Mauritania’s Economic and Social Ambitions Collide: The Story of Diawling Park

 In Environment, Energy

Across Africa, coun­tries are grap­pling with the trade-offs that come with the pur­suit of eco­nom­ic growth. This is evi­dent from my recent trip to Mauritania, where the nar­ra­tive is famil­iar but far from simple. Economic ambi­tions are clash­ing with human and envi­ron­men­tal inter­ests, but the country’s his­tor­i­cal foun­da­tions and ways of gov­ern­ing might prove a drag on its grand plans for mod­ern­iza­tion.

Over the past decade, Mauritania has made progress on the secu­ri­ty and polit­i­cal sta­bil­i­ty fronts but has large­ly skirt­ed social jus­tice and equity ques­tions. Such ques­tions are never too far from the sur­face, espe­cial­ly as the coun­try moves closer to real­iz­ing its vision of a resource-rich econ­o­my. Years of energy explo­ration and the promise of for­tune are grad­u­al­ly trans­form­ing the coun­try.

Intissar Fakir

Intissar Fakir is a fellow and editor in chief of Sada in Carnegie’s Middle East Program.

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I vis­it­ed Mauritania to under­stand first­hand how its social, eco­nom­ic, and envi­ron­men­tal dynam­ics are evolv­ing. And in the story of Diawling National Park, I found a micro­cosm of the chal­lenges facing the state and cit­i­zens. It is a place where the poten­tial for energy wealth and all its ben­e­fits and draw­backs — relat­ed to the envi­ron­ment, social devel­op­ment and equity, eco­nom­ic growth, and the pol­i­tics of a ren­tier econ­o­my — come togeth­er.

I was first drawn to the park because of its con­ser­va­tion role, which embod­ies the country’s effort to rec­on­cile the inter­ests of people (the local com­mu­ni­ty) and nature (eco­log­i­cal reha­bil­i­ta­tion and preser­va­tion). My jour­ney there began at dawn out­side my hotel in the cap­i­tal Nouakchott. As the sun was rising, the driver, my hosts, and I set off on the four-hour drive south just inland from the coast. Through miles of desertscape, we occa­sion­al­ly passed clus­ters of acacia trees, tents, and a smat­ter­ing of build­ings or vehi­cles as we drove through a small town or vil­lage.

At times, the driver would veer off course, choos­ing to nav­i­gate the road­side ditch­es instead of the bat­tered road. He explained that heavy con­struc­tion trucks, car­ry­ing build­ing mate­ri­als for Mauritania’s newest port, have made the road unus­able in long stretch­es.

On the road to Diawling National Park
Camels grazing along the road

On the road to Diawling National Park; Camels graz­ing along the road. Photos by Intissar Fakir.

The town of Tiguend on the Rosso highway en route to the park

The town of Tiguend on the Rosso high­way en route to the park. Photo by Intissar Fakir.

As the desert grad­u­al­ly gave way to the flood­plains of Diawling National Park, the expanse of the place came into view. The park sits on 16,000 hectares of land, flanked by the Senegal River on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. Between them lies an estu­ary where eco­log­i­cal and bio­log­i­cal diver­si­ty is on dis­play — from cracked muddy lands to sand dunes to marsh­es. The acacia, man­groves, and reeds spread through­out the area pro­vide a refuge for an esti­mat­ed 250 species of birds (includ­ing eigh­teen endan­gered species) and a host of mam­mals, fish, and rep­tiles (includ­ing the threat­ened leatherback sea turtle).

Roughly 25 miles from Diama, a border-cross­ing town into Senegal, the park is an exam­ple of nation­al and trans­bound­ary efforts to revive and pro­tect wildlife with­out dimin­ish­ing the liveli­hoods of local com­mu­ni­ties.

Top: Flocks of birds con­gre­gate near clus­ters of veg­e­ta­tion and around water pools in the park. Middle: Warthogs are among the most com­mon­ly seen mam­mals in the park. Bottom: The sun sets on the Senegal River flood­plain. Photos by Intissar Fakir.

