In Chad, a project to promote sustainable fishing yields extra dividends

APRODEPIT, a Bahá'í-inspired non-governmental organization, stresses participation and consultation in an effort to promote conservation and community development along the Chari River.

WALTAMA, Chad — As a maker and seller of fishing nets, Ali Mahamat knew all too well that fish were slowly disappearing from the Chari River here in the southern region of this sub-Saharan African nation.

“Fifteen years ago, the fishing was good,” said Mr. Mahamat. “But it gradually died out to the point where there was practically nothing.”

Until a few years ago, Mr. Mahamat concedes, he inadvertently contributed to the die-out. In what he now realizes was a misguided effort to help fishermen here, he sold nets with increasingly smaller mesh, designed to catch the few immature fish that remained.

Then, one day, he tried to sell his nets to the fishermen of this village, located about 70 kilometers southeast of Sarh, the regional capital. But the fishermen here had other ideas. They had organized into a community-based group to revive the fishing and they had become serious about enforcing game laws.

“They said I can't sell small nets here,” said Mr. Mahamat. “They said I could only sell nets with large mesh. They said it was to protect the fish.”

Today, because of actions like that, the fish are returning to the Chari River in the Sarh region — as are other signs of prosperity. Much of the credit goes to APRODEPIT, a Bahá'í-inspired non-governmental organization that has worked here for more than a decade to promote a variety of community-based, sustainable development practices.

Based in Sarh, APRODEPIT's outward focus is to provide communities with training in improved fishing practices, fish farming, and the preservation of fish through smoking and curing. It also promotes composting, arboriculture, reforestation, and wildlife protection.

Along the way, APRODEPIT has helped to organize more than 140 community groups in the region — and dozens more in areas near N'Djamena, the national capital. Further, because of APRODEPIT's distinctive participatory methods of community organization and consultation, a number of the groups have branched out into other endeavors, such as the operation of community-based schools, women's literacy classes, and village granaries.

In reality, the training we give emphasizes how communities can develop themselves,” said Yam-bel-yam Kosse Malla, the founder and director of APRODEPIT. “Our underlying idea is to promote an organic process of community development.

“They start with fish farming, and they harvest the fish. Then they realize they have more money but their children aren't educated. So they decide to create a community school. Next, perhaps, they realize they have a problem with health. So we assist with health education. And by following this system, the village gradually raises itself up,” said Mr. Kosse Malla.

This approach has certainly worked in Waltama, which formed its first group in 1995 and has since instituted a variety of sustainable fishing efforts, established a village school, created a village granary, and, most recently, launched a program of literacy classes for women.

“The groups are really helping the village from my point of view,” said Gastone Allada, 70, the chief of Waltama, who also acknowledged APRODEPIT's crucial role in the process. “Before, there was no fish; now there is fish. Before there was no school; now there is a school. So I am very happy.”

Located in the heart of sub-Saharan Africa, Chad ranks as one of the world's poorest countries. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) lists it as the 11th least developed nation in the world in its 2003 Human Development Report.

According to the UNDP, the average Chadian subsists on less than US$3 per day. The adult literacy rate for men is 53 percent — and for women 36 percent. And some 73 percent of the population goes without sustained access to good quality water.

The overall situation in the country has been buoyed by the discovery of substantial reserves of oil — and the building of an internationally financed pipeline capable of taking the oil out to a port in Cameroon. A unique agreement between overseas oil companies, the World Bank, and the Chadian government seeks to ensure that oil revenues are used for schools, roads, water, and other much needed development priorities. Non-governmental organizations were involved in negotiating the agreement — and there is a great expectation that they will be extensively involved in follow-on development efforts.

APRODEPIT, an acronym for Action pour la Promotion des Ressources des Organisations de Défense de l'Environnement et de la Pisciculture integrée au Tchad (Action for the Promotion of Resources for Organizations Defending the Environment and Integrated Pisciculture in Chad) has been recognized as a national non-governmental organization since 1992. Governmental officials point to it as a model partner in the effort to promote sustainable development.

