Words by Justin Woolford – for the MAVA Foundation

In the last of our five-part series offering insight and inspiration for contemporary conservation, we visit Banc d’Arguin where maintaining natural and cultural value depends on reconciling conservation and development, and securing sustainable financing.

Coast of contrasts

Where the Atlantic and Sahara embrace, and mighty ocean and boundless desert fuse, a vast coastal wetland stretches the length of the Mauritanian coast, its seemingly infinite sandbanks, islands, mudflats, lagoons and seagrass beds a place of contrast and diversity. Together, they form the magnificent Banc d’Arguin.

Every winter, huge flocks of waders migrating from the North set down and mingle with exotic residents such as Royal and Caspian terns, Western reef herons, Banc d’Arguin spoonbills and Great white pelicans. And twice a day at low tide, wing against wing, in their millions they gorge on shellfish, molluscs and worms.

With trade winds blowing sediment off the land and the Canary upwelling bringing nutrient-rich waters to the surface, it’s an idyllic nursery for marine life, including green sea turtles, bottlenose dolphins, tiger sharks, eagle rays, guitarfish, and monk seals.

And alongside live the Imraguen, an ancient fishing people whose menfolk sail wooden boats called ‘lanches’ and catch yellow mullet, while the women dry the fish in the sun and make bottarga from the roe.

I come from the east of Mauritania, near the border with Mali, and when I came to Banc d’Arguin as a young man, I’d never seen the sea before! The flamingos were so big I thought they were goats! says Abou Gueye, Operations Director, Banc d’Arguin National Park. Here, people and animals live in harmony – each find refuge, and a place to thrive.

Diplomacy, decree and empowerment

Portuguese sailors first noticed Banc d’Arguin’s birds in the fifteenth century but it was not until 1976 that French scientist, Theodore Monot, convinced the authorities to create the Banc d’Arguin National Park.

Luc Hoffmann, MAVA’s founder, first visited in 1982 for a gathering of the International Waterfowl & Wetlands Research Bureau (now Wetlands International). At the time, the area’s rich waters were beginning to attract industrial fishing fleets, and by the end of the 1980s, overfishing was becoming a serious problem despite Banc d’Arguin being designated a Wetland of International Importance in 1982, and a natural World Heritage Site in 1989.

Luc understood that the park’s destiny depended on the Imraguen becoming its stewards, says Antonio Araujo, former FIBA and MAVA programme manager. To minimise fishing pressure, he encouraged the Mauritanian government to ban motorised craft while granting exclusive access to the Imraguen as long as they used traditional sailing lanches.

In 1986, working closely with Mauritanian authorities, Luc also helped establish the International Foundation of the Banc d’Arguin (FIBA) – now merged with the MAVA Foundation – to support management of the park in close collaboration with Imraguen communities. A first critical step was setting up a maritime surveillance system to counter the threat of overfishing.

The Imraguen patrol the park using speedboat”, says Antonio. They know their survival depends on the park and that if they open fishing access to foreign boats, it will be game over.

Opening a boatyard to enable the Imraguen to maintain their traditional sailing lanches and develop local know-how also helped cement their role as park stewards. Under the cooperative ownership of its blacksmiths and boatbuilders, the yard has shaped a new profession in maritime crafts which has brought newfound status to its practitioners.

Luc recruited two carpenters from Brittany to teach local people how to build boats – a skill they’d all but lost. One of them stayed for eight years!, says Antonio. Luc was a real entrepreneur. His great victory was helping empower the Imraguen.

The lure of profit

Supporting the Imraguen to manage, fish and patrol its waters has helped preserve their culture and traditions, and saved the Banc d’Arguin from destruction. Yet local communities’ entitlement to fish in the park is also a double-edged sword.

From the 1990s, growing demand from African and Asian markets for sharks and rays has led many Imraguen to abandon traditional mullet fishing in favour of this more lucrative catch and a more singular pursuit of wealth. And although sharks and rays are not part of the Imraguen diet, black market fishing generates quick income and has decimated once abundant populations of these animals in the region.

In 2003, we bought up and burnt all the nets still being used to catch bottom feeding animals like nurse sharks and put in place controls, says Abou.

