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Est. April 5, 2002
Apr 8, 2021 - Issue 860
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The Gambia is the smallest nation on the African continent and it is poor, so the promise of development and jobs by a Chinese company was welcomed as a way of providing for many of its population of about two million.

Even though it is surrounded by Senegal, it has access to the Atlantic from its 50-mile-long sea coast, and therefore, it has in the past depended for its protein on the once-abundant wild fish stocks not far off its shore. For Gambians, fishing for their primary species of fish has collapsed and they are blaming the collapse on the Chinese fish meal plants that have been built in recent years.

The plight of Gambia is one repeated around the world and its story encompasses global economics, local economic and social disruption, and environmental degradation at both the local and world level. It’s a classic and it could be a case study of collapses of other ecological systems around the world, which also have profound effects on societies and nations, such as The Gambia.

There are fishing ships that are licensed to operate in Gambian waters, within the limits that most nations have set for legal fishing, but there are non-licensed ships that are also operating in those same waters and The Gambia is not rich enough to have its own vessels and personnel to police the waters and see that fishing boats are operating in a legal manner. It is difficult, if not impossible for any nation, let alone one as poor as The Gambia, to keep track of fishing stocks and trying to determine what is sustainable and what is not, and who is acting legally and who is not.

Fishing woes and sustainability are just a part of the problems of The Gambia. The Independent newspaper in October 2013 reported: “And the Gambia is poor, cripplingly poor, with over a third of its population of 1.7 million surviving below the United Nations poverty line of $1.25 a day. Beyond Serakunda’s busy street-side industries, and hand-to-mouth trading, and away from Banjul’s decaying colonial centre, around 70 per cent of the population work small plots of village land to survive.” The political atmosphere is a place where one man ruled for 22 years and was unseated by a man who promised to serve only three years but has already started a new party.

According to Ian Urbina of The Outlaw Ocean Project (TOOP), the stocks of bonga, a type of shad that were in great abundance just off the coast 20 years ago, are now being swept up by the industrial fishing operations that are present in Gambian waters. The TOOP was formed to attempt to bring some law and order to the oceans, the last frontier of lawless (and ecocidal) behavior across the globe, inexorably destroying one of the most important elements of world stability, ecologically and economically.

Urbina wrote recently for Yahoo!News, “In 2017, China canceled fourteen million dollars in Gambian debt and invested thirty-three million to develop agriculture and fisheries, including Golden Lead and two other fish-processing plants along the fifty-mile Gambian coast. The residents of Gunjur were told that Golden Lead would bring jobs, a fish market, and a newly paved, three-mile road through the heart of town.” Apparently, the Gambian investment is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which involves investment in some 70 countries, engendering the goodwill of those countries. In The Gambia, however, the “investment” has disrupted the lives of untold numbers of people who live a subsistence life and many are now dependent on the fish meal factories which pollute their surroundings.

An increasing worldwide demand for seafood has made the fishmeal industry lucrative for those who own the industry. For example, the bonga, a staple for Gambians, are caught within their coastal waters and brought to the Golden Lead factory or one of the others, processed into fishmeal and sold to other countries where the fish are raised on “farms,” either China, Vietnam, or even Norway. Some of those fish raised in aquaculture operations are brought back to places like The Gambia to be sold in the local markets. Too often, the retail price of those same fish is too much for the average Gambian.

One of the most popular fish to raise in fish farms is tilapia. Even at that, the industrial operations have turned nature upside down, for the tilapia, a Gambian fisherman pointed out, is an herbivore, but the fish farms have forced them to eat the fish meal processed thousands of miles away.

The collapse of fisheries is nothing new. In the 1970s, fleets of industrial fishing operations plied the coast of Peru, scooping up the plentiful stocks of anchovies, which could have fed the people of Peru. Peruvians largely depended on the fish for their economy. Instead, the catch was taken to be processed into fishmeal to supply feed for the voracious poultry industry that was growing rapidly in the U.S. Although it is difficult to determine when a fish stock collapses, the people who depend on those fish for food know it is happening. The west coast of Africa, according to Urbina, “is among the world’s fastest-growing producers of fishmeal: more than fifty processing plants operate along the shores of Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea Bissau, and The Gambia. The volume of fish they consume is enormous: one plant in The Gambia alone takes in more than seven thousand five hundred tons of fish a year, mostly of a local type of shad known as bonga - a silvery fish about ten inches long.”

What China is doing with its Belt and Road Initiative is what powerful nations have done through their empires over the millennia: conquer or otherwise assume power (nowadays mostly economic) over weaker countries and extract from them what they want, whether it’s mining for minerals, forests for lumber, fish stocks, oil and gas, or the best arable land, no matter who or what lives on it today. For a communist country, it has enthusiastically adopted the capitalist policies of its most powerful competitor, the U.S.

While the U.S. is hollowing out its citizens and the nation by supporting some 800 bases around the world, mostly military, and the untold billions it costs to maintain them, the Chinese are expending a small fraction of that cost in about 70 countries with their Belt and Road Initiative, creating goodwill, at least among the leadership of those nations. Whether that largesse and goodwill filter down to the people of those countries is another matter. If The Gambia is an example, the bulk of the people do not benefit but are permanently harmed by the actions of a greater power.

Empires learn well from one another. Columnist, John Funiciello, is a former newspaper reporter and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Contact Mr. Funiciello and BC.

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