Colliding Interests

The park has given hope to con­ser­va­tion­ists over the nearly thirty years since its estab­lish­ment — a rel­a­tive­ly short period in terms of con­ser­va­tion efforts. Created in 1991, the state-run eco­log­i­cal con­ser­van­cy has been focus­ing on restoring bio­di­ver­si­ty lost after dams were built to reg­u­late the Senegal River delta water flows and flood­ing along the towns of Manantali in Mali and Diama in Senegal. The dams’ new hydraulic man­age­ment system had adversely altered the bio­phys­i­cal makeup of the area, with con­se­quences for local pop­u­la­tions depen­dent on its resources.

The park’s restora­tion efforts have been focused on, among other tasks, rebal­anc­ing the levels of salt and fresh water to help regen­er­ate some of the fauna and flora that was lost. The project has suc­ceed­ed in reestablishing much of the ecosys­tem and allow­ing local pop­u­la­tions to renew eco­nom­ic activ­i­ties com­pat­i­ble with the park’s reha­bil­i­ta­tion mis­sion.

Sporobolus Robustus, a type of reed that grows abundantly in the park. Local people, particularly women, make traditional mats from the plant.

Sporobolus Robustus, a type of reed that grows abun­dant­ly in the park. Local people, par­tic­u­lar­ly women, make tra­di­tion­al mats from the plant. Photo by Intissar Fakir.

Still, the park faces ongo­ing and future chal­lenges that put this progress at seri­ous risk. After years of pover­ty and insta­bil­i­ty, Mauritania is avidly pur­su­ing eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment. But these endeav­ors are putting the park and liveli­hoods of local com­mu­ni­ties in jeop­ardy — while the ben­e­fits are likely to be reaped by wealthy elites and investors. In 2016, work on a mas­sive joint military and commercial port began in the town of N’Diago at the mouth of the Senegal River, about 155 miles south of Nouakchott and 44 miles from the park. The port is expect­ed to be one of Mauritania’s largest seaports, com­pris­ing a naval port, a quay, seven land­ing docks, and a ship­yard for up to sev­en­ty ves­sels.

Former pres­i­dent Mohammed Ould Abdel Aziz launched the port project, claim­ing that it would pro­vide greater connectivity and transportability into Senegal and Mali. Ould Abdel Aziz, who left office in the summer of 2019, has become a detest­ed figure. His cor­rupt deal­ings, includ­ing his mis­man­age­ment of the country’s ports and air­ports and his fish­ing deals, are the sub­ject of a par­lia­men­tary inquiry that might send him to trial. Raising fur­ther con­cerns, the port has a price tag of $325 million and appears to be state-funded, though there is little transparency or infor­ma­tion on the rel­e­vant trans­ac­tions. The Chinese com­pa­ny Poly Technology, which is infamous for bribery and money laun­der­ing in Africa, has been car­ry­ing out the con­struc­tion. The com­pa­ny is blacklisted in Namibia, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe; and in 2013, the United States imposed sanctions on Poly Technology for vio­lat­ing the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act.

The port is expect­ed to sup­port Mauritania’s bud­ding energy indus­try. For years, oil and gas com­pa­nies, includ­ing BP and Kosmos Energy, have con­duct­ed off­shore explo­ration on the coast between Mauritania and Senegal. Although Mauritania is not cur­rent­ly pro­duc­ing oil or gas, it had been producing a lim­it­ed volume of oil until 2017 and is expect­ed to resume in the coming year or two. According to the former CEO of engi­neer­ing firm SNC-Lavalin Mauritania, Hassana Mbeirick, due to the port’s loca­tion it “is the future large off­shore hub of the sub-region. Because in the near future, most of the logis­tics ser­vices relat­ed to the gas and oil indus­try will be housed in this port” (author’s trans­la­tion).

“The port is off-limits to
civil­ian vis­i­tors. We couldn’t
even talk about the port; it’s like a mil­i­tary secret.”

Simply put, Mauritania’s hopes for future for­tunes are pinned on its energy poten­tial. It is the cen­tral driver of var­i­ous nation­al efforts and fea­tured in nearly every con­ver­sa­tion I had through­out my stay. But while some see the flurry of recent off­shore explo­ration as vital for the coun­try, unsur­pris­ing­ly, local envi­ron­men­tal activists and res­i­dents are deeply wor­ried — about the impacts of both the explo­ration hap­pen­ing off­shore and the port.

