Tradition and Modernity in Mauritania: The Sands under the Sea

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Part four of a four-part series.  For part three click here

Change comes by way of water. Rivers, lakes, and seas are the great highways of the world. Almost every country on earth is in some way connected by these fluvial roads. For centuries, waterways have fostered technological and societal change with ports serving as the first point of contact between civilizations.

Consequently, it is along the coast where the “old ways” die first. Modernity finds its first tentative foothold here, against the backdrop of sea and sand, before slowly moving into the interior. If one is searching for the past, it is almost certain to be found away from major bodies of water, where global commerce and government interactions are sporadic.

At first glance, the Banc d’Arguin seems to be the exception to this rule. There are no roads to speak of here. Travel is done by four-wheel drive over sand dunes and rocky outcrops. It is a bleak place of yellows, oranges, and reds, with clumps of dried out, low lying spiny shrubs serving as useful landmarks on this otherwise barren landscape.

Nevertheless, this 12,000 km2 national park and UNESCO world heritage site encompasses some of the richest waters off the coast of Mauritania, and during the winter months, European migrating birds gather along its sandbanks in the tens of thousands. It is truly a unique biosphere.

Banc d’Arguin is home to many bird species, including Flamingos

One might think that such natural abundance is largely due to its isolated location. But the Banc d’Arguin is far from uninhabited as it is also home to a dozen or so villages belonging to the Imraguen people who live by harvesting the bounty of the sea.

The Imraguen are something of a mystery. Believed to be descendants of Mauritania’s original inhabitants, they were likely the remnants of various pastoral tribes who fled towards the sea centuries ago as the savannah changed to desert and invading Berbers pushed westward. Subsistence fishermen, the Imraguen occupied the very bottom of the country’s rigid societal hierarchy.

Traditionally, the Imraguen followed the schools of mullet along the shores of the Banc d’Arguin. They fished by wading into the water with nets suspended between wooden sticks that they carried on their shoulder. Once they had formed a semi-circle, they supposedly used dolphins, with which they had a symbiotic relation, to help drive the mullet into their nets (although this may be a legend propagated by Jacques Cousteau). What wasn’t consumed locally was usually sold to Moroccan caravan drivers traveling through the desolate Western Sahara.

The Imraguen continue to make their living from the sea

Today, however, the Imraguen use the lanche, a wooden boat powered by a single lateen sail, to ply the waters where the warm reef meets the cold ocean current. Curiously, this “new” technology, introduced by Canary Island fishermen at the turn of the 20th century, has revolutionized the Imraguen economy and society. The power of the sail would eventually free the Imraguen from the slavery of subsistence, allowing them to increase the size and variety of their catch. As logistics became more sophisticated, the Imraguen suddenly found themselves connected to the global supply chain.

I arrived at Iwik, a cluster of fifty or so wooden buildings surrounding a cement block mosque on the tip of a peninsula, towards dusk. The fishing boats had already been pulled to shore, their catch offloaded. A few dogs lay lazily in the sand, flies buzzing around their closed eyes. The town was quiet.

The mosque at Iwik

My first task was to meet the village “Baba,” or father, an old man with a weathered face and white beard. I had made the long journey out to Iwik for one purpose only: to spend a day watching the Imraguen fish. For that, I needed to be on a boat. And for that, I needed approval from the village elder.

Negotiations were difficult. Regardless of what the government in Nouakchott thinks, the Baba of Iwik was running the show, and all village business ran through him. He wanted no less than MUR 3,000 ($90) for a boat tour of the surrounding area. When I told him that I merely wanted to observe the Imraguen at work and would not interfere, I was told this was impossible.

Getting nowhere, I decided to turn the conversation to accommodations in Iwik. I had hoped to spend the evening with an Imraguen family. Instead, I was offered a tent outside of the village.

Foreigners are made to stay in tents outside of Iwik

Understandably, centuries of persecution and isolation have left Imraguen society insular. They are wary of outsiders and eager to protect their fragile autonomy. This isn’t the kind of town where strangers are greeted with a smile and a sincere hello. Besides my money, the Imraguen wanted little to do with me.

Frustrated, I picked up my backpack and began to leave. My half-hearted ruse worked, and suddenly I was granted permission to observe the Imraguen fishing for just MUR 2,000 ($60) as long as I didn’t photograph the nets. I accepted and went to bed enthusiastically anticipating a day at sea.

Fishermen at dawn

It was not to be. The next morning, I was repeatedly stonewalled, notwithstanding, the previous night’s deal. Eventually, I was given a boat, but instead of being embedded with Imraguen fishermen, I was taken out to a sand bar to observe birds. When I explained this was not what I had paid for, I was told that following the fisherman was impossible.

The Imraguen are often portrayed as the successful integration of traditional culture living in symbiosis with the environment, with one 2011 article calling them the “Guardians of the Bank d’Arguin.” The truth is a bit more complicated.

