In Benin, the lake city of Ganvié is gradually losing its value, its socio-ecological authenticity and is gradually becoming a very vulnerable environment for humans, fauna and flora.
Ganvié, a lake city perched on Lake Nokoué, is one of Benin's main tourist attractions. Witness to the ingenuity and adaptation of man to water, this city is in the process of undergoing changes that risk causing it to lose its authentic bearings.
In addition to being a lake habitat, it is a self-built socio-ecological city which had 37172 inhabitants in 2013, according to the fourth general population and housing census .
The double character of socio-ecological city and self-built environment makes Ganvié the largest vernacular lake city in West Africa. In terms of population size, it would be logical to think of Mako in Nigeria. But the difference is that Makoko, despite being a lake habitat, is an informal slum located in the bay of Lagos. Conversely, Ganvié is steeped in an ethnocultural and socio-ecological process that dates back at least three centuries. Ganvié is older than the country he is in: Benin.
In this article, we will briefly present its ongoing transformation. Then we will criticize the comparison of Venice of Africa.
A three-hundred-year-old city
The ethnocultural process that led to the birth of Ganvié dates back to the 17th century and is identified with the forced migrations generated by triangular trade and human trafficking. During this period, many ethnic and/or clan groups will have to flee in the face of attacks by powerful African kingdoms and raids by slave traders along the Gulf of Benin. In the Lake Nokoué region, two groups settled to escape their neighbours: the Dakomeynu and Sokomeynu.
In the 18th century, the height of the triangular trade, these groups will move away from the first areas of occupation made vulnerable by the multiplicity of slave raids. They will have to develop a palafitte architecture adapted to lake conditions. In addition to the adaptation of the architecture, a whole way of life will emerge. This innovation will induce three successive phases: a past, the advent of major trends and state prospective.
A look at the past allows us to imagine a lake habitat in a state of more or less balance with the ecological environment of the lake. During this phase, the few Ganviénu sat the foundations of a lakeside village on stilts. Ganvié is then a compendium of purely indigenous cultural riches.
The huts were sober and rustic, made of plant materials and sustainably exploited natural resources. During this phase, which lasts until independence of Dahomey (current Benin) in 1960, Ganvié became one of the favorite tourist destinations in West Africa.
The main economic activity during this phase is fishing and the marketing of fishery resources. This phase also marks the beginning of exchanges with the land villages which ensure the supply of agricultural food products.
We then enter the phase of heavy tendencies characterized by a state of advanced transformation. Indeed, like any populated environment, the city will gradually suffer the effect of three stresses: population growth, climate change and the depletion of ecological resources.
Between 1962 and 1984, the population of Ganvié was estimated at 10 inhabitants with a population growth rate of 684%. It will almost double in 0,84 passing to 2002 inhabitants. Then to 20768 and 24501 inhabitants respectively in 30153 and 2006. This growth in a fragile ecological environment will accelerate water pollution and the progressive degradation of the habitat. This phase is also marked by the difficulty of the public authorities to invest in Ganvié. Funding for school, health and sanitation infrastructure is deemed to exceed the possibilities. The costs are 2011 to 30% higher compared to Beninese land cities.
We are also witnessing an uncontrolled sprawl of the urban fabric. The lacustrine spreading follows its course in all directions on the lake. Forests and plantations bordering the lake are granted and exploited. The latter were the sources of supply of plant materials essential for the repair of houses and the smooth running of fish farming activities. Their disappearance in the immediate environment of the lake leads to domino effects.
Populations now face the high cost of these plant materials. For those who can afford them, they are now available over longer distances. People are therefore turning to exogenous materials such as plastic and aluminum. The palafitte architecture will mutate into a mixed architecture combining local plant materials and exogenous materials (sheet metal, cement). These specific problems lead to profound changes in the cultural behavior and socio-economic activities of populations.
The basic activity which is fishing will be strongly impacted. Overpopulation and overexploitation exert great pressure on fishery resources, which tend to decrease in quantity and quality. Commercial exchanges will grow in order to offer more opportunities to a population landlocked by water. The exchanges become so important that they plunge their roots to the Nigerian cities of Badagry and Lagos. Faced with falling incomes and increasing unemployment, a change of mindset is pushing people to diversify their sources of income by focusing on activities related to lake transport. This contributes to the development of an informal but dynamic transport system.
Commercial exchanges and lake transport are developing without a prior plan for the sustainability of the ecological environment of the lake. The phenomena of progressive degradation of the environment are accentuated there (air pollution, water pollution, etc.) until today.
In summary, the environment gradually loses its value; of its socio-ecological authenticity and is gradually transforming into a very vulnerable environment for humans, fauna and flora.
Since we are witnessing the gradual disappearance of the traditional way of living which made the authenticity of the city, fewer tourists will visit the city. The rapidly changing architectural framework is less attractive and the consequences will be felt more economically.
There is a drop in income for the Beninese State and the municipality of Sô-ava. Craftsmanship, although closely linked to tourism, tries to compensate for the losses. But it suffers from a lack of visibility. This situation is paradoxical, given the enormous tourist potential of the region.
The abrupt transformation of the self-built environment is perceived by the Beninese State as an economic opportunity for tourism development. The problems are multiple: the architecture on stilts, the traditional organization of space, the lack of local materials, the high density of concessions and environmental pollution, etc. These are interconnected projects that need to be addressed.
Despite these existing issues, the absence of state infrastructure projects of a socio-community development nature over the past decades raises the question of the approach to be adopted in terms of development. Work will still begin in 2018 without really taking into consideration the current urban stresses. And as a consequence of this outside intervention in the process of historical evolution of the environment, Unesco warns against a possible withdrawal of Ganvié from the indicative list of the World Heritage.
Our research team recommends that future interventions take into account in-depth studies of populations in their daily lives in order to understand their reality. This approach is essential because without the Ganviénu, there is no Ganvié.
Ganvié is no longer a lake village, but a lake city. This lake city similar to a medium-sized tertiary city in Benin deserves flexibility and deep knowledge before any intervention leading to its balanced development for humans, fauna and flora. And given the rich history, culture and vernacular blue town planning, it is also essential to change the comparison of Venice of Africa which weighs in the collective imagination. The Venetians built Venice and in Ganvié, it was the Ganviénu who built and made the city prosper over three centuries. They are in the best position to respond to the current degradation situation and are the players who can really influence the trends observed.
Encouraging the imagination of a Venice of Africa does not facilitate the process of appropriating the authentic and cultural African characteristics which are deeply rooted in daily life, the experience, the perception and the representation of the lake habitat. This critique is all the more important in the global context of the decolonization of thoughts based on North-South comparatism. Ganvié should no longer be colonized by groups of words if a real awareness of social issues is to be made. Ganvié is the Ganvié of Africa out of respect for the painful heritage bequeathed by the ancestors who built this tercentenary city.
Dominique A. Faïzoun, botanist and soil scientist, contributed to the writing of this article. He is the former head of the urban planning department of the town hall of Sô-ava.