FOBO, Sierra Leone (Reuters) - Salt is precious in poverty-stricken coastal West Africa, but conservation experts say efforts to extract it are laying waste to mangrove swamps, causing erosion and ravaging fish stocks.
In Sierra Leone, one of Africa’s poorest nations still recovering from a 1991-2002 civil war, lawmakers are preparing a bill to join a seven-nation charter to protect the region’s mangrove forests.
Conservation group Wetlands International says the initiative is essential for West Africa to save the 800,000 hectares (2 million acres) of mangrove swamps it has left, less than a third of the 3 million hectares it started with.
The mangroves are falling prey to the artisanal salt industry because they are most readily available source of wood for fires used to boil up seawater and salt dust — the preferred method of making salt.
Environmental groups are trying to encourage salt producers to use other methods, including solar drying, to reduce the strain on mangroves.
“If the mangroves disappear, fishing will be in crisis,” said Wetlands’ West Africa coordinator Richard Dacosta. “The saltwater tide will invade river estuaries and coastal areas. Local communities on the coast will have to move.”
The region’s mangrove forests also suck up thousands of tonnes of carbon dioxide, and so could be a way for West Africa to get a foothold in the $136 billion carbon market.
“Mangroves sequester large amounts of carbon and so reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Dacosta said.
Mangroves swamps are the amongst the most diverse ecosystems on earth, scientists say. A barrier between the land and sea, they are the nurseries of the ocean, where many species of fish and shrimps breed and their young thrive. Birds roost, snakes seek out prey, monkeys scavenge in them.
They are also a buffer against coastal erosion in a region where much of the population lives in low-lying areas.
On the outskirts of the village of Fobo, 50km (30 miles) south of Freetown, a crab scuttles across mud in the mangrove forest while oysters cling to its roots. Vast areas have already been cleared to make way for rice fields in the nutrient-rich soil.
But the local salt industry is by far the biggest threat.
For generations, villagers have scraped “salt dust” from the soil, added seawater, and boiled it over wood stoves.
Marie Kano, head of the salt producers association, said many of the mangrove trees used for fuel have already gone.
“We don’t have any wood left now,” she said. “My children, sister and father ... all used to cook salt. But because there is no wood anymore, they all left and went to town.”
Access to wood has become a luxury for those with canoes. A small canoe-full of wood costs up to 70,000 leones and is enough to make 10kg (22 lbs) of salt, worth about the same amount of money. Salt panners are barely breaking even.
The West African Mangrove Initiative aims to help nations coordinate efforts to rehabilitate the mangroves, said Mohamed Mansaray of Sierra Leone’s forestry department, by replanting trees and providing alternatives to wood.
Following a pilot project in neighbouring Guinea, the initiative plans to introduce solar powered salt extractors.
Pouring saltwater onto a flat, open tarpaulin to about 1 cm deep, the salt crystals are then left to dry out in the sun.
“I would definitely use this method, as it doesn’t use costly wood,” said Kano, after seeing a demonstration.