|Official name||Archipel Bolama-Bijagós|
|Designated||14 January 2014|
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. 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.
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. Starting in the early 2000s, several of the islands began to be used as transit depots for narcotraffic, 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. The islands were not formally annexed by Portugal until 1936.
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.
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). 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. 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.
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. In particular, it was the lack of harmony between the community, ancestors and the supernatural world that was seen as causing environmental dissonance.
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.
- Benkos Biohó, Former African king who was shipped to Cartagena, Colombia during the slave trade but managed to escape and found the maroon village known as San Basilio de Palenque.
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