By David Kujabi
I was born in Bwiam a few days before Christmas in the very late 70s. I grew up experiencing love not just from my immediate family, but from the community around me. I was raised and taught, discipline not just by my parents, but by elders within the community. Therefore, I enjoyed not only the upbringing of parents, which could be doting and biased, but of a community which was a cocktail of good and bad intent, but the good exceeding.
As a kid growing into consciousness, I started school in Niumi Njongon, as a seven-year-old. The people there were nothing but loving, caring, hardworking, industrious and independent. I leaned and loved the Serrer way of life, and their cherreh remains on my list of favourite foods.
From Njongon I went back to Bwiam where I spent two years and then moved to Kartong, where I spent the ages of 10 to 14 – the years of growing consciousness. After completing college, I gain taught there for two years. My love for Kartong I’ll take to my grave. For me, it’s one of the best places anyone could ever live in The Gambia. Admittedly, Gambia la Kombo is largely so – beautiful, accommodating with kind and good-natured people.
But during my last visit to Kartong, Gunjur and Sanyang in February 2019, I was left with a broken heart. The beauty, and charm of the coast I so fell in love with was replaced with stench, degradation and pollution unimaginable.
It was evident that the stench came from Chinese built fish processing factories. I was struck that not only was the environment destroyed, but even the livelihood of my beloved people was being stripped of them. The once land of fish aplenty, the people whose economic gains revolved around the river and sea were being deprived of what rested on the tip of their noses. To put it bluntly, the Chinese fish factories in Sanyang, Gunjur and Kartong pose a great threat to human security. Indulge me let’s break this down in simple factual terms.
According to UNDP 1994 Human Development Report, ‘Human security can be said to have two main aspects. It means, first, safety from such chronic threats as hunger, disease and repression. And second, it means protection from sudden and hurtful disruptions in the patterns of daily life – whether in homes, in jobs or communities’. There are seven key elements in Human Security and these include; Economic security (e.g. freedom from poverty), Food security, Health security, Environmental Security, Personal Security (incorporating: freedom from war, torture, domestic violence), Community Security (e.g. survival of traditional cultures and ethnic groups as well as the physical security of these groups), and Political Security (civil and political rights, freedom of expression). From the above, one can see that the fish meal factories pose a threat to food security, health security, environment security, community security as well as political security.
The operation of these factories have caused tensions within these communities yet the government seem to turn a blind eye and give a deaf ear to the plight and complains of the people. “Public Perceptions, International trade, and legal provisions related to existing practices of control and enforcement, as well as access and use of Gambia’s natural resources by citizens (specific to forests, …, as well as waterways, fishing and access or use of lands adjacent to water) were evidenced to be strongly associated with significant destabilizing tensions” (The GoTG, WANEP, UNDP-DPA, 2018: 39).
Studies indicate a growth in the fisheries industry as in 2010, artisanal fishing account for about 3.4% of GDP and Gambia government expects GDP growth from 6.4 % (2017) to 15 % by 2021. However, despite these figures, it must be admitted that over 90 % of the fishing vessels legally operating in the Gambian waters are foreign-owned. Foreign fishermen comprise the majority on the Atlantic coast, which is the most productive area as the industry is highly competitive and challenging for the Gambian fisherman. The Gambian fishermen are forced to burden for the high cost of freezing fishes to export because of the high cost of electricity. It rather sad that the sea and river which are likely Gambia’s greatest natural resource is largely dominated by foreigners and a few Gambian men and a good number of women remain on the fringes of the sectors. It is a sad irony that for a country with abundant fish, it is not only difficult to get but hardly affordable for the average Gambian.
HEALTH & ENVIRONMENTAL SECURITY
The Chinese-owned fishmeal plants dispose of toxic waste and also randomly dispose of rotten fish in different areas in Kartong, Sanyang and Gunjur polluting residents with reeking fish carcasses. Those who have tourist resorts in the area lose clients because of the unbearable stench that pervades the air. Equally, women who have gardens in the area affected by the stench and flies that flies from the rot disrupt their gardening. It is also evident that the factory flushes untreated sewage water to sea which could lead to the death of fishes. Furthermore, when the factory buys its maximum stock of fish, fishermen are often left no choice but to dispose of their already rotten catch into the sea. This untreated waste discharge results to the death of dolphins and turtles.
Rice is the staple food for Gambians with most eating it at least twice daily each day. Rice is normally eaten with soups and stews made with fish. However, the growing cost of fish is making it difficult for most families to afford it. It is rather disheartening that the once-affordable fish are what the Chinese factories buy robbing poor Gambian families of their God-given food. Even the cost of my favourite fish- Bonga (chalo/kobo) which was referred to as the poor man’s fish has become too dear. Further to this, even on occasions when a lot of fish are caught from the sea, a lot of fish go to waste because of an adequate storage facility. This is adversely affecting the nutritional and protein value of the food being consumed.
The establishment and continued exploitation of the fish meal factories are shrouded with a lot of bad political undertones. Government’s neglect of the plight of the people being adversely affected by the operation of the factories is a violation of their human rights. We are equally aware of the legal battle between the people of Gunjur and owners of the fish meal factories. There is growing despair and distrust of government and it is even more frustrating that despite the pronouncement of the state of public emergency and lockdown, these factories continue to operate while the hustling women are driven away from the beach. It is little wonder a good number of residents of these areas, claim that the government has failed them.
The fishing sector within these communities is largely dominated by women who spend most of their time at the beach buying fish and at the market selling them for little profit. The absence of the mothers in the homes places a high burden on children which affects the stability of the family. Children are deprived of the opportunity to get regular assistance and guidance as well as interact well with their parents. Furthermore, there seems to be a low level of community involvement in policymaking. Frequent protests and calls to close or have the operators of the factory adhere to good environmental protection have received very little attention. Sadly, the fight by members of these communities for the protection of the environment is viewed by many as rebellious.
As people continue to be stripped of the benefits of the natural resource within their environment, their frustration is driving into criminal acts like the digging out of the sewage pipe from the pipe and leading into the sea. The lost hope of the youth in being able to make it home is driving many to risk the high seas in a bid to migrate to Europe.
Though the people of Kartong, Gunjur, Sanyang and Tanji may the ones being directly affected by the exploitation of these factories, all Gambians are equally affected too. Our environment is being polluted, fish has become scarce and expensive and we are being deprived of a good source of environment. Furthermore, such exploitation is extended to other natural resources like our forests as well. I encourage the government to look critically into these factors and do the needful. It must strive to ensure that our natural resources are best enjoyed by Gambians.