Bigi Pan is a protected area on the border with Guyana that is known for the socio-economic value it has for its inhabitants. Bigi Pan covers 130,000 hectares, with an equal portion of land and marine zones. It is classified as a Category VI Protected Area according to the criteria of the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature). In 1987 it was declared that unless major and irreversible risks to the environment were observed, economic activity could continue in Bigi Pan. In the meantime, fishermen working in the lagoons, rivers, and on the coasts are able to benefit from this brackish* ecosystem. The zone has a large number of bird species, 127 in all, of which 50 migrate from North America, and so the reserve has been designated a Western Hemisphere Reserve for migratory birds. But over the past few years Bigi Pan has been in danger.

Biodiversity

At Bigi Pan it is easy to observe the interaction between biotic*and abiotic* factors. When it has rained the lagoons and depressions fill with water. The place then becomes accessible to surveillance vessels, fishermen, hunters, and ornithologists. The hydrology is influenced by the La Coronie freshwater marsh, the Nickerie river, the sea, the wind, and the precipitation. In sectors where water only occurs in depressions at high tide, the ecosystems are less productive and no fishing or leisure activities are allowed.

The aquatic fauna and flora depend upon the quality of the water, which also has an influence on the number of birds and thus the number of tourists to visit the place. Large mudflats are a favourite feeding ground for birds, invariably attracting a large number of ornithologists. The best spots for observing the birdlife are along the coast at low tide, and at places inland where the water level has dropped.

The vegetation at Bigi Pan is made up primarily of mangrove forests, grass and fern marshes, lagoons, and land that is periodically flooded. The mangrove forests provide excellent shelter for young and fragile aquatic fauna. The mangrove forests at the end of their life cycle provide a habitat for the various bird and bat species given the salt levels in the environment which is flooded and waterlogged for long periods of time.

On higher ground, such as dams and ridges, fruit trees attract small mammals, deer, and felines. Iguanas lay their eggs there, as do sea turtles on occasions.

Management

The designated manager of the protected areas is the Head of the Forest Service, in compliance with the 1954 nature conservation law, but this task is delegated to the Nature Conservation Division (NCD). At Bigi Pan this mandate has been entrusted to a manager, a few gamekeepers, and the various users, so as to develop the site whilst ensuring that ecosystems are protected. But a lack of infrastructure as well as insufficient financial resources mean that the site is not run in an optimal way. Furthermore, the size of the district authority has been increased as part of a process of decentralisation. The fact that these mandates are entrusted to various authorities adds to the difficulty when it comes to developing the site. The NCD needs to set up partnerships so as to delegate work in the field and concentrate on laws, regulations, and developing monetary revenue. The Department of Fishery also has limited responsibility over fishing laws. The NCD and Department of Fishery are meant to work in concert together, but they each have a different vision of management practice.

Fishermen

Despite the fact that the region is a source of food and employment for its inhabitants, intensive fishing, poaching (mainly birds, caimans, and iguanas), and various forms of damage to the ecosystem of the wetlands are frequent occurrences. People have tended to concentrate on the economic benefits and leave it to the State to maintain and invest in the area. The State recently launched a project to prevent water from the lagoons and marshes flowing out to sea because of a leak in a dam caused by fishermen. In addition to this, irregular and insufficient rainfall leads to lengthy periods of drought, resulting in the departure of certain birds and a high mortality rate among the fish populations.

The fishermen used to work in groups but they now operate on their own. Each has his own boat, motor, and other equipment, making it more expensive. The fishing grounds have become exclusive preserves, and the fishermen only generate very little revenue. Under this system the main winners are the middlemen, the processing and exporting companies.

The Javanese fishermen are busy day and night in the lagoons and marshes, whilst the Hindu fishermen only work by day. The Guyanese are found along the coast and rivers bordering the Bigi Pan area. The main challenge for the Department of Fishery is to stem the use of illegal fishing crafts. Monofilament nets are banned everywhere throughout the Caribbean mainly because of the different sizes of fish they capture and kill. The Nickerie fishermen use this sort of net simply because the State allows them to be imported, and also because they claim that the damage this sort of net causes is less than that caused by conventional nets. Furthermore, their activity includes processing (partially in Nickerie) and exporting their catch (via Paramaribo).

A youth nature club has been set up with the assistance of a local NGO, SOLOM (the Foundation for the Development of Longmay and its surrounding area), the NCD, and WWF Guianas. This club collects information about birds, caimans, fish catches, and the quality of the water, and so is of equal benefit to the Department of Fishery and the NCD. Whilst the goal is to measure the environmental impact of human activity, another objective is to form a generation of young people aware of the importance of environment and able to help the NCD in its management operations and practices. The collected statistics will be used to set up training programmes on net use for the fishermen. Funds have been provided by WWF Guianas to refurbish the slipway, the main entry point to the Jamaer canal. The main concern is currently the fact that there is no surveillance post or system to control access to the site.

Tourism

Since 2004 the number of tourists to Bigi Pan has gone up by over 100%. Only a few years ago the fishermen used to transport visitors in their boats during the slack period of the fishing season. Nowadays they have become guides and have made investments so as to be able to position themselves as serious operators in the tourism sector, primarily by transforming their fishing boats into more comfortable crafts. Six guides currently offer their services in Bigi Pan, something that is not always without issue.

It is important to understand that individual guides do not have any form of certification. With the help of its partner, SOLOM, WWF Guiana hopes to help transform these entrepreneurs into accredited tour operators complying with the laws and regulations. As the majority of visitors are ornithologists, the first phase of guide training was to increase their knowledge of the birds in the sector. This will be expanded in the near future to include botany and basic safety.

The way the tourist industry operates means that they will certainly have to declare their revenue and pay taxes. A few guides are already protesting against the plan by the government to introduce a ticket system. WWF Guiana and SOLOM are thus facing a major challenge here. The entire economy of Surinam, tourism in Nickerie especially, is benefiting greatly from the increased number of visitors. Hotels, restaurants, and casinos have been built in Nickerie over the past five years, and an upmarket transport system set up. The arrival of tourists has also led the inhabitants of Longmay to transform their homes into small hotels and lodgings.

Conservation

The fishermen and guides are building two shelters on the lagoons, one for fishermen, and the other for tourists, who will be able to spend the night there.

Since 2004 Nickerie has hosted an event every year on the importance of wetlands, with particular emphasis on Bigi Pan. In the run-up to World Wetlands Day, SOLOM is organising awareness boosting activities on the theme suggested the RAMSAR network. These activities seek to be as entertaining as possible so as to attract large numbers of young people. Excursions to Bigi Pan and other places in the region are organised for the pupils and teachers of Longmay.

Research and monitoring programmes carried out by the Université Anton de Kom (AdeKUS) and the Centre for Agriculture Research in Surinam (CELOS) have resulted in the publication of reports which have proved to be very useful for devising teaching material. An interactive CD-ROM about wetlands and two entry-level lessons have been created and a booklet published about Bigi Pan. A documentary has also been made about what research brings to nature conservation. All this material is available to pupils via their schools. SOLOM has also built an information centre to enable students to obtain information about the reserve and the nature conservation in general. The women’s association of Longmay has rehabilitated a communal area in Longmay which provides information about the tourist sites in Nickerie, with particular emphasis on Bigi Pan of course.