Bijagós Archipelagos

Land-Based Religion in the Bijagós Archipelagos and the Catch 22 of Globalization

Michaela Kobsa-Mark

A few miles off Guinea-Bissau, on the west coast of Africa, begins the first of eighty-eight islands that comprises the Bijagós archipelago.  These islands are blanketed by savannas and swamps, surrounded by mangroves and ocean, and populated by turtles, birds, and the only ocean-dwelling hippos in the world. The biodiversity of the Bijagós archipelago has led to its recognition in 1996 as a protected Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere program. Amidst this life dwell the Indigenous Bijagóans, a traditionally matrilineal hunter-gatherer society that relies on the biodiversity of its location for sustenance as well as the maintenance of its land-based religion. Though the Bijagóans have fought off seemingly omnipotent threats, such as the Portuguese slave traders in the 1400s, Guinea-Bissau’s involvement in globalization has affected their religious practice and caught them in a Catch-22. Both resisting and participating in globalization will result in the Bijagóans needing to compromise their religion.

The Bijagóans rely on their land to be able to properly carry out the rituals that follow them through life and death. Of the eighty-eight islands in the archipelago, only around twenty-three are inhabited. The rest are sacred areas that only specially initiated members are allowed to visit and learn about. Individuals of adequate financial standing are initiated through special ceremonies into the proper age-grade. Each age-grade brings a plethora of religious secrets. Inge Tveden, a senior researcher at the Chr. Michelsen Institute has found that in the Bijagóan religion, “Revealing secrets to persons who have not achieved the right to know are believed to have serious repercussions, both for the individual who gives away the secret and the one who receives it” (Tveden 127). These revealed secrets are accompanied by allowing the newly initiated to visit new islands that had previously been closed to them. Thereby, the lives of Bijagóans are characterized by the discovery of new islands. So is their afterlife. The French film director, Chris Marker describes how when Bijagóans die, “they move from island to island according to rigorous protocol, until they come to the last beach, where they wait for the ship that will take them to the other world.” The importance of their land and the religious secrets woven into it have led Bijogoans to revere their land and restrict access to it; this restricted access has helped preserve the land and the biodiversity. The biodiversity of the archipelago and the Bijagóans’ religion is so tightly connected that damage to the former results in damage to the latter. Due to Guinea Bissau’s involvement in international contracts that are harmful to the archipelago’s biodiversity, this has become a pertinent issue.



Despite the Bijagó archipelago’s status as a protected area under UNESCO’s Biosphere Reserves program, Guinea Bissau’s government has entered into several international contracts that harm its biodiversity, and the Bijagóans’ ability to practice their religion. UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Program’s ultimate goal is to “promote sustainable development based on local community efforts and sound science” (Main Characteristics of Biosphere Reserves). The purpose of this is to preserve the biodiversity of a place while at the same time easing it into the global economy. However, despite UNESCO’s immense international influence, in 2003, Guinea-Bissau agreed to the Spanish Company, DDY de Comercio Exterior SA’s, proposal to use the Bolama Island, one of the islands in the archipelago, as a site for ship-breaking (Nature Reserve or Scrap Yard?). Though ship-breaking companies attempt to promote themselves as environmentally-friendly “ship recycling” companies, the oil, arsenic, asbestos, lead and PCBs the process released into the ocean, as well as the possibility of an explosion, cause permanent and potentially fatal damage to the plants, animals, and people that inhabit the area around it. (End of Life Ships)  This goes against the beliefs of the Bijagóans, who believe that in the interest of preserving the purity of certain sacred sites, there can be no bloodshed on them (Tindall and Corbin). A report for a Canadian Indian and Inuit organization describes the effects of environmental damage to the Aborigines, another culture whose religion is deeply engrained in the land. This report reveals the link between the health of the land and the health of its people: “The ensuing erosion of traditional ways of life dependent on the purity of the land, the water and all living things, constitutes an assault on Aboriginal mental and spiritual health and deepens the processes of cultural disruption”.  (Ship). As the land has such a strong impact on the      Bijagóans’ identity, injury to the biodiversity of the area is an injury to their religious beliefs.

Another threat to the archipelago’s biodiversity and the Bijagóan’s religion is the emergence of industrial fishing. Whereas the “distribution of fish among the Bijagós has traditionally been geared towards consumption for the immediate family” (Tveden 123), international fishing companies are geared toward profit at the expense of the Bijagòans’ religion. Many fishermen illegally fish in the archipelago and do not adhere to fishing regulations. An example of this is of Senegalese fishermen who fish in the archipelago and then burn the Bijagós’ sacred mangroves in order to smoke the fish. On a more international level, a few years ago Guinea Bissau signed a contract with the European Union that gave the European Union fishing rights near the archipelago in exchange for fifty-one million Euros (Tindall and Corbin). This contract decreases the Bijagóans’ food supply, as the spears and fishing lines they use are even less effective in an overfished area. However, the contract between Guinea Bissau and the European Union is also a danger to the most sacred of their animals: the turtle. Carlos Barbosa, the director of two national parks in the archipelago, bemoans that “Every time they [international fishing boats] haul in their big nets at least two or three turtles die” (Eating Sacred Turtles). All five turtle species in the archipelago are now on World Conservation Union’s endangered species list (Eating Sacred Turtles). For a culture that is bound to its land and the animals upon it, the elimination of sacred entities such as mangroves and turtles adversely affects the peoples’ ability to perform their religious rites.

