Livelihoods at stake as Lake Victoria’s papyrus swamps come under pressure

  • The papyrus swamps at the edges of Lake Victoria in East Africa have for generations provided a livelihood to communities living here.
  • While some harvest reeds to make into mats, baskets, and handicrafts, others catch the plentiful fish that nurse in the shelter of the reedbeds.
  • The swamps are also home to birds that have become specialized to live amidst the papyrus reeds in a narrow geographic range, while the reedbeds serve as filters taking up nutrients and retaining sediment — in the process also allowing carbon storage through the buildup of significant detritus and peat deposits.
  • However, development pressure for new resorts and farmland is putting this ecosystem under threat, while the introduction of the Nile perch here in the 1950s has devastated native fish species.

As the sun rises over the wetlands on the shores of Lake Victoria, papyrus harvesters set out into the swamps to harvest stalks of papyrus. At the docks, fishermen returning from a night’s work haul their boats onto the shore. The deep, ringing song of the papyrus gonolek (Laniarius mufumbiri) and the hooting of the blue-headed coucal (Centropus monachus) drift out from the reeds.

The calls of birds and men, and the fish and reeds piled high, appear to be signs of a flourishing ecosystem. These papyrus swamps, which form on the edges of Lake Victoria and other lakes and rivers in the region, are a haven for range-restricted birds and cichlid fish populations that have survived the introduction of commercially-valuable fish like Nile perch (Lates niloticus).

A range of factors, including potential overharvesting of papyrus (Cyperus papyrus) and the conversion of the swamps for agriculture and construction, threaten this remarkable ecosystem. Many coastal residents who rely on the swamps for their livelihoods have begun to voice concerns about the ecosystem’s future.

An ecosystem that supports livelihoods

Dickson Omondiwao has worked in the papyrus swamps of Kenya’s Kisumu county since 1985. Each morning he ventures into the swamps to harvest a large bundle of papyrus. In the afternoons, he starts weaving and typically makes three mats per day, each of which takes 200 stalks, he estimates. A middleman buys them from him to sell at a market in Kisumu, he says. The mats are used for many things, often in wall construction.

Fredrick Odhiambo, who weaves mats and other handicrafts from papyrus, says he and other harvesters only cut mature stalks, allowing young ones to grow up in their place and helping the swamp regenerate.

In the shallow channels that wind through the swamps, some fishers use papyrus stalks to build fish traps. In the open water just beyond the swamps, others cast nets into the lake. They fish for silver cyprinid (Rastrineobola argentea), catfish, tilapia and Nile perch — a harvest that includes introduced species that have thrived in the lake.

During the heat of the day, sand harvesters emerge from the papyrus swamps into the open lake. They climb into the water, often chest- or neck-deep, and fill their boats with sand. Then, using a wooden pole, they push their boats back along the channels.

Riding low, laden with hundreds of kilograms of sand, the boats are unloaded at a site where the owners await. Trucks from Kisumu pull up along the rutted dirt road, and more workers shovel the sand into the truck beds, so it can be hauled away for construction in the city. According to one boat owner, “This is our gold, that God has given us.”

At dusk, Emmanuelle Frederick Makokha swings his net through the air several times before casting it outward, so that weights on the end of the net sink down, pulling fish into the net; his cousin pilots the wooden boat. They say they fish in the evenings, often past dark.

As night falls, other fishermen eat their evening meals on the shore, before climbing into their boats, three or four people per vessel. Many will spend the whole night on the lake, laying out nets held afloat by strings of buoys that stretch hundreds of meters.

At dawn, they bring their boats to shore next to the papyrus swamps at Dunga Beach, where restaurant owners, merchants and others looking to buy fresh fish meet them.

A refuge for biodiversity

Lake Victoria once held hundreds of haplochromine cichlid species, a spectacular evolutionary radiation that collapsed rapidly following the introduction of Nile perch, which preys on and outcompetes the much smaller cichlids. Closer inshore, the papyrus swamps appear to provide refugia for some remaining native cichlids.

