The Bijagos Islands are a group of 88 islands located along the African coast off Guinea-Bissau. They are classified by UNESCO as a biosphere reserve.
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 Bissagos were visited by Austrian anthropologist and photographer Hugo Bernatzik in 1930–1931, who documented daily life among the Bidyogo people.
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. The archipelago has an incredible wealth of biodiversity, a threat of rising ocean levels.
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. 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.
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.