Bijagós Archipelago: Where Sanctity Breeds Biodiversity

September 22, 2011
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The sites of pure biodiversity found in the tropical Bijagós archipelago remain pristine today thanks to the local tribe's history of preservation and respect for nature.

In fact, despite the regional industrial threats, on the majority of the 88 islands — only 23 of which are inhabited — the ethnic Bijagós people have maintained land-based values in their religion.

"These traditional practices of the Bijágos that limit periodically the free access to certain areas and their natural resources effectively assists in the preservation of the sites for flora and fauna," said Gonzalo Oviedo, of the World Conservation Union. "An interesting overlapping is that the most valued sites for biodiversity also happen to be the most sacred ones."

The culture that currently inhabits the islands trace back to 9000 B.C., is a matriarchal and matrilineal society, meaning that, even today, female priests guide the masses and the women choose their husbands. Despite the attempts of the Portuguese, French and British to colonize the islands and enslave the people beginning in 1446, the people's fierce resistance allowed them to remain free of the slave trade until 1936, when Portugal declared the islands officially "conquered."

The people of Guinea-Bissau gained independence from Portugal in 1974, and today, the Bijagós people number 25,000, still speaking their ethnic language and Portuguese-African Creole and practicing the animist religion that allows the nature there to thrive. This faith prohibits economic or industrial activities in many sacred areas, including beaches, small islands and mangroves. Many places have bans on any sort of permanent settlement construction, while others have bans on any blood being shed there.

The islands are a United Nations World Heritage Biosphere Reserve, and offer incredible sights for those embarking on a West Africa cruise. The island of Orango is home to a rare saltwater-dwelling hippopotamus, and the islands also hosts crocodiles, monkeys and striped antelope. In the nutrient-rich ocean water there are 155 species of fish, dolphins and manatees. The World Heritage Center has located five of the world's eight species of tortoise on the islands.

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