Research by Lauren Chapman, including work published in Biological Conservation and a physiology journal, has suggested that cichlids are better adapted to the swamps’ low-oxygen conditions, which, combined with the dense underwater vegetation, likely make the papyrus swamps a shelter from predation by Nile perch. The swamps are widely believed to provide breeding grounds for other fish, too, and many local fishers credit their role in supporting Lake Victoria’s fisheries.

Inside the papyrus reedbeds live a host of bird species, flourishing in a narrow geographic range and specific habitat of Africa’s Great Lakes.

One of the most striking birds here, the papyrus gonolek, occurs deep in the reeds, occasionally venturing out to the edges. BirdLife International describes the gonolek as “confined to papyrus Cyperus papyrus swamps and beds, in meandering river valleys and along lake-shores.” The BirdLife assessment suggests the brightly colored species is in “moderately rapid population decline owing to the on-going conversion and degradation of its wetland habitats.”

Papyrus swamps also offer habitat for the vulnerable papyrus yellow warbler (Calamonastides gracilirostris), which can be found in Dunga Swamp, a major papyrus swamp near Kisumu. BirdLife International includes natural resource use as a cause of deterioration of the Dunga Swamp Important Bird Area.

As well as providing habitat for fish and bird life, papyrus swamps rapidly take up nutrients and retain sediment, reducing their flow into lakes. Research published in the journal Wetlands Ecology & Management shows that in the right conditions, C. papyrus allows the development of significant detritus and peat deposits — storing carbon. Conversion to agriculture or development risks undermining these ecosystem services as well as biodiversity loss.

But research published in Biological Conservation has suggested that “low-intensity use of papyrus wetlands by people is compatible with the conservation of specialist bird species,” especially when large areas of papyrus are protected. It adds that “conservation in tropical wetlands need not require complete exclusion of human resource use.” Kenyan environmental scientist Leonard Akwany, a founder and member of the advisory board at Ecofinder Kenya, says papyrus harvesting should be “organized and planned.”

Drivers of degradation and loss

On the lush areas behind the papyrus swamps, farmers tend to their rice fields. Often, this is former swampland that’s been drained, according to Akwany.

He says some people set the papyrus on fire to open up new areas for fishing or sand harvesting. Nicholas Oginga Toya, who lives next to a papyrus swamp, also worries about this burning, which prevents him and his family from harvesting papyrus reeds. Burning could also be a precursor to longer-term agricultural conversion.

The threats of conversion can be severe. Between 1990 and 2017, the Ombeyi Wetland, which covered about 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) of papyrus, also in Kisumu county, was almost entirely converted to agriculture and new settlements, based on research by Nicodemus Osoro Odhiambo.

Behind the largest lakeshore papyrus swamp near Kisumu, new residential areas have been constructed in the last few years. Farmers tend vegetables and pastoralists herd small groups of cattle. The soil of the new elevated roads is still fresh. But nearby residents say they’re on swampland and that the new homes flood every year.

Akwany cites several resorts and restaurants in the county capital, Kisumu, that were newly developed on top of papyrus swamps. Many have hauled in rocks and soil to elevate them above the swamp. He says these resorts, as well as agricultural conversion, are eliminating papyrus habitat. By contrast, he says, papyrus that’s intermittently harvested generates more value for biodiversity.

Oginga Toya agrees that the papyrus swamps also have a less tangible, non-economic value. He calls them a “holy thing,” adding that, sometimes, “I go and sit in a quiet place right inside [the papyrus swamp].” He refers to spirits that live in the swamps. A number of residents suggest that they hold religious significance and are the site of spiritual practices.

Concerned about the effect construction may have on accessing the papyrus, Oginga Toya says he hopes the government limits how close to the swamp anyone builds. Whatever the solution, many residents feel strongly that important aspects of their livelihoods and lifestyles depend on the health of the swamp.

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