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Guardians of the green: Empowering ecotourism and community-based forestry in West Africa

Blog | Tue, 28 Nov, 2023 · 12 min read
A woman guides a tour through the forest

In the heart of Senegal's picturesque Popenguine Reserve, a group of 50 individuals, armed with cameras and dozens of questions, is slowly moving through the forest towards the coast. The group – all community-based forestry experts from 15 West African countries and international organizations – takes a pause to observe a group of little egrets (Egretta garzetta) feeding in the shallow waters of Popenguine’s sweet water lagoon, which was built by the local community.

The group is led by a local volunteer and ecoguard, Ms Ndeye Ndella NDIAYE, who explains that the reserve, along with its sweetwater lagoon, serves as the heart of the community, hosting hundreds of bird and animal species every year. This thriving ecosystem began its journey in 1986 when around 115 women from the community formed the Popenguine Women's Gathering for the Protection of Nature (RFPPN). Determine to challenge the status quo and protect their environment, these women aimed to halt and reverse deforestation.

Over the years, their efforts began to bear fruit. The once-silent forest now echoes with the songs of hundreds of bird species, and various animal species, such as gerogryphic antelopes, duikers, jackals, and monkeys, have started to reappear. Today, Popenguine stands as one of Senegal's most thriving community-based forestry sites, jointly managed by women from eight villages. In addition, the community generously provides office space for a local NGO as well as for the National Park's field agents underscoring their dedication to collaborative conservation efforts

A green forest with a lake
A board with pictures of wild birds

"The primary goal of creating the reserve is to protect the environment. Our mothers have already initiated activities like gardening and nurseries. After the reserve's creation, the National Parks Directorate began to support women in various activities within the reserve, including gardening, nursery management, and reforestation," Ndeye explains.

The women play a significant role in activities to protect the local forests and wildlife while also providing sustainable livelihoods for the community.

"The approach we take is to preserve nature. For instance, we prohibit women from cutting wood, so we had to introduce alternative actions. We purchase gas cylinders, which we sell at lower prices, and each village has its woodlot for firewood. We also create a campsite for income," Ndeye continues.

The campsite is part of their eco-tourism activities, providing accommodation and guided tours to both local and international quests, led by local ecoguides, like Ndeye. These tours offer visitors insights into the diverse plant, bird, and insect species, as well as the community’s conservation and restoration efforts. Additionally, the villages produce and sell local food, accessories, and clothing.

Woman selling hand-made products in Africa
Tour guide walking through the forest with a group

"We engage in catering, welcoming tourists who spend the night. All these activities are initiated by women. The community also establishes stores for cereals, including rice and millet, which they sell at lower prices to each other," Ndeye shares.

Ecotourism can be a beneficial option for community-based forestry for several reasons. Community-based forestry involves the sustainable co-management of forests by local communities, government and NGOs, and ecotourism can complement and enhance this approach in various ways. Among them are:

  • Long-term economic benefits: Ecotourism can provide a stable and sustainable source of income for local communities through activities such as guided nature tours, wildlife watching, and accommodation services. This income can be reinvested in community-based forestry initiatives.
  • Forest conservation: Ecotourism provides a direct economic incentive for the community to conserve and protect the natural beauty and biodiversity of their forest resources.
  • Capacity development: The development of ecotourism creates employment opportunities as well as strengthens capacities among members, including organization, business skills, communication, tour guiding, catering or other services.
  • Infrastructure development: To accommodate tourists, communities may need to develop infrastructure such as trails, visitor centers, and accommodations. These improvements can benefit both tourists and the community.
  • Valorization and promotion of local culture:  Ecotourism often include sharing cultural elements (e.g. music, dances, legends, traditions, gastronomy…), with visitors. This can help preserve and promote the culture of the community.
  • Diversification of income: Communities can reduce their dependence on economic activities that put pressure on forests (e.g. unsustainable agriculture, charcoal production, …)by diversifying their income sources through ecotourism.
  • Environmental awareness: Ecotourism allows visitors to learn about the importance of sustainable forestry practices and the value of protecting the environment. This can lead to increased public support, reduced pressure on resources, and boosting youth interest in community-based forestry.
    Three women sitting down

When asked about her mission to educate the community and youth about the importance of forest conservation and environmental protection, Ndeye’s face lights up with excitement as both of her daughters are involved in educational initiatives:

"We engage kids in environmental education in all the eight villages in collaboration with the National Parks Directorate and schools. We sensitize young students through volunteerism. We involve our children from a young age to enable them to express themselves and pass on knowledge," she explains.

Ndeye highlights the significance of imparting knowledge to the next generation and the role of environmental education in schools.

"It's here in Popenguine that we live with nature because our mothers are here. Students go on educational outings and participate in all the activities we conduct in the reserve. We invite students, whether from primary schools or high schools. They have environmental clubs, and they engage in activities here," she adds.

Challenges remain, particularly in spreading the message to more villages. Ndeye acknowledges the difficulty in convincing local communities to explore alternatives to some of their current habits and practices.

"It is a bit difficult because when you tell a woman who is engaged in cutting wood for heating or cooking at home that, one day, we won't cut wood here anymore, it creates problems. So, despite our efforts to sensitize them here in Popenguine, we also have to sensitize the eight villages, and it is very, very difficult," Ndeye shares.

Looking to the future, Ndeye has high hopes for her community and the reserve. She believes that the youth are increasingly aware of the environment's importance.

"With all the advocacy we have carried out and all the activities we conduct in the reserve, I think that the youth are aware of the great importance of the environment and everything our mothers did. We should continue boosting environmental protection in schools," Ndeye emphasizes.

Five workers sitting down under a tree

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is actively engaged in advancing and enhancing the influence of community-based forestry initiatives in Senegal and other West African nations. The visit to Popenguine was coordinated as part of a workshop held by FAO, within the framework of the “Global Transformation of Forest for People and Climate: A focus on West Africa” project in collaboration with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the UN-REDD Programme, the USAID West Africa Biodiversity and Low Emissions Development (WABiLED) Program, and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida).

More photos from the Popenguine Reserve and the Community-based forestry workshops can be found at: Practitioners workshops on community-based forestry, Senegal



Maryia Kukharava
Project officer, Forestry Division, FAO

Mohamadou Aw
Programme Officer, FAOSN

Maria RuizVillar
Programme Officer, Forestry Division, FAO