Since then the Imraguen have officially targeted meagre – a tasty white fish similar to seabass – but nevertheless, insidious fishing of sharks and rays continues. As top predators, their decline affects overall ecosystem health and productivity, including impacting some migratory waders. And along with the growth of commercial meagre fishing and the concentration of profit in the hands of wholesalers, shark and ray fishing has undermined traditional fisheries. Social structures are changing, widening inequalities and threatening local food security and livelihoods, especially for women who depend on small-scale processing of mullet.

Shark fishing is illegal in the park and so theoretically, it doesn’t exist, says Antonio. But denying its existence makes it very hard to negotiate an agreement with fishermen to limit fishing effort, for example, and give these animals and communities a chance to recover.

A different threat comes from industrial trawlers operating just outside the park. While fishing is a critical source of income for Mauritania accounting for nearly half its export earnings, it’s hard to control, and the park’s straight-line boundaries ignore ecological intricacies and dependencies.

The park is an important nursery for Mauritania’s lucrative commercial fisheries, says Abou. Meagre, for example, spend half the year in the park where they spawn. But when they leave the park, any fleet licensed in Mauritanian waters has the right to fish them, and industrial fishing has seriously compromised stock sustainability.

Besides overfishing, the park also faces other threats. Nouadhibou, Mauritania’s second largest city, has an internationally important industrial port just 30 kilometres from the park’s north-west corner. Offshore, oil prospecting is underway on its western limits. And inland, a new coast road between Nouakchott and Nouadhibou serves the new town of Chami. Situated on the park’s eastern border, it has fuelled an exodus from local villages with many Imraguen seeking work in a nearby gold mine.

Climate change is also visibly affecting the park, where several times a year many villages now become inaccessible, and some islands important for resident breeding birds are flooding due to changing tides.

Applying the science

Despite the challenges, there is still hope for Banc d’Arguin, its people, and its wildlife.

One of a new generation of environmentalists in Mauritania, Djibril Ly was born near Cap Blanc in 1986, the same year in which FIBA was created – something that he describes as a happy coincidence. Volunteering with Club UNESCO from the age of 15, he now works for the park, a specialist on Imraguen fishing, society and economy.

When I first visited Banc d’Arguin in 2008, I was struck by its vastness and beauty. And since then, all my studies, research and work have focused on understanding this unique place – its ecosystems and its people, says Djibril. Birds are only the visible part of its riches, the rest is underwater. And the Imraguen’s traditional knowledge is unique in West Africa – the way they fish yellow mullet, make bottarga and build their lanches.

Applying insights from his PhD research on how interactions between natural and socio-economic systems shape fisheries in the park, Djibril is helping develop management approaches that reduce fishing impacts while supporting livelihoods.

For the past three years, we’ve been trying to measure the economic impact of responsible fishing on the income of Imraguen fishermen, says Djibril. Many still don’t understand that using certain techniques and targeting species like meagre and mullet will generate more income and benefit in the long-run than fishing rays and sharks – but changing habits and perspectives takes time and patience.

Djibril’s day-to-day activities include gathering and analysing data on fisheries, plants and birds, as well as collaborating closely with Imraguen communities.

To promote sustainability and strengthen community autonomy, we’ve provided support through microloans, including for bottarga processing by Imraguen women, says Djibril. Much remains to be done but we’re on track and I’m young, so I have lots energy! I hope my generation will adopt a different consciousness – a life in harmony with nature.

A fund for the future

Perhaps the most significant legacy of Luc and MAVA’s work in-country is the Banc d’Arguin and Coastal & Marine Biodiversity Trust Fund (BACoMaB), the first conservation trust fund in West Africa. Established in 2009 by a coalition of partners, including MAVA, Germany’s KfW Development Bank, the Fonds Français pour l’Environnement Mondial and the Agence Française de Développement, it mobilises finance from diverse sources to support marine and coastal conservation in Mauritania.

Sustainable funding is a challenge for protected areas around the world, especially in these times of crisis, says Charlotte Karibuhoye, Director of MAVA’s West Africa Programme. BACoMaB sounds simple but setting up a successful trust requires care. A good level of capitalisation at the start is key. And professionalism, good governance, and making the case for investment are critical for investor confidence. Given the importance of fisheries revenue for Mauritania, the benefits of protecting the Banc d’Arguin are obvious, and the government is one of the principal investors, using funds from its Fisheries Partnership Agreement with Europe.

With MAVA’s forthcoming closure in 2022, the trust is crucial for scientific research, continued biodiversity monitoring, and marine surveillance, as well as for Imraguen communities.

