Bissagos Islands

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Official nameArchipel Bolama-Bijagós
Designated14 January 2014
Reference no.2198[1]
Map of Guinea Bissau with the Bissagos Islands
Ramsar Site

The Bissagos Islands, also spelled Bijagós (Portuguese: Arquipélago dos Bijagós), are a group of about 88 islands and islets located in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Guinea-Bissau.[2] The archipelago was formed from the ancient delta of the Geba and Grande de Buba rivers and spans an area of 12,958 km2 (5,003 sq mi). 20 of its islands are populated year-round, including the most populated island, Bubaque, where the administrative capital is situated.

There is a high diversity of ecosystems: mangroves with intertidal zones, palm forests, dry and semi-dry forests, secondary and degraded forests, coastal savanna, sand banks and aquatic zones. The archipelago was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1996.


The population is estimated at about 30,000 (2006) and the ethnic group Bissago (Portuguese: Bijagó) predominates. It has a relatively youthful population due to high birth rates and low life expectancy.[citation needed]


The economy is largely rural, with many families living from subsistence farming and fishing. There is some tourist activity, mostly boat charters from neighboring Senegal. Lack of infrastructure and communication links prevent the development of the islands' tourism potential.[citation needed] Starting in the early 2000s, several of the islands began to be used as transit depots for narcotraffic,[3] which is quickly changing the social and economic fabric of the islands.


In pre-European colonial times, the islands were central to the trade along the coast of West Africa and they built up a powerful navy. In 1535, this enabled them to rout the Portuguese, who later built a fort on Bissao, which was abandoned in 1703.[4] The islands were not formally annexed by Portugal until 1936.[5][6]

The Bissagos were visited by Austrian anthropologist and photographer Hugo Bernatzik in 1930–1931, who documented daily life among the Bidyogo people.[7]

The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine is conducting research into infectious diseases on the islands. Because they are so isolated there is less danger of contamination of the results than in other places.[8]


Due to difficulties of communication with mainland Guinea-Bissau that persist to this day, the population has a considerable degree of autonomy and has shielded its ancestral culture from outside influence. The Bijago language is spoken along with Portuguese and creole.

Some authors argue that Bijago culture tends to be matriarchal, with women managing the household, the economy, law, as well as initiating courtship (women choose their husbands and terminate the matrimony).[9] Other sources dispute this and suggest that closer examination has revealed a fundamentally patriarchal society where women, in spite of their substantial participation in material production and important roles in social, political, and religious matter, remain essentially unequal to men.[10] A 2016 study suggested that female status in Bijagos society was diminished during the slave trade era but has become more valued again in more recent times.[11]

In 2012, a study by Bissau-Guinean sociologist Boaventura Santy examined the social representations of the people of the island of Formosa Bijagó about possible threats from climate change. The study concluded that for "the Bijagó the natural and the social are inextricably linked, to the extent that a crisis in the social system would have negative effects" on the natural system.[12] In particular, it was the lack of harmony between the community, ancestors and the supernatural world that was seen as causing environmental dissonance.[13]


The Bissagos peoples produce many artifacts for daily use and ritual following a traditional iconography that is unique to their culture, and shows variations from island to island. Among the most striking Bidyogo art pieces are the portable ancestor shrines ("iran") and the zoomorphic masks representing cows ("vaca-bruta"), sharks, stingrays and, occasionally, other local animals. Traditionally-decorated artifacts are also produced for "fanado" coming-of-age ceremonies (wood masks, spears, shields, headgear, bracelets), daily activities (fishing, agriculture) and personal use (stools, basketry, foodware). Its unique aesthetics make Bidyogo art easily distinctive from other African tribal arts.

Notable people[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Archipel Bolama-Bijagós". Ramsar Sites Information Service. Retrieved 25 April 2018.
  2. ^ "Focus - Guinea-Bissau's Bijagos Islands: A sanctuary of biodiversity under threat". 10 September 2021.
  3. ^ Guiné-Bissau: Arquipélago dos Bijagós utilizado como depósito dos narcotraficantes – Governo, Agência Lusa, Visão magazine
  4. ^ Edward Stallibrass, 'The Bijouga or Bissagos Islands, West Africa', in Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography, Vol. 11, No. 10 (Oct., 1889), p. 595.
  5. ^ Thornton, John (1998). Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400–1800. Paris: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781139643382. Retrieved 2015-01-26.
  6. ^ Henry, Christine (1994). Les îles où dansent les enfants défunts. Âge, sexe et pouvoir chez les Bijogo de Guinée-Bissau (in French). Paris: Les Editions de la MSH. pp. 66–68. ISBN 9782735116829. Retrieved 2015-01-26.
  7. ^ Geheimnisvolle Inselntropen Afrikas: Frauenstaat und Mutterrecht der Bidyogo; ein Forschungsbericht 1933
  8. ^ "Could these beautiful islands help stop killer diseases?". BBC. 14 November 2018. Retrieved 26 December 2018.
  9. ^ Guinea, Borders, and G. M. T. Time. "Guinea-Bissau." CABO 25.17 (2014): 17.
  10. ^ Historical Dictionary of the Republic of Guinea-Bissau, 2013, page 51
  11. ^ Lundy, B., Fernandes Jr, R. M., & Lartley, K. (2016). The Integrity of Women in Re-making a Nation: The Case of Guinea-Bissau. Journal of Global Initiatives: Policy, Pedagogy, Perspective, 11(1), 4.
  12. ^ Santy, B. R. V. H. (2012). As representações sociais das mudanças do clima e suas implicações no processo de territorialização: Os Bijagós da ilha de Formosa, Guiné-Bissau.


External links[edit]

Coordinates: 11°15′N 16°05′W / 11.250°N 16.083°W / 11.250; -16.083