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The Republic Of Guinea-Bissau has experienced several decades of political unrest since obtaining independence from Portugal in 1974. From 1980-99, the brutal regime of Joao Bernardo “Nino” Vieira was marked by repeated attempted coups and massive political unrest. Removed from office in 1999, Vieira returned to power in 2005 through the electoral process. With a per capita income of only $800 and hampered by a devastated infrastructure, Guinea-Bissau is the 13th poorest country in the world. Over half the population lives in abject poverty. There is massive income disparity, with the poorest 10 percent of the population sharing only 0.5 percent of the wealth. At the other end of the spectrum, 42.4 percent of resources are held by the richest 10 percent. The United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Reports rank Guinea-Bissau 172 of 232 countries on overall quality of life issues.
Around 82 percent of the work force in engaged in subsistence agriculture. Rice is the major crop and is the staple of most Guinean diets. Guinea-Bissau is the sixth largest producer of cashews in the world. While 34 percent of the population lives in urban areas, industrial activities are limited to processing agricultural products and manufacturing beer and soft drinks. The largely unexploited natural resources include petroleum, fish, timber, phosphates, bauxite, clay, granite, and limestone. Survival is largely dependent on budgetary support from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which provided over 80 percent of the 2004 budget.
Bordering the North Atlantic Ocean, Guinea-Bissau has a 350 kilometer coastline and 8,120 square kilometers of inland water resources. Guinea-Bissau shares land borders with only two countries, Guinea and Senegal. Except for the savanna in the eastern section of the country, the terrain is covered by a low coastal plain that turns to swamps in the west. Elevations range from sea level to 300 meters at an unnamed location near the northern border with Guinea. The tropical climate of Guinea-Bissau is hot and humid with a monsoonal-type rainy season from June to December that is marked by southwesterly winds. The dry season from December to May produces the harmattan, a dry and dusty northeasterly wind that reduces visibility and creates major environmental damage.
Disease and Degredation
Environmental health is a major issue in Guinea-Bissau among the population of 1,442,000, partly because of the 10 percent adult prevalence rate of HIV/AIDS, which threatens Guineans who are already beset by poverty and disease. By 2001, some 1,200 Guineas had died from HIV/AIDS, and another 17,000 were living with the disease. The people of Guinea-Bissau have a very high risk of contracting food and waterborne diseases that include bacterial and protozoal diarrhea, hepatitis A, and typhoid fever as well as the respiratory disease meningococcal meningitis and the water contact disease schistosomiasis. In some areas, there is also a high risk of contracting vectorborne diseases such as malaria and yellow fever.
High disease rates in Guinea-Bissau have resulted in low life expectancy (46.87 years) and growth rates (2.07 percent) and high infant mortality (105.21 deaths per 1,000 live births) and death rates (16.53 deaths per 1,000 population). Guinean women birth an average of 7.1 children each. Trying to teach the population basic facts about environmental precautions that could prevent many diseases is made more difficult by low literacy rates of 27.4 percent for females and 58.1 for males and a combined school enrollment of only 37 percent.
Destroying some 40,000 hectares of land each year, brush fires are a common threat in Guinea-Bissau and are a major cause of soil degradation and deforestation. Overgrazing has further damaged land area, just as overfishing threatens the food supply and marine life. Guinea-Bissau has one of the richest coastal ecosystems in West Africa, and it has not reached the level of degradation common among more industrialized neighbors. The World Bank has partnered with the government to institute the Coastal Biodiversity Management Program designed to promote sustainable management while promoting coastal biodiversity. The success of the project is tied to the participation of local communities.
In 2006, scientists at Yale University ranked Guinea-Bissau 120 of 132 countries on environmental performance, in line with the comparable income group but below the comparable geographic group. The lowest score was predictably in the category of environmental health, but Guinea-Bissau was also ranked below average in the field of biodiversity and habitat. Almost 78 percent of the land area is forested, but deforestation is occurring at a rate of 0.9 percent annually. Of 108 endemic mammal species, three are endangered. Bird species fare better as none of the 235 endemic species are threatened. Responsible management of the national park network that includes the Joao Vieira and Poilao National Park, the Orange National Park, the Cascheu Mangrove National Park, the Cufada Lagoon National Park, and the Cantanhez game reserve are essential to protecting the biodiversity of Guinea-Bissau.
In 1979, the government created the Ministry of Natural Resources with the responsibility for enforcing all environmental laws and regulations. It was not until 1993, however, that Guinea-Bissau developed a comprehensive National Environment Action Plan and established the advisory National Commission on Environment. The following year, the government created the position of Secretary of State for Tourism, Environment, and Traditional Arts, which was upgraded to the Ministry of Tourism, Environment, and Traditional Arts the following year and given greater environmental policy responsibilities. Under the Basic Law on the Environment, a number of laws and programs have been initiated to ensure that Guinea-Bissau remains committed to sustainable development and conservation of resources. The government also signed the following international agreements on the environment: Biodiversity, Climate Change, Desertification, Endangered Species, Law of the Sea, and Wetlands.
- Timothy Doyle, Environmental Movements in Minority and Majority Worlds: A Global Perspective (Rutgers University Press, 2005);
- Kevin Hillstrom and Laurie Collier Hillstrom, Africa and the Middle East: A Continental Overview of Environmental Issues (ABC-CLIO, 2003);
- Valentine Udoh James, Africa‘s Ecology: Sustaining the Biological and Environmental Diversity of a Continent (McFarland, 1993).