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African ecotourism unites people and nature

 Street News Service 26 September 2019

An eco-lodge in Senegal celebrates a decade of bringing people and nature together in one of the country’s most naturally diverse regions. Les Collines des Niassam shows a way tourism and sustainable development can join forces. (1184 Words) - By Amanda Fortier

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One of the guest rooms perches in the branches of a baobab tree, Lodge des Collines de Niassam, Senegal.Photo: Rose Skelton

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Baobab trees on a hill overlook the stilt houses at Lodge des Collines de Niassam, Senegal.Photo: Rose Skelton

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Traditional millet granaries stand above the delta waters at Lodge des Collines de Niassam, Senegal.Photo: Rose Skelton

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One of the guest rooms perches in the branches of a baobab tree, Lodge des Collines de Niassam, Senegal (Portrait picture - Download to see full image).Photo: Rose Skelton

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Gardeners hard at work at Lodge des Collines de Niassam, Senegal.Photo: Rose Skelton

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Lunch, prepared from locally-sourced, seasonal ingredients, at Lodge des Collines de Niassam, Senegal.Photo: Rose Skelton

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and a selection of rums made from local fruits, including the fruit of the baobab tree. Lodge des Collines de Niassam, Senegal.Photo: Rose Skelton

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One of the guest rooms perches in the branches of a baobab tree, Lodge des Collines de Niassam, Senegal.Photo: Rose Skelton

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One of the guest rooms perches in the branches of a baobab tree, Lodge des Collines de Niassam, Senegal (Portrait picture - Download to see full image).Photo: Rose Skelton

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The kitchen, where food is prepared from locally-sourced, seasonal ingredients. Lodge des Collines de Niassam, Senegal.Photo: Rose Skelton

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Sunset over the delta at Lodge des Collines de Niassam, Senegal.Photo: Rose Skelton

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Salt flats stretch out beyond the delta waters at Lodge des Collines de Niassam, Senegal.Photo: Rose Skelton


Three hours south of Senegal's burgeoning metropolis Dakar, and off the main highway, is a curving stretch of road. It is a rough, bumpy path where the Sahelian sand turns to soft hues of pink and brown, where the blue sky opens wide and the horizon is dotted with endless rows of spindly palm trees and ancient baobabs. Drive down this route along clusters of grass-roofed huts. Go past young Shepard boys herding their cattle and local Serer women balancing bundles of fire wood on their heads. Keep moving past the mounds of salt dunes covered in giant plastic rice bags protecting them from the blazing Senegalese sun. Follow this road and you will eventually arrive at the entrance of a small sanctuary - a tranquil respite where ecotourism meets with humanity.

Les Collines des Niassam Lodge first opened its doors in 2001. It was the dream of a French couple, Jean-Pierre and Sylvie who, along with their three children, journeyed from the Sèvre Valley to the Sine-Saloum driven by two passions: eco-tourism and Africa. The result is a project that has so far stood the test of time - both for the people working here and the fragile ecosystem around which it is built. In a part of the world where the merits and perils of development and aid are constantly scrutinized, Les Collines des Niassam stands, like its unique guest houses perched in the sturdy arms of its sprawling baobab trees, as a testament of how the strength and determination of people and nature can cohabit, and even thrive together.

"In the beginning, the goal was to bring work into an area where there wasn't, any and to do it in a respectful way," says Pierre Struer, the Lodge manager. "It could actually have been anywhere, but it just so happened to be here."

The Sine-Salou Delta, where Les Collines des Niassam Lodge is located, is a potpourri of ecological diversity and a prime tourist destination for visitors in Senegal. The 3,500-hectares span mangroves, coastlines, estuaries, salt dunes and a labyrinth of islands. It is also a part of the country famous for its wildlife. There are over 600 bird species and it is home to some of the endangered West African manatees, jackals and hyenas. But over the years, the environment around Sine Saloum has suffered from an array of problems, everything from land erosion and tree cutting to over-fishing and water salination.

When the Lodge first started, there was no running water, no electricity and little employment in the area. The team of workers dug water wells, built composting facilities and installed wind turbines and solar panels. Today the lodge has a freshwater swimming pool, a garden and bakery, a composting facility and animal feeds. It also manages to run on natural power 75-80% of the time, using a generator only for backup in the kitchen.

But for all the eco-friendly actions the Lodge has adopted perhaps the greatest achievement has been with their locally recruited staff. The majority of their 22-employees has been around since the start - from their servers, gardeners, housecleaners, cooks, and tour guides to their taxi drivers, massage therapist, local fruit and vegetable seller, fishermen, and local artists who sell their handmade soap, salt, jewelry and fruit jam. The owners have invested in their training. They give paid annual holidays, help with small loans and pay equal wages for equal work among men and women. And above all else, the Lodge has managed to foster a genuine sense of ownership among their employees.