Using local knowledge

“The importance of using local knowledge as the starting point for initiating new technologies and constant contact in the field with the participating groups has given APRODEPIT an impressive success rate with its projects,” said Nénodji Madingar, assistant director of Forestry and Desertification in the Ministry of Environment and Water. “This is apparently an approach that should be promoted and used by other development agencies.”

APRODEPIT's story began in the mid-1980s, against a backdrop of decreasing water levels in rivers and lakes, harmful practices such as the use of dynamite to kill fish, the disappearance of various aquatic species, and the need for more protein in people's diets.

Inspired by his practice of the Bahá'í Faith, which emphasizes service to humanity, Mr. Kosse Malla decided to establish a small fish breeding project in Bongor, where he was then living. Some years before, he had received specialized training in fish breeding, and in 1985 he and his wife began putting aside about 25 percent of their household budget to finance the project.

With the help of a single employee, he dug two ponds with about 600 square meters in total surface area and stocked them with about 3,000 tilapia, a fish with rapid growth and breeding characteristics.

The initial success of this effort — after about six months the weight of the fish had tripled — led to the formation of a small association that included Mr. Kosse Malla's family and 11 other families. The association was later incorporated as APRODEPIT.

Over time, APRODEPIT moved from Bongor to Sarh, and the initial group of 12 families gave control of it to a formalized structure that today includes a board of directors and several advisory committees.

APRODEPIT takes a distinctive approach to development that emphasizes the equality of women and men, environmental protection, systematic growth, and, above all else, close consultation with the local community — principles that are all drawn from the Bahá'í teachings.

“It's the Bahá'í teachings about working together in consultation and cooperation that bring the whole concept of APRODEPIT together,” said Allataroum Bongo, the organization's director of personnel.

In Waltama, villagers say that spirit of consultation and consultation promoted by APRODEPIT has been one of the keys to their success. The creation of a village granary exemplifies that spirit, said Michel Miramadjingaye, who is president of the Waltama group.

“In the past, everybody stored grain at their own house,” said Mr. Miramadjingaye. “But, often, when people kept the grain themselves, they turned it into alcohol or sold it to meet almost any personal need.

“But now everybody brings the harvest to the group and they stock it together. After they have stocked the grain, all members decide on a calendar of sales, on how long they will hold the grain before selling it. This way, they can't easily take it out and waste it. Rather, they watch prices and sell only when it is profitable,” said Mr. Miramadjingaye.

Although the idea of a granary was the group's own, APRODEPIT provided training in accounting and other management practices that made it a viable enterprise. “So now, more people are planning ahead and aware of how to manage their homes,” said Mr. Miramadjingaye.

Hippos and fishing

It is the creation of protected fishing zones that, without doubt, has had the greatest impact in the areas where APRODEPIT is working.

As noted by Mr. Mahamat, the net-seller, local community groups in Waltama and neighboring villages have declared portions of the Chari River protected, enforcing government rules that ban small mesh nets and restricting their own fishing activities in an effort to bring back local fish populations.

Those groups, which have formed a union, have also established a protected zone for hippopotamuses — an idea that also emerged from a process of community consultation.

The villagers noticed that there were more fish where there were also hippos — and so, with the assistance of field managers from APRODEPIT, they set up signs declaring their section of the river a wildlife protection zone. They also formed surveillance patrols to drive away poachers.

As a result, since 1995 the population of hippos has gone from approximately two to about 200, said David Ngakele, APRODEPIT's zone coordinator for the area.

The increased presence of hippos, in turn, has improved the fishing. The manure from the hippopotamuses serves to breed small insects, which become food for the fish. Additionally, said APRODEPIT staff, the hippos act as natural fish wardens. Outsiders are afraid to mingle with them, while local fishermen have learned how to maneuver through the herd without upsetting them.

Fisherman in Waltama and other communities say fish populations have returned to nearly half of what they once were. “Before we couldn't even find one fish in this part of the river,” said Bernard Noubaram, a 27-year-old Waltama fisherman.

