Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Canoes and Conservation on Tiwai Island, Sierra Leone

Deep in the Gola Forests of southern Sierra Leone this canoe floats patiently, waiting for you to begin your adventure. After having the above image as the background of this blog for a while, and yes the new background is the same canoe, you must be wondering "where do I find this beautiful dugout and how do I use it to explore those lucious rain forest landscapes?!". Well you're certainly in luck my friend, because I'll tell you exactly where.

You will find it on Tiwai Island. Between two chiefdoms, between two sections of the Moa River, this small rain forest preserve is a unique case of conservation throughout the country. In 2010, and again in 2011, I made the journey to southern Sierra Leone to visit the intensely bio-diverse landscape and wonderful people of the island. The first Community Based Conservation project in Sierra Leone, Tiwai was started by a man name John Oates, a primatologist interested in the rare species of monkeys and chimpanzees that inhabit the island's forests. Surviving through the 90's with civil war and deforestation, Tiwai has begun to rebuild with funding from the Environmental Foundation of Africa.

The island engages and employs local community members in the management of the island reserve. Traditional uses for the land such as harvesting medicines, subsistence agriculture, harvesting construction materials, particularly for the building of canoes, has been banned on the island. In Sierra Leone, with forest cover decreasing from 70% to only 4% in the last few decades, it is evident how dire the situation has become, forcing local communities to look else where for their vital forest products provided to them for generations. 
Two jovial guides at Tiwai Wildlife Sanctuary

Yet Tiwai is about sustainable use, rather than completely excluding humans from their native environments. After all, very few of the community members would be on-board with the project if other benefits weren't able to replace the ones lost in immediate conservation. Rather, on Tiwai Island culture and nature are working to find an interesting balance. Much of the indigenous knowledge kept alive by the Gola Forest Mende of the area revolves around biodiversity, which plants, for example, offer what plethora of uses. People in these regions have been accessing these forests' resources for more than a thousand years. That knowledge, as evident in the local rangers and guides of the island, is crucial in protecting those resources. 

A tree typically used for dugout canoe construction.

The Kapok tree, or Ceiba petandra, the most massive of the rain forest trees (more than 60 meters tall), illuminates well the type of interdependence that Tiwai aims for. In the rain forest the Kapok is home to epiphytes (plants which live only in the canopy of specific trees), birds, mammals, insects, fungi, and various other creates that are found no where else but in the massive habitat created by the tree. The Kapok is also wonderful wood for canoes, a potent medicine, and among the most sacred and ritualized trees in the traditional Mende culture.  All of these uses and points of interaction within the ecosystem create respect for and deep importance of the tree itself.

In 1970 Robert Smith wrote an article entitled "The canoe in West African History" where he describe the origins of the first dugout canoe, or so he speculated. The creation of an idea of a dugout canoe, he thought, must have come from a log which had fallen, or been felled, into water and then balanced upon as a flotation device for travel across a dangerous river. Smith's thought is an interesting one as it alludes to how close we really are to the origins of our materials..

I know relatively nothing about the construction on these particular canoes, as I spent no time building. However, I always thought the process would be relatively simple. My concept of simple was shattered when I spent time with these builders and community members, realizing how deep their knowledge bases is. It made me realized that the loss of our cultural resources and knowledge is also the loss of our natural resources, forgetting how to manage them properly. While the loss of our natural resources inevitably becomes the loss of the cultural resource dependent on them. A living analogy for this back and forth is the down-sizing of the traditional canoe in this region. As the large trees are logged, smaller trees must be used, which make more tippy canoes. Pushing us closer to a difficult situation to balance.


  1. Is it possible to save part of these gorgeous trees when using what you need for the canoe?

    1. Great question! In the traditional way of building these canoes, the entire tree must be taken. However, because of the intensiveness of taking such big trees, many traditional builders are extremely efficient with the trees they take, and what isnt used simply goes back to the forest soil. The bigger issue that your question illuminates is preserving the forest and these large species of ecologically important trees. As I wrote in the article, these trees can be keystones for the ecosystem structure from microorganisms to large primates and birds. So harvesting these trees in a respectful and controlled manner saves the integrity of the tree species so that the ecosystem may survive and human uses such as canoes may be built many generations into the future. This is very much the mission of Tiwai.

  2. Hi Will, how long and deep are these canoes? Can one person row them or are they heavy enough that they'd require two?

  3. Good question Caroline. I saw canoes roughly between 4 and 6 meters. They are quite heavy being made of solid wood, therefore they don't often leave the water. This makes them even heavier when waterlogged. One person can paddle. The trick is to build momentum with the river. It is hard to make quick corrections in these.