Fortunately for the land, certain biodiversity-oriented international organizations have helped the Bijagós archipelago preserve their biodiversity. Without these companies, the Bijagóans would be voiceless. ICCO, an “inter church organization for development cooperation” describes an organized public debate that took place after Guinea-Bissau signed the ship breaking contract with DDY de Comercio Exterior SA: “Many people participated in the debate and the general opinion of those present (press, opinion leaders, government representatives and business people) was against the establishment of shipbreaking on the Bijagós archipelago. Never the less an agreement has already been signed and serious efforts are necessary to stop the venture” (No Shipbreaking Yard in Guinea Bissau). No Indigenous Bijagóans are recorded as having taken part in the debate. Shortly after the debate, the United Nations reported on the contract, and international organizations such as Greenpeace, Oxfam, and WWF, among many others, publically voiced their opposition to the debate. Only then did the government repeal its decision. The problem of international fishing companies destroying the sacred mangroves and turtles would only be able to be solved by international organizations. The fates of local sacred sites are being determined by international companies who are primarily interested in the biodiversity of a place, and the economic benefits this biodiversity can bring.

International organizations, such as the World Bank recognize the biodiversity found in sacred sites, and strive to capitalize on their preservation. A 2008 report the World Bank endorses, “The Role of Indigenous Peoples in Biodiversity Conservation”, lists that “Five thousand ethnic groups currently comprise only 4 percent of the population…However, these groups do represent 95 percent of the global cultural diversity and are replete with traditions, cultures, and knowledge of their environments, plant, and soil management” (Sobrevila xvi). The report’s goals are “respecting and realizing the rights to their [Indigenous peoples’] territories, culture, and spirituality” through educating indigenous people on their legal right to land, and “enhancing their environment and development” by finding environmentally stable and sustainable ways for the people to develop (Sobrevila xi). These changes would all be actualized with the philosophy that “projects that have assigned indigenous groups their ancestral lands experience much less conflict during implementation” (Sobrevila xiii). Ideally, the World Bank would implement community-led programs that would more effectively than UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere program pave a road for the Bijagóans and their religion to enter into the market system of the twenty-first century.

Though in the past the Bijagóans eluded the Portuguese slave traders, they must now rely on international organizations to protect their land in the face of globalization. As mentioned in the public debate incident, Bijagóans have minimal, if any, say in the fate of their land. If the goals the World Bank has published are properly implemented, the Bijagóans could gain the knowledge and drive necessary for them to retain their land. In the case of an Indigenous group in Belize, the World Bank protected their land and helped them establish an eco-ethno-tourist site. The empowerment that this group reaped from the World Bank assistance enabled them to resist an oil extraction company that claimed rights to its territory. If the same happened for the Bijagóans, they would ideally be able to take control of their land and preserve their religion. And the Guinea Bissau government, instead of posing a threat to the archipelago, would work with them for its own interest. In line with this, “the government recognizes that the islands’ potential for the economy depends on maintaining their pristine ecosystems, and has plans to market Guinea-Bissau as the “Land of Biodiversity” (Tindall and Corbin). This return to the days in which Bijagóans could powerfully fight off adverse oppressors, with the source of that power coming from the economic potential of their preserved land, seem to be the perfect way for the Bijagóans to bring their land and land-locked religion into the modern world. However, international organizations are companies that have something to sell, and behind their advertisement of an economically viable and pristine sacred site, there are hidden consequences that will prove detrimental to the Bijagóans religious traditions.

Though help from international organization and ecotourism would preserve the biodiversity of the land against larger threats such as shipping companies, it would also wedge itself between the land and religion and weaken the latter. Firstly, it is important to note that though the land would be protected from damage from shipping companies, certain harmful measures would have to be implemented to make it more appealing to eco-tourists. Adam Nossiter, a reporter for the New York Times travel section, mentions that the archipelago “have hardly been deconstructed for the sake of tourists…AND they are not likely to be anytime soon, simply because the islands are difficult to get to.” (A Tranquil Haven in a Troubled Land) In order for the islands to be profitable, changes must be made to make them more appealing to tourists. There would also have to be better modes of transportation. These changes, which are necessary for the ecotourism that the World Bank stipulates, would hurt the natural and sacred element of the islands. The resulting influx of tourism, with the local jobs it would offer would economically help the Bijagóans at a cost to their religion. “Ceremonial secrets do not have the same hold on people as their own cosmology changes, as they spend larger parts of their lives in socio-cultural contexts with other value systems and as they become economically less dependent on adhering to socio-cultural rules” (Tvedten 128). This would result in a degradation of the Bijagóans’ religious traditions for more worldly pursuits. The World Bank recognizes the loss of cultural and spiritual identity among indigenous people as “as serious a threat as the massive extinction of species on Earth” and recommends sharing their knowledge with westerners as a solution to this. However, this solution would further erode the Bijagóans belief system, as their religion forbids the sharing of religious secrets with the uninitiated. Furthermore, the report’s claim that religious preservation is just as important as biological preservation is undermined by the fact that of the eleven recommendations the article endorses, only one of them deals with religious preservation. Despite the idealism of the World Bank, the Bijagóans religion will suffer if the World Bank’s recommendations are implemented.

There are two choices the Bijagóans can make. The first is to refuse the archipelago becoming a widely visited tourist destination. In that case, the Guinea Bissau government would find more economic incentive in letting harmful companies, such as shipbreaking companies and international fishing companies take over the archipegalos. This would result in the destruction of their sacred land and hinder the Bijagóan’s ability to practice their religion. The second choice gives them the option to preserve their land and work in their own interest, as well as the interest of international organizations and their own previously harmful national government. In that case their livelihoods and religious beliefs would be compromised by the alternative lifestyle globalization would offer them. The first is the destruction of the physical tie to their belief system, and the second is the destruction of the strength of their belief system. It is impossible to know which would result in the most damage. However, whatever choice they make, the Bijagóans and their ancient religion have no choice in being affected by globalization and the changes it brings.


Works Cited

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