Casamance — A project aimed at protecting forests in Senegal's Casamance region has helped locals lay aside their political differences
Last month, deep in a forest in the Casamance region of Senegal, members of surrounding communities gathered to watch the hypnotic spin of the palm-leaf covered Kumpo, a mythical tribal figure who promotes harmony.
There was nothing unusual in the festivities, save that until fairly recently these people were enemies.
"We have been dancing all night together. In the past, people did not even attend funerals in neighbouring villages," says a community leader, Bakari Jallou.
Casamance is Senegal's most ethnically diverse region, separated from the rest of the west African country by Gambia. But it is not ethnic or even religious differences that have divided people for decades, it is whether they are pro-government or support a separatist movement to become an independent state.
The 30-year civil war, Africa's longest-running conflict, has killed thousands and displaced many more. Senegal's extensive hardwood forests were battlegrounds for the rebel Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC) and the army.
Despite a de facto ceasefire since 2012, the forests are considered no-go areas by many aid agencies. "During the crisis we feared coming into the forest. Sometimes the rebels would ambush us and ask for money, in other areas there are landmines," Jallou says.
The prevailing lawlessness has impeded the use of the forests for traditional livelihoods. Rural communities have resorted to making small incomes from burning trees for charcoal. Lack of regulation has also led to more organised exploitation, with pro-government and rebel forces illegally felling swaths of forest to pay for arms. The timber from prized hardwoods is transported to Gambia and sold for construction or furniture.
It is believed China is a big importer.
"People knew they could make an income from burning trees for charcoal, and others came from outside to cut any trees they wanted," Jallou says.
"Nobody was thinking about how life would be made difficult if the rains didn't come [as a result of mass deforestation]."
Binta Sidebek, who works with Jallou on the communities project, says: "It is the women who are responsible for the food who have suffered the most from the crisis. We used to be able to sell forest products for food and medicine at the market." Sidebek, like Jallou, comes from Koudioube, where life is gradually returning to normal.
The village, which is hosting the festival, was one of four near the Gambia border to participate in a pilot conservation programme, launched in 2012, by the Gambia-Senegal arm of Concern Universal, a British-based charity.
The scheme trained committees from each village in how to sustainably protect their forests and rejuvenate traditional livelihoods. Women, in particular, seized the opportunity to develop collectives for planting trees and learn new ways of marketing forest foods and medicines. Some have taken up beekeeping to sell honey and beeswax.
"We can make much more money than before. We are also coming together to discuss problems and ideas to resolve them," Sidebek says.
Committees tend to be majority female, strengthening their position within the community. "There is more equality now between men and women," Jallou adds.
An evaluation of the 12-month Koudioube pilot found that, since 2012, there has been no illegal logging in the 2,000 hectare (4,940 acre) area and forest density has increased. Fruits are also more plentiful and wildlife species rarely seen before are in evidence.
The forests are now registered with the government as belonging to their communities and continue to be monitored by the committees.
The project has since been implemented in a further eight areas, and there have been requests from other communities for support in replicating the approach.
Last month's festival, attended by regional officials and national media, was a landmark moment to bring everyone together to celebrate their achievements and raise awareness of the scheme.
Working with people who have in-depth understanding of the major issues is key to the project's success. "Before the intervention, people did not trust one another. They used to kill each other, there was a lot of retaliation," says Ansumana Sanneh, who coordinates partnership working for Concern Universal in Gambia.
"Since the project began, the tempo of the crisis has reduced. This has created a chance to build a dialogue between government officials and the MFDC."
Pascal Manneh, locally respected for his environmental work, has become the unofficial mediator between the rebels and government forestry officials. "There is no doubt that without mediation the forests would have been destroyed. The rebels did not have a programme of tree planting, their only means of livelihood was felling trees," he says.
"I am engaging the rebels to lay down their guns and discuss productive measures of income generation. We have deliberately refused to identify the rebels but have asked for the leaders to be trained in forestry skills to support the project. Right now we are discussing an agreement to stop fighting."
The forest project's contribution to conflict resolution is a bonus, but it is a potentially far-reaching outcome that has enabled the scheme to become part of a broader strategy to restore stability in the region.
Its latest tranche of funding, $60,000, has come from the US state department, which last year appointed its first adviser to Casamance, driven by concerns that such an insecure state could become a breeding ground for Islamic terrorism from neighbouring countries.
"The focus of the project is on the forests, but it is really contributing to the peace process," Sanneh says.