2014 - Ongoing
Guinea Bissau and Senegal’s southern region of Casamance are geographically and culturally isolated. Guinea Bissau is a lusophone country surrounded by francophone neighbors and besieged by political instability, corruption and drug trafficking. Although Senegal is often regarded as a model of democracy and stability, West Africa’s longest running conflict, a low level independence struggle led by the Mouvement des Forces Démoratiques de Casamance (MFDC), has been going on in Casamance for more than 30 years with serious consequences for the population and largely unreported in the media. Senegal’s government and population are primarily Wolof, but the majority of Casamançais are Diola. Unlike most ethnic groups of West Africa, the Diola have no caste system. Their communities are based on extended clan settlements with a highly egalitarian organization and collective consciousness. Their culture is profoundly linked to nature and their environment. Although many have accepted Islam, their traditional beliefs are in one God (Ata Emit) "The Master of the Universe" and spirits such as Kankouran and Bakin that protect their families, communities and sacred forests. The conflict in Casamance was born from a sense of neglect and economic disenfranchisement by the central government in Dakar and over control of the region’s rich natural resources and tourism potential.
Economic activity and social life are centered along the region’s rivers, tributaries and waterways, its mangroves, forests, rice fields and beaches. Most communities sustain themselves through fishing, rice cultivation, cashew nut orchards and palm oil and wine production. Casamance and Guinea Bissau are also on the front lines of the battle against climate change. The region is home to one of Africa’s most important mangrove forests. The rich biodiversity in mangrove forests make them excellent carbon sinks and essential in the fight against global warming. According to a recent study by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), mangroves are being destroyed at a rate three to five times faster than global deforestation. The report called mangrove forests “one of the most endangered ecosystems on the planet.” In Casamance, drought and rising sea levels due to climate change have caused the salinization of the delicate mangrove ecosystem. Salinization, along with over exploitation, have led to the destruction and degradation of large swaths of mangroves. In turn, fish stocks have declined dramatically, rice paddies have been inundated by salt water and agricultural land rendered unsuitable for cultivation, adversely affecting the food security and way of life of the local population. The combined effects of conflict and climate change have drastically reduced livelihood opportunities in the region causing large numbers of youths to emigrate in search of work and a better future. Many disappear in the desert conflicts of Mali and Libya or crossing the Mediterranean in an attempt to reach Europe.
From conflict to climate change to human migration, the forgotten enclaves of Casamance and Guinea Bissau are paradoxically at the forefront of some of the most critical issues of our time, issues that are profoundly related to the region’s unique culture and natural environment. Relative stability in Guinea Bissau, the election of Senegal’s president Macky Sall and a unilateral cease-fire by the MFDC have led to tentative prospects that an end to the Casamance conflict is perhaps possible. This project is meant to shed light on the extraordinary natural beauty, culture and potential of the region as well as the issues that must be addressed if a lasting peace and sustainable development are to take hold at this crucial juncture in the region’s history.