Sustainable finance

The story of the Banc d’Arguin – as well as those of conservation in other iconic sites by MAVA Foundation partners – shows the recipe for successful conservation relies on combining a handful of key ingredients. These include using good science and research, empowering and collaborating with local communities, meeting needs through nature-based solutions, and working across political and national boundaries. All of them take time, and require long-term commitment, perseverance and dedication – something Luc embodied throughout his life’s work, and that shape MAVA’s conservation approach.

And yet neither successes in Banc d’Arguin, nor those in MAVA’s other iconic sites would have been possible without funding – and the need for sustainable financing is perhaps the single most important lesson for conservation from Banc d’Arguin.

Conservation Lesson #5 – Sustainable Financing

As the twin crises of nature loss and climate breakdown converge, conservation organisations should pursue a variety of innovative financing mechanisms that secure and scale investment from the public and private sectors, unlocking additional funds and sustainable financing for conservation and development.

With perhaps $100 billion going into global conservation each year, the annual conservation finance ‘gap’ – the financing still needed to reverse nature loss and maintain a healthy planet – is estimated to be between $200 billion and $300 billion.

Closing this gap requires innovative and flexible financing. With approximately $44 trillion in economic value generation moderately or highly dependent on nature, the several hundred billion needed to ensure a healthy planet is a small price to pay.

Fortunately, conservation finance is gaining momentum with more and more organisations, banks, governments, entrepreneurs, donors and private investors entering the field, not least through the Coalition for Private Investment in Conservation, a global initiative focused on increasing private, return-seeking investment in conservation, and the Conservation Finance Alliance whose conservation finance guide sets out the full range of available finance mechanisms.

Valuing nature and people

The EU pays Mauritania millions of euros a year to fish its waters. Yet the profits coming to foreign fleets plundering fish stocks along the West African coast are multiples more.

The fate of Banc d’Arguin is inseparable from that of its people, and unless the park, whose estimated total economic value is more than €300 million a year, delivers for the Imraguen in return for their care, it will not survive.

The biggest challenge facing Banc d’Arguin is reconciling resource conservation with community development, says Djibril. We need local people to be even more involved in the governance of the park. We must keep investing in them and narrow the economic gap between lanche owners and non-owners. Conservation needs to work for all the Imraguen. That’ll be the test of our success.

Whether empowering local communities to manage their lands and waters, securing fairer fisheries agreements between nations, or hardwiring the rights and roles of Indigenous Peoples in international environmental and conservation agreements, the Banc d’Arguin implores us to properly value both nature and people.

The Banc d’Arguin is like a table piled high with food, and around it, are a lot of hungry people, says Djibril. It’s of inestimable value, worth more than gold and silver. And future generations have a right to witness and prosper from it.

As a species, humanity is at a crossroads. The choices we make now as a global community in recovery from COVID-19, will shape the future of life on Earth. Sustainable finance for conservation and development is one building block which can help us move in the right direction.


Icons & Insights

Read the individual stories about MAVA’s iconic sites:

Conservation Lesson #1  from the Camargue – Science & Advocacy

Do good science and make sure it addresses real-world challenges. And for real impact, add advocacy with partners, informed by practical solutions and evidence of nature’s value.

Conservation Lesson #2  from the Bijagós – Biocultural Approach

Acknowledge, respect and safeguard the unique values, culture, practices and rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities, and how their cultural and spiritual traditions integrate conservation, enabling them to manage territories and resources in ways that benefit people and nature.

Conservation Lesson #3  from Doñana – Nature-Based Solutions

Saving life on Earth relies on all relevant stakeholders jointly developing nature-based solutions that deliver prosperity and well-being for people while respecting and maintaining the integrity of healthy natural systems.

Conservation Lesson #4  from Prespa – Transboundary Collaboration

Conservation beyond borders relies on sustained collaboration at all levels between many different actors. For success, recognise realities on the ground, listen deeply, enable local people to take the lead, deliver benefits, and commit to the long-term.

Conservation Lesson #5  from the Banc d’Arguin– Sustainable Financing

As the twin crises of nature loss and climate breakdown converge, conservation organisations should pursue a variety of innovative financing mechanisms that secure and scale investment from the public and private sectors, unlocking additional funds and sustainable financing for conservation and development.