The investment from China welcomed by the Gambia government is plaguing the fishing community that says a Chinese-owned fishmeal factory is disrupting life on their shores.
“I have been working here for 32 years,” says Buba Cary, a fisherman from Gunjur who speaks in Mandinka through a translator. “It only brings us suffering,” he said, pointing to the white building.
“Before the factory came here, there were a lot of fish in the sea. If you want fish 1681621223 you need to cross the border to Senegal or Guinea-Bissau.”
Kelepha Camara, who comes to the coast to buy fish and sell locally, agrees, arguing that it has driven up fish prices for locals: “This factory doesn’t support us.”
The men were talking about a facility run by Golden Lead in the seaside village of Gunjur, about 45 kilometers south of the capital, Banjul.
In total Gambia currently has three of these plants – the other two, operated by different companies, about 10 kilometers north and south of Gunjur, where fish oil and fishmeal are produced and Export to China, Europe and more.
For years, the fishmeal industry has questioned sustainability. It uses large amounts of fish, such as sardines and bonga, which make up at least half of the Gambia’s total protein.
The Dutch NGO Changing Markets Foundation found that the largest of these fishmeal plants accounted for 40% of the entire Gambia’s fish catch in a single year.
The Gambia has fostered close ties with China in recent years. Under the controversial leadership of former President Yahya Jammeh, China’s first fish factory to open was in Gunjur, after being granted a 99-year lease in 2015 shortly after the Gambia severed ties with Taiwan. Loan.
According to political watchdog Watch Gambia, this comes despite Gambian laws that forbid foreign nationals from renting land for more than 26 years.
It wasn’t long before Mr. Jammeh reluctantly left power in 2017 and went into exile after 22 years in power – a period during which the Truth, Reconciliation and Compensation Commission exposed human rights abuses and pervasive corruption. lan – his successor met his Chinese counterpart to reiterate their friendship.
That year, China wrote off the Gambia’s $12 million ($10 million) debt and invested an additional $28.7 million in agriculture and fisheries.
Polluted wildlife sanctuary
However, the local community in Gunjur was not pleased with how things were going with Golden Lead.
On May 22, 2017 – nearly a year after the fishmeal factory opened – the lagoon at Bolong Fenyo, a nearby wildlife sanctuary, was full of dead fish and turning deep red.
The following month, the National Environment Agency filed a lawsuit against Golden Lead in the first instance court, alleging that wastewater from the plant had caused the damage.
Besides the pollution issue, the company was brought up in another lawsuit.
Last month, Bamba Banja, a former top official of the Ministry of Fisheries, was found guilty of corruption for receiving at least five payments of $1,600 between 2018 and 2020 from Golden Lead. He denied that he took the money to free ships detained for engaging in illegal fishing, but was jailed for two years and had to pay a fine.
Some in the Gunjur community are still worried about standards for waste pollution and many fisherman and factory workers told the BBC in December 2022 that they had experienced skin problems after into the sea near the factory. But there is no solid evidence that these diseases are caused by a factory fault.
For most in Gunjur, the lack of fish angers them – they say stocks are being overfished.
Golden Lead guarantees a six-month contract with most Senegalese fishermen using powerful boats. Local fishermen using pirogues cannot compete.
The factory buys in bulk, paying $5 a basket – three times less than the purchase price at local markets. Some fishermen agree with this as it is a guaranteed sale, but it means that the locals have less fish and the Gambians who sell to the Golden Lead make less money.
The absolute mass of fish required for processing can be witnessed when the catch is included.
When the boats arrived at the factory, lots of men ran up and down the beach with 50kg (110lb) baskets on their heads – each paid $0.50 a trip.
The knock-on effect is that fish is becoming scarcer in the local market – and increasingly expensive.
Gunjur residents also complained that Golden Lead broke commitments with the fishing community.
“They promised to build a road from the village to the beach and promised to build a fish market for the community. They promised to create 600 jobs here in the community,” said Dembo Darboe, the village chief of Gunjur, known as “alkalo.” said. , speak to me.
None of this happened, although he says the village receives a monthly payment of about $815.
“Compared to what they have, this is nothing,” the sheriff said.
“We may not like it. But the power is in the hands of the government.”
According to a factory worker, who asked not to be named, only 40 Gambians are employed at Gunjur’s Golden Lead factory, where conditions are dire and wages are unsatisfactory at around $60 a month. pay with cash.
“They deduct my salary to pay income tax and social security. I don’t even have an account or a social security number,” he said.
Planned quota system
Current Fisheries Minister Omar Gibba has dismissed these criticisms, telling the BBC that the factory attracts foreign investment, provides much-needed work for local Gambians and that the dumping of toxic waste has ended long ago.
“Golden Lead has found a market where they can export the waste in liquid form. Where to go I don’t know.”
For example, the Minister added: “The law does not say 80% [of the workforce] must be Gambian. In any investment there must be pros and cons. It makes society interesting.”
He also sought to allay fears about overfishing, saying there is no scientific evidence to back this up.
However, environmental journalist Mustapha Manneh points out a UN report from 2019 discovered overfished sardinella and bonga fish in waters off the Gambia – and believes there could be dire consequences in five years’ time: “The amount they catch every day will have a serious effect important to our biodiversity. Can lead to food insecurity.”
Mr. Gibba could not say how much fish Golden Lead is currently catching from Gambian waters, but said there are plans to introduce a new quota system.
The minister also said that while juvenile fishing was a problem, there were regulations to deal with it.
One of the leading anti-fishmeal activists is microbiologist Ahmed Manjang, who is part of a group of environmentalists who have taken Golden Lead to court. Their civil lawsuit cites $250,000 worth of damage to the environment. But Mr Manjang is angry that the case has been postponed several times since July 2017.
“I believe the Chinese have violated our legal system,” he said. Gambian authorities did not respond to a request for comment on the allegation.
Not long ago, Mr. Manjang added, he and five other activists involved in the case were offered cash bribes at the factory, but they refused: “Stuffed envelopes. That’s it. the way they operate.”
Earlier, a Gambian called him and offered him around $4,000, allegedly on behalf of the Chinese company, to block his campaign.
To get answers to such allegations, I visited the well-guarded factory in Gunjur, which is notoriously difficult to reach or speak to any of its Chinese owners.
Peter Zhu, a senior recruiter, briefly told the BBC: “We are controlled by the government, everything we do is right.”
When asked directly about fish stocks, he replied: “I don’t know about this. We are not fishermen, we are businesses. How is the situation at sea? I do not know”.
Other attempts to contact the company about other allegations, such as bribery, have been unsuccessful.
Mr Manjang said there were signs that Senegal, Mauritania and the Gambia could work together in the future to make joint efforts to protect their fish stocks.
However, young Gambian activist Buba Janneh, who works with Greenpeace Africa, feels less positive – although he persists in his fight to cancel Golden’s 99-year lease Lead is legally viable.
The future, he said, would be “very dark” for The Gambia, if the lease was still in effect at the time of his death.
Tom Ford is a freelance journalist traveling in West Africa