Christian Nkwatchou Kongte is the Net-Works Business Development Manager in the Douala-Edea region of Cameroon. He joined ZSL as an intern in January 2016 to support clean ups and research activities in the Lake Ossa Wildlife Reserve, and was delighted to become the coordinator of Net-Works activities in Cameroon a few months ago. Here he explains how the team reached an important milestone.
Our first container of nets, with around 4 metric tons – that’s 4,000 kg – left Cameroon to be shipped to Slovenia. There, the nets will be recycled into high quality nylon yarn by our partner Aquafil, and then transformed into beautiful carpet tiles by Interface.
The local communities have been working tirelessly over many months to collect the nets, removing them from Lake Ossa and the coastlines. Once the nets have been cleaned, they are compressed into bales and stored in a warehouse until there is enough to make up a container load for shipping.
You can feel the sense of pride and achievement in the air now because our first shipment has left.
Net-Works means a lot to these communities. It has already made a big difference to the environment and to people’s lives. Here are four key reasons why:
1. Because fishing areas, like Lake Ossa, are now cleaner and a better place for fish:
When I first arrived, many fishers in Lake Ossa complained that there were less and less fish, and that the lake was really dirty because of discarded fishing nets and old bamboo reeds. But the fishers were not able to see the connection between the declining fish stocks and the waste. My Bachelor’s thesis showed the link: between 2015 and 2016 I compared fish catch and fish biodiversity in one fishing area that was cleaned up from waste nets and old reeds. The results were clear: the biodiversity index in the cleaned up area was higher than in the rest of the lake. This means that much more fish species can live in the cleaned up area and, if we fish wisely, the fishery will be more sustainable and productive.
This was proof to fishers that what Net-Works does is meaningful and important for them. Thanks to Net-Works we have seen a reduction of waste in the lake of more than 60% in the main fishing areas. More importantly, fishers now know not to abandon their old nets in the water, ensuring that the lake remains clean forever.
2. Because it is a business that all of the community can feel part of:
Our nets are bought through community banks, known locally as village savings and loans associations (VSLAs). A quarter of the payment we receive for the nets stays in the communal savings box of the VSLA and is equitably shared among its members, increasing the interest rate for their savings. This encourages people to join VSLAs and gives them a convenient way to save money, since banks or micro-finance institutions are not available in rural areas.
We have 17 VSLAs that cover all of the villages around lake Ossa. Importantly, this means that everybody in the community, not just those who fish, can benefit from Net-Works and feel involved in the local conservation programme. This is vital for aquatic conservation: the whole community needs to be involved to make it sustainable.
3. Because it gives net managers a livelihood diversification activity:
Many of our net managers can diversify their income through net buying and collection. But they don’t just get involved in Net-Works for the financial benefit; they get involved because they believe in what Net-Works is doing.
Daniel Moukoko “l’Americain”, our net manager in Dizangue (Lake Ossa), told me he thinks Net-Works is vitally important because it is cleaning up the lake. He uses the money he receives as a net manager to contribute to his VSLA. Benjamin Elimbi in Yoyo (Douala Edea Reserve) was already working in mangrove protection and regeneration and could see for himself how dirty the mangroves were. Thanks to his earnings from Net-Works he has been able to fund a small poultry project, which has given him another source of income. Mr Emile Bassock in Londji has used Net-Works to reinvigorate his local fishing cooperative. The cooperative now sells ice to keep fish fresh, and has gathered the capital needed to open a “beach bar” that Emile hopes to transform into an Eco-lodge soon.
Perhaps most importantly, our net managers have become leaders in their communities. I really admire how they are making positive changes in their own lives and in the lives of others.
4. Because it spreads the word of conservation to people who had never heard it before:
With its lakes, rivers and mangrove estuaries, Douala-Edea is not only a haven for species such as manatees, sharks, elephants and marine turtles, but also, being so close to Douala, it is the breadbasket for fisheries in Cameroon and our main source of protein. We cannot protect our fisheries and aquatic ecosystems if artisan fishers are not given the place they deserve in conservation. They need to be educated about sustainable fisheries management, just as we have done in Lake Ossa.
Many of our fishers in Cameroon come from Nigeria and other West African states. Some of them don’t speak the language and they live in remote places, which is an added barrier for education and sensitization. Thanks to Net-Works we can reach to them in a simple way, build relationships and make them feel like responsible members of the community.
Fishers tell me that, when a group of them are together, they sell their old nets to the net managers and get some money to buy themselves small indulgences. In this way, Net-Works connects conservation with the real lives of local people through small gestures that become embedded in their behaviour. These immediate rewards might be small, but they are connected to an important feeling of being responsible and participating in the management of the fish resources on which they rely. For communities that have historically been excluded from decision making on things that affect them, this feeling of empowerment and pride to manage their own resources is an extremely important part of Net-Works.
I am very proud of the work we do with Net-Works and I tell the story as I see it: Net-Works is transforming communities, securing fisheries, and protecting Cameroonian ecosystems. We really look forward to seeing our first shipment of nets being transformed into beautiful carpet tiles and to continuing to expand Net-Works to more communities in the future.
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