Islamic concepts guide island's conservation effort

Saturday, May 11, 2002

MISALI ISLAND, Zanzibar -- A conservation project based on Islamic principles is aiming to preserve the beauty of Misali Island, an uninhabited spot off mainland Africa surrounded by a magnificent coral reef.

"There are verses in the Quran that teach us why we should not destroy the environment," said Ali Mohammed Haji, a local fisherman. "To conserve is investment. There are a lot of benefits ... what we conserve will be used by generations to come."

The coral reef around Misali makes the area attractive to divers, and the island itself is home to green and hawksbill turtles that build their nests in its white sand.

In order to keep out developers who wanted to turn the 222-acre island into an Indian Ocean resort, the semiautonomous government of Zanzibar -- which is part of Tanzania -- declared the island of tropical trees and volcanic rock a protected conservation area in 1998.

The Zanzibari government, CARE International, the Austrian government, the European Union, African Wildlife Foundation, Irish Aid and the local community have since established the Misali Island Conservation Association.

The group will eventually become the manager of the Jozani-Chwaka Bay conservation project, under which some 1,500 fishermen have agreed not to fish along Misali's coral reef and in other breeding areas, and not to fish with dynamite, poison or nets that are tightly woven.

In exchange, the fishermen will get a portion of the revenues from tourism by divers and other conservation-conscious visitors who may be drawn by the untouched beauty of Misali.

Organizers say the project depends on the Islamic concept of balance in nature, and also appeals to pre-Islamic beliefs that the island's coral caves were inhabited by spirits who would ensure good health and large catches if left offerings.

For generations, fishermen from villages on nearby Pemba in the Zanzibar archipelago have been using Misali as a fishing camp and a site for spiritual activities.

Legend has it that Misali got its name after the prophet Muhammad appeared and asked for a prayer mat -- or "msala" in the Kiswahili language of Africa's eastern coast. When none was available, he is said to have declared that the teardrop-shaped island that points northeast toward Mecca would be his mat.

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