heard about our work, but there’s still a lot to be done.

Study of the African manatee for its conservation

The African manatee remains a mystery to researchers. It inhabits the seas off the West African coast and is difficult to study. However, fishermen from the island of Orango have seen them on several occasions, tamely accompanying their boats. That’s why we decided to collaborate and carry out a project that would help to provide more data on this species and improve future research.

As a point of interest, the manatee is the only herbivorous marine mammal, hence its popular name of “sea cow”. Although they’re similar to seals and walruses in appearance, they’re actually much more closely related to elephants. Manatees belong to the Sirenia order, a name which comes, in fact, from the ancient Greek word “siren”, although the animal doesn’t resemble this mythological being at all.

The African manatee never leaves the water, not even to give birth. It has slow, heavy movements and that’s why, for a long time, it was easy prey for hunters and both its skin and meat were prized. Perhaps manatees now tend to keep away from man because they have learned their lesson.

Manatees are a sacred animal for the Bijagó people and hunting is forbidden. Thanks to the animist culture of the islands’ inhabitants, conservation of the African manatee has been quite successful. After all, these “sea cows” had been swimming peacefully around the islands long before any people inhabited them.

Actions to improve food security for the Bijagó population

The number of people living in the Park has grown and, as a result, they’ve converted more land for crops, bringing them in close proximity to the hippopotamuses. It should not be forgotten that this animal is a herbivore and eats about 60 kilos of fresh grass a day. Bolanhas, a traditional floodplain rice crop of the Bijagó people, is a real delicacy for this species.

When we arrived at the Park and talked to the people, the first thing they told us was that they needed help because the hippopotamuses were devouring their rice paddies. Apart from destroying and eating the plants, they also posed a danger for the families who lived in the fields in order to cultivate and look after them.

We got going and, after asking for funding, developed the project. First we tried an infrared-activated loudspeaker to scare off the animals at night, playing different sounds, sirens, voices, barks… but it had little effect on the hippos. Next we tried a gas-powered cannon that was activated by the farmers themselves and made a loud noise, but this wasn’t very successful either, firstly because the hippos got used to it but also because it disturbed the families living in the fields while they were trying to sleep. Finally, we came across a simple, effective and sustainable solution: a solar-powered electric herder.

The control panel can operate all night powered by just a small solar battery, protecting the rice crop with a low-voltage electrified wire. Without harming the ecosystem or its inhabitants, we’ve managed to resolve this food supply problem for the Bijagó people. The hippos now remain in their own area looking for other tasty grasses to eat, without invading the rice paddies.

The rice harvest has doubled in size, producing enough for consumption and also as a reserve.

Improving the infirmaries

But we didn’t just rebuild it; we also sought out qualified nurses who could look after this community. Since then, our hotel and association has been responsible for meeting the nurses’ salaries, helping to improve the quality of life in the village of Eticoga and other nearby villages while supporting local, sustainable development.

But we wanted to do more because we realised just how precarious the small infirmaries are on the islands of Orango National Park. Moreover, some villages were over 20 kilometres from the nearest centre, making primary healthcare difficult for both children and adults. So we decided to secure funding and renovate the infirmaries in other villages, such as Acagume and Ambuduco, with the added advantage that, as one of our ecotourism routes passes through Ambuduco, we can easily monitor its use and state of conservation.

Looking after the ecosystem with elevated constructions

Even a limited number of people in an area such as Orango Natural Park can cause minor damage and erosion to the ecosystem, causing flora to disappear and fauna to seek new locations far from their natural habitat.

We therefore wanted to preserve the mangroves we often pass through. So we sought funding and were able to build elevated walkways, made with local wood. As a result, apart from helping to conserve the biodiversity of the area by reducing our impact, we’ve also made it easier for locals to reach their fishing boats.