Long before there was a wide spread concern about the environment, the population of what is now Diawling National Park (DNP), lived as part of their environment; protecting and utilizing it and the surrounding areas which formed a lush ecosystem of dunes, estuaries, pastures, and forests, rich in plant and wildlife bio-diversity; capable of sustainably supporting thousands of inhabitants. Located in the southwest corner of Mauritania on 15,600 hectares, this wetland region became a state owned park in 1991, under the direction of Diawling National Park. The Park, is bordered on the south by the Senegal River, the west by the Atlantic Ocean, the north by the Chat Tboul Reserve and encroaching sand dunes, the northeast by Keur Massene (a popular hunting resort), and the east by unregulated homesteading and agriculture production. Only a natural barrier of sand dunes divides the fresh and salt water wetlands of the park, thus creating a unique habitat for both fresh and salt water birds. The park is a permanent year round home to almost 300,000 birds and a supports over a million migratory birds during the winter months.
From the very inception of the park in 1991, the goals included providing an economic future for the region’s inhabitants. However, over the last 20 years the ecosystem of the park has been greatly damaged by large exterior infrastructural projects (dams, dikes, and water diversion activities) and compounded by interior exploitation: hunting, over fishing, and poor agriculture and water management practices. Today the park’s wetlands, its wildlife, and its inhabitants, face some of the most extreme natural conditions and man made obstacles in their struggle to survive on degraded land in a deteriorating ecosystem.
However, when cooperating with an extremely poor population, whose only means of survival is a dying ecosystem, it is not realistic to insist that they do more to preserve their sensitive environment. An alternative means of income generation, which focuses on maintaining their existing lifestyle while using the ecosystem as an asset, must be developed and implemented. Previous studies of the DNP’s natural resources and economic potential and evidence from experience in Senegal’s adjacent Djoudj Park, indicate that Ecotourism may be the most effective way of accomplishing the goals of: wetland conservation, preservation of traditional customs, and providing a path out poverty. The very definition and concept of Ecotourism provides empowerment of indigenous populations by giving both monetary value and dignity to their traditional activities.
During the creation of the park, there was significant resistance from residents, who were aware of the situation that initially occurred in Senegal’s Djoudj Park; involving forced removal of the local population and cessation of all activities. In addition, many stakeholders both within and outside the Park saw, and continue to see, economic development in terms of large infrastructure and agriculture projects; rather than in the conservation and health of the wetland ecosystem. The involvement of numerous international organization’s concerned about Diawling National Park’s environmental state, has left the inhabitants with suspicion about their future in the park. Although the concept of Diawling has always been very different and encourages the continuation of local activities including fishing, gathering of plants, and herding; residents fear that once the park’s ecosystem has been restored, they will be forced to leave in the name of conservation.
Initializing ecotourism activities calms the fear of forced removal from the Park and ensures the population’s necessity and future in the Park as an integral part of the ecotourism, conservation, and wetland preservation strategy.
The inhabitants of Diawling National Park and its surrounding areas have historically been oppressed and rather invisible in the realm of Mauritanian society. However, improved economic standing, independence, and international recognition breed empowerment and respect within politics strengthening their significance and securing land tenure rights.
The implementation of Ecotourism in the Park, and the resulting economic and environmental benefits to the community and Mauritania as a whole, will give the vulnerable inhabitants of the Park a voice and a tangible argument against continued exploitation of their most valuable resource, the Senegal River.
Experience in other regions of Mauritania indicates that tourist often leave with a deep attachment to the people they visited and become advocates for the improved economic welfare of the population.
Thus under the ‘Wetlands Restoration & Poverty Reduction through Ecotourism’ strategy the environment, economic development, and ecotourism are unified; they can not exist as separate entities. What impacts one, will impact the other.