Maymouna Mint Salek, a jour­nal­ist and pres­i­dent of the local NGO Biodiversité, is one of a few to write and speak about the port’s impact on the area. Tucked away in a quiet corner of the hotel lobby, Maymouna weari­ly described the sit­u­a­tion to me: “The park is grave­ly threat­ened. If there is no awak­en­ing, no polit­i­cal will to say we need to pro­tect this park, and no effort to reduce the impact, the park is going to dis­ap­pear.” She noted the “total opac­i­ty” around the con­struc­tion project, adding that “the port is off-limits to civil­ian vis­i­tors. We couldn’t even talk about the port; it’s like a mil­i­tary secret. . . . We are sure it will be for gas and petrol [export], but there is little talk about that.”

Maymouna noted that in addi­tion to the absence of envi­ron­men­tal impact stud­ies or real under­stand­ing of the chal­lenges and dan­gers involved and how to effec­tive­ly mit­i­gate them, Poly Technology’s shady rep­u­ta­tion and the government’s blind ambi­tion have put “a nail in the park’s coffin.”

Local Community Concerns

Most of the local pop­u­la­tion, Maymouna explained, is wary of speak­ing out about the issue. An estimated 9,000 to 10,000 people live in the N’Diago area, with most spread among more than forty vil­lages. Villagers live on fish­ing, agri­cul­ture, and rais­ing ani­mals. Ethnically, the area is now large­ly Wolof and Haratine, and both are fear­ful of voic­ing their con­cerns given their vul­ner­a­ble posi­tions in Mauritanian soci­ety. “Local pop­u­la­tions are wor­ried because they feel their resources — which have already been affect­ed by [energy com­pa­nies’ off­shore explorato­ry] seis­mic activ­i­ty that has impact­ed their fish­ing — are threat­ened. There is no dis­cus­sion as of now to find a way to deal with their future,” said Maymouna.

Livestock grazing in the park.

Livestock graz­ing in the park. Photo by Intissar Fakir.

The park’s Bell Basin is where much of the local communities’ economic activities, such as fishing, take place
Lines of drying fish.

The park’s Bell Basin is where much of the local com­mu­ni­ties’ eco­nom­ic activ­i­ties, such as fish­ing, take place; Lines of drying fish. Photos by Intissar Fakir.

Mauritania gained inde­pen­dence from France in 1960 and has since strug­gled with polit­i­cal con­tes­ta­tion, includ­ing sev­er­al coup d’états and the spread of ter­ror­ism, as well as social exclu­sion. It was the last coun­try in the world to outlaw slav­ery in 1981 and still func­tions, broad­ly speak­ing, as a caste system that con­tin­u­al­ly sows dis­crim­i­na­tion and divi­sion.

Mauritania’s highly strat­i­fied and eth­ni­cal­ly seg­re­gat­ed soci­ety is com­prised of three groups: the Beydan (descen­dants of the Amazigh tribes of the Maghreb region who have been the country’s elites and rulers); the Haratine (their former slaves, many of whom remain in con­di­tions of de facto slav­ery); and the Afro-Mauritanians, which include four dis­tinct ethnic groups — the Wolof, Halpulaar (Fulani), Soninke, and Bambara — who all large­ly originate from areas in the south­ern Mauritania.

“The system is based on racial injus­tice.”

Back in Nouakchott, I met with Brahim Bilal Ramdhane, pres­i­dent of the Sahel Foundation for Human Rights that sup­ports the Haratine pop­u­la­tion on social jus­tice issues includ­ing access to edu­ca­tion. Brahim said, “the biggest chal­lenge we have is a polit­i­cal one: We have a system that’s based on inequal­i­ty — eco­nom­ic, social, and polit­i­cal. The system is based on racial injus­tice.” The Haratine face racism, inden­tured servi­tude, oppres­sion, a stag­ger­ing lack of access to resources, and extreme pover­ty. The Global Slavery Index estimates that 90,000 Mauritanians, mean­ing over 20 per­cent of the Mauritanian pop­u­la­tion, are living as modern slaves, the major­i­ty of whom are Haratine.

