Unlike the famously beautiful coastlines of other Indian Ocean islands such as the Seychelles or Mauritius, the volcanic beaches of Comoros - and in particular the island of Anjouan - are strewn with giant boulders and pock-marked with craters.
Look closely and the reason for these large holes becomes apparent - several groups of men are busy digging up the sand and carrying it away in bags.
“The people are stealing the sand from the beach to sell for building material,” says Mohamed Moussa, who works as an agricultural consultant on Anjouan. “It is illegal but they say they have no other way to make money. Ironically, these same people are farmers who own fields not far from the beach - but they just don’t know how to make a living from it.”
Like farmers on many other small island developing states (SIDS), the sand-diggers on Anjouan’s beaches struggle to make a living from the land. The struggle is made worse by the impacts of climate change - drought, floods, extreme weather and coastal erosion.
“There’s no rain, so we have no water because the irrigation channel which brings the rainwater here has dried up. Many of us own land, but there’s no water so the land is to no use,” says Sendoubera, a father of two and market gardener who grows crops including onions and tomatoes which he sells in the local town or exports to the main island. “Most of us learnt how to farm from our parents and grandparents, but the climate has changed and we need to change with it.”
Sendoubera is one of the farmers benefitting from a training project funded by the GCCA+, part of a EUR 3 million investment programme in Comoros. Farmers are being trained on how to adapt to the new reality of climate change by introducing new techniques.
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“We are planning drip irrigation so that farmers will have a longer season to grow vegetables,” says Mohamed. “We’re also providing them with equipment they wouldn’t be able to buy, and helping them plant fences around their fields to reduce soil erosion.”
“The soil used to be poor and we couldn’t make any money from it,” says farmer Mirhane Hassane, one of those benefitting from the training programme. “But with this support we can develop and become more independent.”
Other farmers are experimenting with organic farming and planting tougher varieties of crops which cope better with extreme weather patterns. Cattle owners are encouraged to let livestock graze among areas which have been reforested, providing manure which can be used on the fields.
Persuading farmers away from the beaches and back to their fields has another benefit as well. “One of the main problems on the island of Anjouan is coastal erosion,” says Ali M Mohamed, the GCCA+ projects Director for Comoros. “Sea levels are rising and washing away the land. Several roads have been damaged around the island, and of course digging up the beaches just adds to the problem.”
“The GCCA+ projects on Comoros are designed to support the most vulnerable communities in terms of land use and planning to protect the environment, so that in turn we are better capacitated and prepared against the effects of climate change such as floods,” he says.
“We are confident that things will improve in time, but you have to start by raising awareness, changing attitudes and providing alternatives for livelihoods and more resilience.”