Anchoring a green recovery in São Tomé and Príncipe


Nestled in the Gulf of Guinea is a small archipelago covered with dense equatorial forest and rich endemic biodiversity. It is the Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe, the second smallest country in Africa, with a population of around 220,000 inhabitants. The islands are a tropical paradise and paradise for bird lovers, home to 27 species of birds that are not found anywhere else on the planet. Travelers who bathe on its beaches and hike in the forests of São Tomé and Príncipe bring home memories of a splendid landscape that looks more like a Jurassic Park movie than reality.

However, according to the World Bank, despite this idyllic context, São Tomé and Príncipe faces challenges typical of small island states, including a limited capacity to cope with shocks or achieve a balanced budget. This is due to its remoteness, its vulnerability to natural disasters and the effects of climate change, and the limited availability of land and labor. This has prevented the country from diversifying its economy and generating sustainable and inclusive growth.

Since the 19th century, São Tomé and Príncipe’s economy has depended mainly on plantation agriculture, with cocoa being the main export crop, while national food production remains insufficient to feed the population. As a result, the country imports most of its food, such as rice, grains, oil and meat, in addition to fuel for its electricity needs. In 2018, the island exported goods for $ 23 million, against imports for $ 161 million, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity. Besides agriculture, tourism is the second economic sector of the country, representing more than 20% of employment.

With such an economy, São Tomé and Príncipe is vulnerable to sudden changes. According to the African Union, the COVID-19 pandemic, which is wreaking havoc around the world, has had a huge impact on the economy of São Tomé and Príncipe, where the vast majority of the population must work daily to meet their needs. basic needs. The decline in economic activity in the agricultural and tourism sectors has directly affected many households.

Consequently, social groups such as eco-guides, artisans, traders, restaurateurs and rural populations, among others, are facing an unprecedented economic and social crisis, which will inevitably lead to greater dependence on natural resources. .

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An urgent collaborative response

Under the leadership of BirdLife International (the world’s largest partnership for nature conservation), national and international organizations have come together to address the urgent health and economic situation. These parties include the Portuguese NGO Oikos, the Gulf of Guinea Biodiversity Center, the Tatô Program, the Microland association, local authorities and civil society groups from Sao Tome. In addition to helping the nation recover from the effects of COVID-19, the response also aims to develop a plan to promote a greener, more resilient and sustainable future.

A rural community living on the edge of natural parks © BirdLife Africa

Remote rural populations living on the fringes of natural parks do not have access to state aid or information, which is why BirdLife is focusing its efforts on these critical areas. “Eco-guides, artisans and young people looking for work, among others, have the opportunity to reinvent their activities to overcome this crisis”, explains Jean-Baptiste Deffontaines, head of the BirdLife projects office in the country.

The first step of this intervention consisted of developing and implementing a Covid-19 awareness and prevention campaign. To this end, BirdLife trained community promoters, who disseminated essential advice to the local population on how to prevent disease transmission, while emphasizing the importance of maintaining a healthy environment to avoid zoonotic diseases.

Marquinha Martins, BirdLife field agent in Sao Tome and Principe, trains community promoters on the prevention of Covid-19 and zoonotic diseases © BirdLife Africa

At the same time, the women of the association Queremos ter um futuro com destino, an association of former sea turtle meat sellers converted a few years ago to the production of tourist souvenirs, received funding to make reusable fabric masks; including equipment, raw materials and training. BirdLife placed a first order for 3,000 reusable fabric masks, which were distributed to the people of São Tomé. “We feel very cherished and lucky because we make these masks. They have not only enabled us to improve our family income in this period without tourism, but also to increase production in the future, thanks to the two additional machines that we have received ”, said Maria Antónia Barros and Nilza Diogo, two women from the association. An additional 1,000 reusable cloth masks were produced and distributed on the island of Príncipe.

Queremos um futuro com destino association making reusable masks © BirdLife Africa

“These initiatives have been greatly appreciated by the population and represent a collaborative effort of our young people to improve living conditions in our communities,” noted Benvindo Pereira, a community promoter who participated in the Covid awareness and prevention training -19. Recognizing these efforts, BirdLife received recognition from government representatives of the Principe Regional Health Delegation.

The cessation of tourist activities was an opportunity to carry out maintenance and cleaning work on the paths of the Obô de São Tomé Natural Park. Supported by BirdLife, the eco-guides of the Associação Monte Pico (AMP) are responsible for this maintenance work. “This support compensates for the stagnation of tourism services in the country. Tourism is the only livelihood and family income we have. Consequently, this support could not have come at a better time ”, explains Gabriel Oquiongo, eco-guide and WAP member.

Rethinking the tourism model

Ultimately, BirdLife works with civil society organizations and the government to facilitate the professional reorientation of 15 eco-guides for the surveillance, awareness-raising and follow-up of the Obô Natural Park. This is part of a strategy to respond to the significant increase in illegal logging for construction purposes. To strengthen surveillance, BirdLife is supporting an initiative by the Ministry of Agriculture, responsible for forests and biodiversity, to build five surveillance posts along major timber trafficking routes, ensuring construction is respectful of the environment.

Monte Pico eco-guides return from trail maintenance in Obô Natural Park © BirdLife Africa

These efforts are aimed at diversifying São Tomé’s economy and reducing its dependence on international tourism. The Platform for Responsible and Sustainable Tourism (PRST), with the support of BirdLife, plans to develop a national action plan to reorganize the sector and modernize the tourism offer of the parks, with an emphasis on their monitoring and their sustainable management. According to Eugénio Neves of PRST, “The new model of ecotourism will provide global benefits in terms of biodiversity conservation and ecosystem services, as well as socio-economic benefits for communities in the buffer zone, through co-management and sustainable production of raw materials. materials.”

In addition, BirdLife is working to develop a sustainable financing plan for protected areas and biodiversity. “In this context, tourism will certainly no longer have the same priority”, adds Jean-Baptiste.

In the context of the Covid-19 crisis, BirdLife has strengthened its São Tomé and Príncipe strategy. Over the next decade, it aims to expand its impact to wider areas, improving livelihoods, creating job stability and promoting a sustainable economy based on ecosystem services resilient to climate change. With this strategy, BirdLife is leading the way in championing a resilient green future model for biodiversity conservation.

The Birdlife International Africa Secretariat has been active in São Tomé and Príncipe for over 10 years, working with park management authorities, ministries and local communities on research, conservation of endangered birds and local empowerment. Since 2017, through the EU-funded regional program ECOFAC6 program, BirdLife obtained a grant for the protection of the natural parks of the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe. Coordinate a consortium of NGOs, including Oikos, SPEA (BirdLife in Portugal) and RSPB (BirdLife in England), the project responds to the structural challenges of sustainable forest conservation and constitutes a springboard for defining the frameworks necessary for the effective management of natural parks and landscapes in the broad sense. BirdLife would like to thank the technical and financial partners involved in the implementation of the program, in particular the CE3C – Center for Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Changes (University of Lisbon), the Rainforest trust and the Waterloo Foundation. You can follow the BirdLife São Tomé and Príncipe initiative through Obô Ôvyô facebook page.

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