Struer says it is important that, as a manager, he stays in the shadows of the every day activities.

"The clientele are not here to see me. They are here to experience other things and it is my job to help foster a good rapport between our team of employees and our guests," he says. "After that, it is up to the personnel to take charge. This gives them a degree of responsibility and it gives them a sense pride in working in such an environment."

While some guests come simply to bird watch from the comfort of the lagoon hut porch, others come to experience the many eco-activities on offer. Self-employed local guides take guests by foot, horse-drawn carts or pirogue, the colorful traditional dugout canoes. They can visit nearby villages to listen to griots, or storytellers, recount African tales. They can try their hand at traditional African dance, or watch boys spin threw the sand as they partake in the country's favourite pastime, Senegalese wrestling.

Cheikh Diop is one of the original employees. He joined Les Collines de Niassam in 2001. He was recruited from a nearby village for a temporary job working in the field. At the time he was 21 years old, had just finished school and needed to make some money.

"My friends used to call me the 'fifteen-tradesman'", says Cheikh with a laugh. "That means I had a lot of jobs here! I did a bit of everything, from plumbing and carpentry to farming and serving. Here there is always a little something to do."

Today, Diop works primarily as a barman and server, earning £140 a month. The average annual income in Senegal is just over £600. Diop has been able to save from this salary, putting aside enough money to build a house for his two wives and three kids.

Inside the lodge's kitchen are 27-year old Bineta Faye and 35-year old Anne Marie Diouf. They have been working side-by-side for the last six years preparing a fusion of international dishes from eggplant flan with a creamy carbonara sauce to skewered coconut thiof with sides of olive tapenade. Faye was a student before she started at the Lodge. Diouf was a housecleaner in Dakar earning around £40 a month. Today, both women make monthly salaries of £120.

"At first I found the work very hard," admits Faye. "I thought I would never be able to do it. But since I started, I have learned so much- so many recipes! Now my life is very different. I don't spend any time at home anymore. I rarely see the people from the village now, but I think it's fine, because I'm making a living and I can support the six people in my family."

Struer says that many of their European guests arrive very stressed, and after a couple days become more calmed. He believes the simplicity and sparseness of the landscape coupled with the relaxed sensibility of their employees helps bring about this sense of peace.

"Today I have learned from my work with Africans that they are very cool and have a very different way of thinking that seems to work very well. They are smiling from morning to night - something we, in the West, have lost," admits Struer. "It's true that we have money. But does money make someone happy? Since I've been living here I'm convinced that it doesn't. I'm also convinced that we have nothing to teach them, nothing to sell them, that we need to leave this country and the African continent alone."

Sidebar

The term 'ecotourism' was first defined in the early 1980s by Héctor Ceballos-Lascuràin, a Mexican environmentalist and architect. He used it to describe nature-based travel that emphasizes education. But over the years the idea of a socially responsible type of 'green' travel is subject to much debate - especially in the developing world. It has become a buzzword. It is often used as a marketing ploy for businesses that commodify 'exotic' cultures to make them appealing to their largely Western-based clientele. It is often done without genuine regard or interest in the preservation, protection or promotion of the natural and socio-culture environment in which it is based.

While Struer ultimately believes ecotourism is about respect for the environment, he is also realistic about the implications of their own project.

"The moment you decide to start such a project it can never be environmentally friendly 100% - we can't lie about that.  We try as much as possible to use enviro-friendly products, but there are always times, like in the pool and in the kitchen where we need to use disinfectant."

Building sustainable, low-impact tourism in developing countries is not an easy task. On one hand, businesses need to offer a level of comfort and quality that appeals to vacationers. And on the other hand, they need to be sustainable, low-impact and culturally sensitive.

Struer believes it is particularly difficult for businesses that try to be 'eco-friendly', because there is no star rating system the way there is for standard hotels.

"We don't have television, air-conditioning, or wireless Internet here," explains Struer, "and this can become an obstacle, because meeting these types of 'star' criteria is completely the opposite of what we are trying to do and encourage here."

According to Struer, ecotourism offers a real solution for the negative effects of tourism around the world - not just in Africa. But the way to get there, he believes, ultimately starts with people.

"Tourist mentality has to change," says Struer. "As long as people want to do tourism for low prices we will have to offer mass tourism, which is sad. Here we are offering something else.  It has to be more expensive, because we also want our employees to be paid properly. We don't want to be in a position to sacrifice salaries, products or quality, so that means we have to put a price on it. It puts a limit on the tourists we get, but I think this is evolving already. We have a clientele now that is becoming younger and younger and also more local. Two years ago this was very rare. This proves we are on the right path."

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