The cluster of islands off the coast of the West African nation of Guinea-Bissau—the Bijagós archipelago—are a semitropical land with abundant flora, fauna and natural resources. Despite centuries of slave trading and colonial oppression, the ethnic Bijagós people have remained fiercely independent and continue to practice their land-based religion, which restricts access and activities within sacred sites.
Today, the Bijagós are still a traditional people of about 25,000, the majority of which practice their animist faith and speak their ethnic language, in addition to the Portuguese-African creole spoken by the majority of the citizens of Guinea-Bissau. The impressive biodiversity of the Bijagós archipelago has captured the attention of ecologists in recent years. The small islands are also valued by animal geneticists because they have unique gene pools and can provide clues about species evolution. A strong correlation has been shown between restricted sacred sites and high levels of biodiversity. For these reasons, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated the islands a biosphere reserve in 1996.
The fifth poorest country in the world, Guinea-Bissau is thus particularly vulnerable to foreign businesses that promise short-term profits at the expense of the environment. In 2003, the Spanish company DDY de Comercio Exterior SA proposed setting up a ship-breaking area around Bolama Island. Ship breaking is the practice of dismantling and sinking commercial ships, and often takes place where countries have looser environmental regulations; Guinea-Bissau is a target for ship breaking because it is not a signatory to the Basel Convention, an international treaty that regulates the transport and disposal of hazardous substances across national lines. This results in oil and toxic materials like asbestos and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls, which are commerical coolants) released into the water.
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