Fishing project yields extra dividends

July 27, 2004
Netmaker Ali Mahamat (third from left) with fishermen from Waltama.

WALTAMA, Chad — As a maker and seller of fishing nets, Ali Mahamat knew all too well that fish were slowly disappearing from the Chari River here in the southern region of this sub-Saharan African nation.

"Fifteen years ago, the fishing was good," said Mr. Mahamat. "But it gradually died out to the point where there was practically nothing."

Mr. Mahamat concedes that until a few years ago he had inadvertently contributed to the die-out.

In what he now realizes was a misguided effort to help fishermen here, he sold nets with increasingly smaller mesh, designed to catch the few immature fish that remained.

Then, one day, he tried to sell his nets to the fishermen of this village, located about 50 kilometers southeast of Sarh, the regional capital.

But the fishermen here had other ideas. They had organized into a community-based group to revive the fishing and they had become serious about enforcing game laws.

"They said I can't sell small nets here," said Mr. Mahamat. "They said I could only sell nets with large mesh. They said it was to protect the fish."

Today, because of actions like that, the fish are returning to the Chari River in the Sarh region -- as are other signs of prosperity.

The women's group in Waltama has organized a literacy class, a by-product of APRODEPIT's process of community-based consultation. Slideshow
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The women's group in Waltama has organized a literacy class, a by-product of APRODEPIT's process of community-based consultation.

Much of the credit goes to APRODEPIT, a Baha'i-inspired non-governmental organization that has worked here for more than a decade to promote a variety of community-based, sustainable development practices. (For the meaning of its name, see below.)

Based in Sarh, the organization's outward focus is to provide communities with training in improved fishing practices, fish farming, and the preservation of fish through smoking and curing.

It also promotes wildlife protection, reforestation, composting, and arboriculture.

Along the way, it has helped to organize more than 140 community groups in the region -- and dozens more in areas near N'Djamena, the national capital.

Further, because of its distinctive participatory methods of community organization and consultation, a number of the groups have branched out into other endeavors, such as the operation of community-based schools, women's literacy classes, and village granaries.

Governmental officials in Chad, the 11th-least developed nation in the world point to APRODEPIT as a model partner in the effort to promote sustainable development.

"The importance of using local knowledge as the starting point for initiating new technologies and constant contact in the field with the participating groups has given APRODEPIT an impressive success rate with its projects," said Nenodji Madingar, assistant director of Forestry and Desertification in the Ministry of Environment and Water.

The organization takes a distinctive approach to development that emphasizes the equality of women and men, environmental protection, systematic growth, and, above all else, close consultation with the local community -- principles that are all drawn from the Baha'i teachings.

"In reality, the training we give emphasizes how communities can develop themselves," said Yam-bel-yam Kosse Malla, the founder and director of APRODEPIT. "Our underlying idea is to promote an organic process of community development.

"They start with fish farming, and they harvest the fish. Then they realize they have more money but their children aren't educated. So they decide to create a community school. Next, perhaps, they realize they have a problem with health. So we assist with health education. And by following this system, the village gradually raises itself up," said Mr. Kosse Malla.

This approach has certainly worked in Waltama, which formed its first group in 1995 and has since instituted a variety of sustainable fishing efforts, established a village school, created a village granary, and, most recently, launched a program of literacy classes for women.

"The groups are really helping the village from my point of view," said Gastone Allada, the 70-year-old chief of Waltama, who also acknowledged the organization's crucial role in the process.

"Before, there were no fish; now there are fish. Before there was no school; now there is a school. So I am very happy."

Local community groups in Waltama and neighboring villages have also established a protected zone for hippopotamuses -- an idea that also emerged from a process of community consultation.

The villagers noticed that there were more fish where there were also hippos -- and so, with the assistance of field managers from APRODEPIT, they set up signs declaring their section of the river a wildlife protection zone. They also formed surveillance patrols to drive away poachers.

As a result, since 1995 the population of hippos has gone from approximately two to about 200.

The increased presence of hippos, in turn, has improved the fishing. The manure from the hippopotamuses serves to breed small insects, which become food for the fish.

Additionally, the hippos act as natural fish wardens. Outsiders are afraid to mingle with them, while local fishermen have learned how to maneuver through the herd without upsetting them.

(APRODEPIT, is an acronym for Action pour la Promotion des Ressources des Organisations de Dfense de l'Environnement et de la Pisciculture integree au Tchad (Action for the Promotion of Resources for Organizations Defending the Environment and Integrated Pisciculture in Chad.)

(For a more extensive story on this project see