The Afro-Mauritanian pop­u­la­tions also expe­ri­ence dis­crim­i­na­tion and their own his­to­ry of exclu­sion and repres­sion since the country’s inde­pen­dence. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, ethnic ten­sions inten­si­fied, lead­ing to a campaign of repression tar­get­ing black Mauritanians. Coupled with a border con­flict between Mauritania and Senegal, the sit­u­a­tion cul­mi­nat­ed in vio­lence and mass expul­sions of tens of thou­sands of Afro-Mauritanians into Senegal and of Mauritanian nation­als back into Mauritania. Afro-Mauritanians were denied belong­ing to Mauritanian iden­ti­ty based on eth­nic­i­ty and skin color. The trauma of that expe­ri­ence remains, as does the fear of expul­sion.

Collapsing homes in N’Diago due to the rising tide. The town is about 18 miles south of the port. Collapsing homes in N’Diago due to the rising tide. The town is about 18 miles south of the port. Photo cour­tesy of Iba Sarr.

Today, the com­mu­ni­ties within and sur­round­ing the area are con­cerned about how the ongo­ing gas and oil explo­ration will fur­ther con­tribute to cli­mate change and its impacts. Iba Sarr, the pres­i­dent of the south­ern branch of the Free Federation of Artisanal Fishing (la Federation Libre de la Peche Artisanal) detailed the pop­u­la­tions’ con­cerns. The fed­er­a­tion car­ries out train­ing pro­grams for the local fish­er­men descend­ing from a long line of Wolof fishermen. Iba told me over the phone months after my visit that many homes in var­i­ous vil­lages in N’Diago have begun to col­lapse due to rising sea levels. He argued that the port’s con­struc­tion, sev­er­al years of oil and gas explo­ration, and pol­lu­tion have all con­tributed to this. He added, “our worry about the port is that our vil­lage is already being destroyed. The state is cre­at­ing a town there, and it’s going to change the area, bring in others, and limit our access to resources — and we have no infor­ma­tion about it. We have been here a long time, but we will get noth­ing. They will take our land and our resources, and we should have been told that they are doing this. They are not pro­tect­ing us.”

Iba Sarr in the park.

Iba Sarr in the park. Photo cour­tesy of Iba Sarr.

Since speak­ing with Iba, the gov­ern­ment has accelerated con­struc­tion and begun plans to supply the new port with elec­tric­i­ty and a new road con­nect­ing it to the border town of Keurmacène. The gov­ern­ment is also building a small town near the port, where they plan to relo­cate some of the affect­ed vil­lages from N’Diago, where both the port and park sit. Local vil­lagers are weary of the government’s promis­es of replace­ment hous­ing and assert that what is offered is not enough to com­pen­sate for the hard­ship they face.

Hope Docked at Sea

Against this back­drop, Maymouna explains that it is unlike­ly the local pop­u­la­tion will make much of a fuss or get any­where if they ask for more — and, there­fore, their fate does not figure in the strug­gle for the park’s future or in the plans for the area. As to whether the gov­ern­ment can pro­tect human and con­ser­va­tion inter­ests while pur­su­ing its eco­nom­ic ambi­tions, Maymouna does not hold out hope: “The gov­ern­ment will respect its engage­ment to the park but will also carry out actions that harm it. Everyone knows that if we don’t do any­thing to limit the impact of the port, the park will dis­ap­pear phys­i­cal­ly, and every­thing that’s been done over the years will be use­less, thrown in the garbage bin.”

“Our life is the sea — we have noth­ing else.”

Meanwhile, Iba con­tin­ues to engage with the gov­ern­ment about the future of local pop­u­la­tions: “This is my work — every day trying to advo­cate with the gov­ern­ment to see if there are ways they can mit­i­gate the impact. We used to have an abun­dance of fish, and today we have fewer fish — the con­di­tions have become so much scarcer. Russian fish­ing boats and Chinese and Turkish ships have also been pil­lag­ing the seas. Every day we try to defend our com­mu­ni­ty.” He went on to point out that “the prob­lem is that we have pow­er­ful busi­ness­men who are look­ing to exploit us and they tell the world that Mauritania does not have a fish­ing tra­di­tion, but we do.… We want to prac­tice respon­si­ble fish­ing; our life depends on it.”

“Our life is the sea — we have noth­ing else,” said Iba. But Mauritania has other plans for that sea.

The Senegal River Delta at dusk. Photo by Intissar Fakir.

The Senegal River Delta at dusk.

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace source|articles

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