Above image of Ian climbing aboard ship with speedboat beneath him. | Photo by The Outlaw Ocean Project

The double-edged sword of foreign investment

I recently went on a long patrol off the coast of Gambia to investigate the topic of fishmeal, which consists of high-protein pellets made by grinding up fish caught at sea. These pellets then get fed to farmed fish to fatten them up faster, and the topic interested me because fish farming was supposed to slow ocean depletion but it’s actually doing the opposite.

Crewmembers in orange gloves sorting through fish in dark interior of boat. | Photo by The Outlaw Ocean Project

But the underlying story was murkier and looming in the background. It had more to do with the way foreign investment can destabilize nascent democracies. I’d read plenty on this issue in grad school, quite especially involving US interests in Latin America. In this instance, however, the foreign capital is Chinese and the country is a West African nation that is struggling to rebuild itself politically after a long and repressive regime.

As part of its Belt-and-Road Initiative, the Chinese have a huge presence in Africa and some of that investment has gone toward building more than 14 fishmeal plants in Mauritania, Senegal and Gambia. The global demand for fishmeal is huge. More than 80 percent of the world’s wild fish stocks have collapsed or are unable to withstand more fishing pressure.

Our appetite for fish, in short, has outpaced what we can sustainably catch, and as a result, aquaculture has emerged as an alternative—a shift in fishing, as the industry likes to say, from capture to culture. But this industry, widely hailed by conservationists as the best hope for slowing ocean depletion, is not only polluting Gambian waters, decimating its fish stocks, and threatening the lives of its own citizens. It is also forcing its newly democratic government to revert to some of the repressive tactics of its predecessor as secret police arrest and beat environmentalists, regulators take bribes from Chinese companies and turn a blind eye toward dumping and other crimes.

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Aerial shot of foliage and fishmeal plant. | Photo by The Outlaw Ocean Project

While reporting in Gunjur, a coastal city of 15,000 people, I was joined by Mustapha Manneh, a 28-year old local journalist and environmental advocate, who had returned to Gambia in March 2017 from exile in Cyprus. Manneh fled his native country after his father and brother were arrested for political activism in opposition to Yahya Jammeh, a brutal autocrat who took over Gambia in a bloodless coup in 1994.

Ruling the country for 22 years, Jammeh was accused of raping young girls and stealing millions of dollars to fund his extravagent lifestyle. Under Jammeh’s auspices, a paramilitary group called the Junglers was given carte blanche to hunt down and kill human rights advocates, opposition politicians, LGBTQ people and journalists. Among Jammeh’s many bizarre campaigns, at least 1,000 people were accused of witchcraft and forced to drink poisonous hallucinogenic substances as “cures.” By 2017, Jammeh fled the country, finding refuge in Equatorial Guinea, a country run by another megalomaniacal tyrant. That same year, a more liberal government led by Adama Jarrow took power in Gambia.

Jarrow’s arrival ushered in what many young people in Gunjur described to me as a “new era” of hope for development and democracy. But I quickly sensed that there was also a pinch to the “Smiling Coast of Africa”. Feeling freer under the new government, local business owners, youth activists, and journalists were growing bolder in their criticism, particularly of the stomach-churning stench and ruinous pollution from the fishmeal plants. Increasingly, the “new era” government has found itself in a bind. It was one thing to invite free speech and foreign investment. It was something else entirely to manage public expectations and to exert day-to-day oversight of these foreign companies.

At first, people were baffled. Residents burned scented candles and incense in their homes to counter the stench, tourists donned white masks, and park officials reported that birds had stopped nesting on the lagoon, likely because of the dead fish floating belly up. Fearing for their health, several locals filled plastic water bottles with the red water and contacted a biologist and trusted village elder named Ahmed Manjang, who began investigating.

Above shot of dead fish with tails sticking up. | Photo by The Outlaw Ocean Project

Soon, the culprit became clear: ongoing pollution from several Chinese-owned fish-processing plants in the area had released wastewater into the lagoon and along the coast. Company and government officials from China met with Gambian environmental authorities to decide what to do. But as these discussions dragged on, local residents grew frustrated. While the three fish processing plants continued operating at a frenzied, around-the-clock pace, the illicit dumping, horrid stench, protests, online petitions, and heated Facebook arguments intensified.

So, in May, 2018, a half dozen local youth decided to organize a march to publicize their concerns. Local paramilitary police arrested the organizers even before the protest took place, charging them with inciting violence. Asked at one point by a reporter about the impact of the plants, Gambia’s minister of fisheries dismissed the foul odor as but, “the smell of money.”

But much of this money that should have gone toward public coffers in Gambia has ended up elsewhere. Late last year, two senior local fishery officials were put on leave after being surreptitiously recorded allegedly arranging bribes from fish meal plant operators.

“This is one of the underlying challenges of the Belt and Road Initiative,” said Peter Horn, director of the Ending Illegal Fishing Project at Pew Charitable Trusts. “Countries like Gambia are hugely indebted, making the realpolitik of robustly enforcing the legislation difficult.”

The majority of industrial trawlers operating in the Gambia are Chinese-owned, but it is commonplace for operators to register them as Gambian fishing companies by forming joint ventures with a local partner, which is a way to circumvent local taxes and fees that are far heavier for foreign operators. To evade local inspections and other rules, the trawlers in Gambian waters also typically use so-called ‘flags of convenience’ vessels, which limits local jurisdiction and reduces the oversight.

As we made our way to one of the processing plants called Golden Lead, which sits adjacent to the Bolong Fenyo Park, Manneh warned me to be discreet if I talked to people near the facility. “Cameras away,” he instructed. “No saying anything critical about fishmeal.” He recounted that a week earlier he had brought a research team from Europe to photograph the facility and an angry mob of fishermen had pelted him and his guests with rocks and rotten fish. People who sell fish to the plant are still very protective of it, he explained.

The drive to Golden Lead from my hotel took us over two hours, even though the trip was only 30 miles. Recent rains made the dirt road virtually impassable. As he slalomed around a deep patchwork of craters, the taxi driver shook his head in annoyance. Life is dysfunctional, he said, recounting how often he loses entire days to waiting in traffic or stuck in mud pits. “And this is the road the fishmeal plant promised to pave,” he said.

Fishing nets below four boats veering up at sky. | Photo by The Outlaw Ocean Project

Along the way, we passed several large billboards. “The police are your friends and family,” said one of them. Another sign featured an officer wildly swinging his baton at a person whose arms were raised defenselessly in the air. At the bottom, the billboard encouraged people to report all human rights abuses to a special hotline. A third sign implored: “Don’t bribe the police.”

A sobering backdrop, the billboards were part of a wider public relations campaign meant to show that the new government was different from the old. Pulling to the side of the road, my photographer, Fábio Nascimento, stepped out of our taxi to aim his camera at one of the signs. Immediately, a police officer rushed at him from across the street. “Are you crazy?” the officer screamed before Nascimento hastily climbed back into our taxi and we continued toward the shore. “You can’t take pictures of that!”

* Ian Urbina, a former investigative reporter for the New York Times, is the director of The Outlaw Ocean Project, a non-profit journalism organization based in Washington, D.C., that focuses on reporting about environmental and human rights crimes at sea.

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