Other communities east and west along the Chari have heard of the successes in and around Waltama, and they have begun approaching APRODEPIT for similar assistance.

In the village of Kodjoguila, for example, about 30 kilometers northeast of Sarh, a newly formed group has, on APRODEPIT's advice, restricted fishing in one of the seasonal ponds in the Chari riverbed. Since the group was formed in June 2003, the villagers have been throwing leftover millet hulls and brewing residue into the pond to “feed” the fish.

“In our grandparents' time, one fisherman could fill four canoes with fish in one day,” said Dangabo Ngamaye, a former fisherman and now a teacher in Kodjoguila. “Then we were invaded by fishermen with nets and we started to notice the disappearance of different species of fish.”

In March 2004, amid much ceremony, villagers gathered along the pond's shore as fishermen strung out a net for the first time since June. They wanted to see if the method worked — and the results were quite satisfactory. The men netted a wide variety of species, and many relatively large fish.

Mr. Ngamaye added that in the past, they also had plentiful wildlife, such as deer and gazelle. “By starting with the fish, we hope the population will get a clear example of how we can bring back some things that have been lost. And when they see that is working, we hope to re-establish the forest, and when the forest is protected, we hope the animals will come back,” he said.

When villages like Kodjoguila ask for APRODEPIT's assistance, the NGO's first step is to ask for a general assembly of the village's population. They explain the kinds of training they can offer and they urge the formation of at least one or two “activity groups.” Usually, in fact, two groups are formed: one for the men and one for women.

The groups are then encouraged to discuss the kinds of problems they face and, in a consultative process with APRODEPIT field workers, to consider possible solutions. This consultative process stands at the heart of APRODEPIT's methodology.

“It makes a great deal of difference to the outcome of a project when local knowledge is considered as valuable input, not something to be ignored — or worse, eradicated,” noted Ms. Madingar of the Ministry of Environment and Water. “The beneficiaries immediately think of themselves as partners in a plan of action rather than observers. This seems to be the basic approach of APRODEPIT, and it should be made accessible to a much larger audience.”

Jean-Pierre Réville, the director of Aquaculture Service Consultants, an international consulting group based in Canada that has recently studied APRODEPIT, said it was APRODEPIT's “patience, innovation, explanations, and the implication of all of the principle actors, as well as an understanding of the local environment,” that contributed to the creation of “a very positive group dynamic” in the areas it serves.

One of the primary concerns in the region has been the decline of fish. But disappearing forest lands, wildlife, the lack of education, and the illiteracy of women have also emerged as major concerns.

As of March 2003, APRODEPIT was working with 143 groups in the Sarh region. Ninety-eight were men's groups; 45 were women's groups. Among the men's groups, some 60 were engaged in some sort of fishing-related activity, about 28 were experimenting with organic agriculture, and 11 were growing fruit trees. Among the women's groups, curing, smoking and marketing fish is the primary activity, with about 30 groups involved in such activities. Other groups are exploring small-scale commercial activities.

APRODEPIT also operates in the central region of Chad , near N'Djamena, where it has a branch office. It currently works with about 49 groups in the Léré region, with some nine groups in villages in the Chari-Baguirmi area and another nine groups in the Batha region.

Many of those are now moving up the ladder of development — from fishing to schools to health — following the “organic process” outlined by Mr. Kosse Malla. In Waltama, for example, the women's group has gone on from fish-preserving and selling to the establishment of literacy classes for its members.

“We started the classes so the mothers can help their children with their homework,” said Ruth Nevino, 40, who is president of the Waltama women's group, explaining that the women each pay about $1 a month from the money they make from fish sales to help pay a literacy teacher, whose salary is also partly funded by APRODEPIT.

“If we get a big fund, the idea is to create a village pharmacy, so that we have some medicine in the village,” added Ms. Nevino.

 In Waltama, even Mr. Mahamat, the net merchant, has come around to the ideas promoted by APRODEPIT. He now makes his home in the village, marketing his wares up and down the river in the protected zone.

“Now, by my own volition,” he said, “I don't sell small nets anymore.”