1. Mali: Women’s groups restore forests and improve fisheries in the Inner Niger Delta (Wetlands International Mali, IPS)

| May 24, 2010

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Fatoumata Dienta looks proudly at the grove of acacia trees that she and her friends have just planted. Soon the flood will come, and these trees will disappear under the water. That’s a good thing: the forest will serve as a breeding ground for hundreds of fish. Many of these fish will end up in the nets of fisherfolk and on the dinner plates of families in the village of Akka, in the Inner Niger Delta of Mali.

The Inner Niger Delta is a large floodplain at the edge of the Sahara. One million people depend on its natural resources and earn their livelihoods as fishermen, cattle breeders and farmers.

Mrs. Dienta and her friends planted the trees as part of the BioRights strategy. This strategy is a key part of the NGO Wetlands International’s forest restoration project. Here is how it works.

Mrs. Dienta’s women’s group received a micro-loan. Many similar women’s groups used the funds to start vegetable gardens, or raise small animals. But instead of paying interest, the groups were required to plant three hectares of native acacia trees. If the trees are still intact after one year, the micro-loan becomes a grant.
The overall return rate for the micro-loans to the various women’s groups was 100%. Now the money is used as a revolving fund in each the village concerned. Although the BioRights project is finished, the activities it spawned are now self-sustaining and the benefits continue.

Communities used to call the flooded forests “local banks.” People understood their value. The forests provided medicines, firewood and fish. Villagers used them for shelter during storms on the open plains. They were also breeding grounds for many species of water bird.

But increased human and cattle populations, drought, dams built upstream and climate change has degraded most of the forests. The natural resources that people depend upon were badly affected. As farmers and fisherfolk struggled to secure food and incomes, they often turned to unsustainable methods. This further jeopardized the delicately balanced ecosystem.

Communities have always played a leading role in rehabilitation projects organized by NGOs. Farmers and fisherfolk planted trees, and encouraged natural regeneration. This was done by ensuring good seed dispersal, and keeping livestock away.

Communities called for the rehabilitated forests to be protected. Local bylaws now lay down the rules for using natural resources. They also state what sanctions will be used against those who do not respect these measures.

Management committees have been formed, composed of representatives from different communities. They are now doing their best to implement local bylaws, although these are not always legally binding in the eyes of the judicial system.

The innovative BioRights approach generated income for the women while at the same time restoring forests and ecosystem services. Families are now reaping the benefits of restoring the forest. Many valuable fish species have returned, and local fishery products are now sold even outside of Mali.