Koffi Akodewou has rolled up his trousers. Slowly, he pulls the narrow wooden boat towards the bank. The 22-year-old wades through the wet sand and briefly turns back to Afito Lake. In the distance, it is possible to make out a small, black dot. It is one of the three hippopotamuses Akodewou was up close to just a few moments ago.
He had sailed towards them in the boat, as numerous people looked on from the bank – including the many fish traders waiting for the fishermen to land their catch. Hippos are part of everyday life here, but that doesn’t make the massive animals any less fascinating. Akodewou, himself a fisherman, knows that he has to approach them quietly and carefully, so as not to scare them. Care and composure are essential if more tourists are to be shown the hippos in future and learn about their significance.
Fish, herbs, drinking water
In Afito, the animals are now welcomed by all. The village is located in Togo on the border with Benin. Since 2017, the area at the Mono River Delta has been recognised by UNESCO as a biosphere reserve. The German development agency (GIZ) supported both West African nations on the path to international recognition. And that was just the beginning.
On behalf of the German Environment Ministry, GIZ is now working with partners from the area to successfully involve local people in the nature conservation project. Around 530,000 people in Benin and 360,000 in Togo live outside the area that forms the core zone of the reserve. The initiative focuses on the 90,000 or so people living in direct proximity to this. In a survey, the vast majority of them stated that natural resources were key to their subsistence and survival. These include fish from the 544-hectare lake, herbs for traditional medicine from the sacred Godjé-Godjin forest and sources of drinking water.
The village of Afito is a good example of how local people are increasingly recognising that nature conservation benefits them. Some 200 people have visited Afito since the region was designated a biosphere reserve by UNESCO. Previously, no foreigners ventured here. Many of the 350 villagers now hope that the hippos will attract more day-trippers from Togo and Benin. Their village is located within easy distance of both Togo’s capital Lomé and Cotonou, the commercial centre of Benin.
What’s more, the hippos not only attract nature lovers. The mammals, which can weigh up to 4,000 kilogrammes, and their nutrient-rich dung are also a magnet for fish. The fish population in the pachyderms’ habitat is on the rise. And big fish are hugely important for the people in Afito and the inhabitants of the 63 nearby villages, as they live off what they catch.
The catches had deteriorated
People like Agnonkpon Agomayi. She and her husband decided to move to Afito many years ago. Back then, the fishing was still good. The mother of seven wanted to use the income to finance her children’s schooling. She was worried when the catches began to deteriorate.
Agomayi makes her way towards a poster laid out on the shore of the lake. It shows four different sizes of fish. The smallest are just eight centimetres long, much too small to gut, fry, transport cost-effectively via the dirt road and hope that someone in the next village buys them. Agomayi points to the poster and says: ‘The men have often only brought back fish this size in recent years.’ Overfishing is primarily the result of population growth in the two neighbouring countries of Togo and Benin. More people need more food, which is compounding the pressure on natural resources.
Better nature conservation
To support better nature conservation and nonetheless ensure that those living near the lake have a good quality of life, GIZ’s local partner organisation, the Centre de Développement des Actions Communautaires, has launched various initiatives in cooperation with the villagers. In 2017, an association was founded that now has more than 150 members. It organises patrols on the shore of the lake. The hippos have been hunted by poachers in the past, despite their being on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.
The association has also introduced further changes. Many children used to go fishing instead of going to school. It was therefore decided that fishermen must be at least 15 years old. This is also monitored during the patrols, which fish trader Agomayi is part of. Her impression: ‘People have accepted the rules.’ Large-meshed nets have also been introduced to protect the small and, in any case, unprofitable fish. These allow them to slip through the net. A poster, which is displayed at regular intervals along the shore of the lake, helps people to check their catch. It is a simple tool that enables the fishermen to monitor the impact of the measures on a voluntary basis.
Times of hunger are over
Agomayi has no need for the poster today. She can see immediately that even the smallest fish are at least 16 centimetres long. The trader lifts the heavy basket on to her head and makes her way home, where she prepares the fish. Some of them will be lunch for her family, the rest will be fried and sold for the equivalent of just under 14 Euro.
For some time now, the fishermen have also been catching larger fish such as tilapia. These can be sold individually and provide a welcome source of additional income. Agomayi looks up from her pot briefly: ‘When the fish got fewer and smaller, we were sometimes really hungry,’ she remembers, ‘but now we eat well every day.’ The fish is served with sauces prepared using leaves.
An hour’s drive from Afito is the Godjé-Godjin forest. Many of the trees there are hundreds of years old. They are situated in the core zone of the Mono Delta biosphere reserve. These areas cannot be inhabited by humans, and farming is forbidden. If you make your way carefully and quietly through the forest, you might be lucky enough to spot a white-throated guenon, a small and shy species of monkey. The squirrels and various species of bird are easier to find.
Koffi Koumedjina makes his way almost reverently through the forest. He has removed his sandals. The 46-year-old priest is responsible for preserving knowledge and the practice of traditional remedies. He comes here every day. He treads quietly and carefully, stopping every now and again. Tall and lean in his white cape, he is dwarfed by the old trees.
Koumedjina cannot imagine life without the forest. He not only finds herbs for his medicine there. He and two other priests also tend to three fetishes. A fetish can be a statue, an altar or even a tree. In this case, they are three sources of drinking water. Koumedjina is responsible for his family’s fetish, known as Bagbo, which translates roughly as ‘we will return’. The source lies in a clearing, surrounded by tall trees. It is a sacred place that residents of nearby villages also visit when family members are ill.
Without the forest and its trees and plants, Koumedjina would not be able to perform his task of preserving knowledge about remedies. ‘Herbs are at the heart of traditional medicine. That’s why we have to protect the forest,’ he says. Yet, until recently, there was little willingness to do so. Many trees were felled for firewood. Large and old trees were used to make boats. The sacred Godjé-Godjin forest was dwindling by the day.
The establishment of the biosphere reserve, with political backing from the environment ministries in Togo and Benin, came just in time. A local association, founded by residents, has already reforested 30 hectares in the Godjé-Godjin forest together with the three priests and the GIZ project partners. Volunteers ensure that no trees are felled and that there is no hunting in this area. Nature is to be left in peace.