In order to protect the Banc d’Arguin, the Mauritania government cut a deal with the Imraguen. They were given exclusive fishing rights in the national park on the condition that they used only traditional fishing techniques. The idea was that the Imraguen would predominantly fish for mullet three months out of the year.

The problem is that the Imraguen have no desire to remain in poverty. And while they may present themselves as the defenders of tradition, in reality, their choices are based on economics. The decision to forgo updating their lanches for motorized pirogues was a small price to pay for exclusive rights to one of the most fertile fishing grounds in West Africa.

The Imraguen soon realized that Asia had a hankering for shark fin soup, and they could earn a lot more money casting their nets for rays and sharks rather than for traditional mullet. This was particularly troubling because the Banc d’Arguin is an important nursery, and even limited fishing can have a tremendous impact on overall stocks. In 2004, the government struck a new deal with the Imraguen, in which they were paid to burn their shark nets and go back to “sustainable” fishing. Except that’s not what happened.

The Imraguen supposedly gave up shark and ray fishing in 2004

One of the first things I noticed in Iwik was the prevalence of meat, be it chicken or mutton. By selling fish on the international market, the Imraguen eschewed their traditional diet of mullet. Most mornings, trucks left the village of Iwik with the daily catch to be sold in bulk to Nouakchott. In fact, less than a fraction of a percent of all fish caught goes to local consumption.

The truth is that the Imraguen never gave up fishing for Chondrichthyes. They simply took their meagre nets and stretched the mesh so that rays and sharks would end up as bycatch. And this is why the Imraguen were so reluctant to allow me to observe their fishing techniques, especially, anything having to do with nets. According to a UN survey, in 2012, sharks and rays accounted for a higher tonnage (1,752 tons) than all other bony fish, including meagre combined (1,459 tons).

Nets were altered to catch more lucrative sharks and rays

The Mauritanian government and development experts had hoped to avoid a “tragedy of the commons” in the Banc d’Arguin by giving the local inhabitants greater control over the resources. Unfortunately, this approach is overly optimistic. As one agronomics engineer who works in the South of Mauritania along the Senegal River told me, local control does not equate to better resource management. “It’s a balancing act,” she said. Isn’t it always?

Most Imraguen work for a wage

In a further effort to curb the damage done to the park, authorities have limited the Imraguen to only 114 boats, resulting in massive income disparities between those who own a boat and those who are forced to earn a living as the crew.  These wage earners are effectively barred by government fiat from economic mobility within their own communities.

Beyond ship quotas, the Mauritanian government has mostly concentrated its efforts on combating illegal international fishing off its coast, which is often blamed for driving the Imraguen to overfish. But the Mauritania navy does a relatively good job of patrolling the Banc d’Arguin. In 2010, illegal fishermen in the Banc d’Arguin were estimated to have hauled out 533 tons of fish, a fraction of the 3,500 tons that the Imraguen harvest each year. It isn’t so much competitive pressure as a desire for greater economic prosperity that is behind the Imraguen’s actions.

There is a natural tendency to romanticize traditional cultures. The temptation to do so can be dangerous. A 1993 collaborative essay, Fishermen of the Desert, called the Banc d’Arguin, “a rare haven, where man still lives in harmony with nature…harvesting fish on a sustainable basis.” It further claims that the Imraguen “have managed to conserve their ancient fishing methods in face of growing pressure for development.” Authors such as the one who wrote the above essay are essentially advocating for some of the poorest people in Mauritania to lose out on economic opportunity over a misplaced sense of rural idealism.

The problem is that what is traditional often goes hand in hand with poverty. Ecological factors aside, it makes as little sense to fish using wind power when an outboard motor is available as it does to use oxen to plow a field if you have a tractor. By ignoring economic realities, we are not really solving the environmental or development issues that need to be addressed. Instead, we are attempting to freeze time and preserve a state of humanity irrespective of how those subjected to such a regime feel about its implementation.

Fishermen getting underway

There is nothing particularly romantic about poverty, and most people readily abandoned traditional techniques if they believe that they can gain from it. The Imraguen are no different from any other human beings on earth. They have no desire to become a living museum for anthropologists to study and tourists to gawk at. Like most of us, they pursue their self-interests, at times rather ruthlessly, and suffer from the same myopic decision making that plagues civilizations across the globe.

Sustainability isn’t about preserving an impossible ideal but constructing a realistic future. There are no easy solutions to what is happening in the Banc d’Arguin. Overfishing is a global problem involving a plethora of different interest groups. But protecting the Banc d’Arguin will require tradeoffs, and as picturesque as it is to watch a traditional sailboat head out to sea in the morning’s dawn, ultimately, this is not the future of fishing or of the Imraguen.

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