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Spectre of Chinese fishmeal factory in Sierra Leone sparks protests

3 June 2021, at 12:32pm

Plans to establish a fishmeal factory in rainforest near a picturesque beach in Seirra Leone have met with strong local opposition.

Black Johnson Beach, in Sierra Leone, has been earmarked as the site of a $55 million fishmeal factory
Black Johnson Beach, in Sierra Leone, has been earmarked as the site of a $55 million fishmeal factory

“I wish it were a silly joke”, said Sam Cole, a graphic designer turned environmental activist, “but right at this very moment, well-meaning people are campaigning in Europe for the production of fishmeal in Senegal, Mauritania and Gambia to be stopped because of the terrible effects on the environment and the livelihood of people across West Africa. Yet at the same time, our president is concluding a deal to sell 250 acres of rainforest and, to add insult to injury, the Black Johnson beach, for the construction of a Chinese fishmeal factory, for $55 million. It might sound like a big figure, but the negative effects will be much more. You know, we are trying to resist it, but from the look of things, they will go through with it.”

Local activists are pointing to the recently launched campaign by Greenpeace, calling on European supermarkets to stop selling fish and meat fed on fishmeal and fish oil produced in West Africa.

“The fishmeal and fish oil industry, and all governments and companies supporting them, are basically robbing local populations of livelihoods and food. This goes against international commitments on sustainable development, poverty alleviation, food security, and gender equality,” said Dr Ibrahimé Cissé, senior campaigner at Greenpeace Africa, in a recent press release.

Despite the wider backlash against the fishmeal sector in West Africa, Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources issued a statement saying that the site had been earmarked for a fishing harbour since 1970 and the Chinese investment now made development of the area possible.

“For technical reasons, Black Johnson was the most suitable place for the construction of the facility in terms of bathymetry, social safeguards (minimum resettlement costs), and environmental issues,” said the ministry.

A crowdfunding page set up by James Tonner, the director of a Sierra Leone-based NGO that has bought land in the area to bulid a school for local children, and is organising the Save Black Johnson Beach campaign, has raised £10,676 at the time of writing.

The government appears to be in a hurry to rush this project through. But although it could justifiably claim to have the mandate under the constitution to acquire any land in the public interest, it cannot ignore the high level of local opposition.

Two influential groups, The Institute for Legal Research and Advocacy for Justice and Namati Sierra Leone have asked government for copies of the environmental and social impact assessments done on the project, and the grant agreements between China and Sierra Leone.

Dr Sama Banya a popular physician and president of the Conservation Society of Sierra Leone, normally regarded as sympathetic to President Julius Mada Bio, seems to have broken ranks when he declared that “the factories discharge toxic chemicals which destroy the fish breeding grounds. This in turn reduces fish stocks for local fishermen as it pollutes both the land and the ocean – killing fish, animals and plants…in addition, the industry will pollute the main marine environment and its ecosystems that are not only fish breeding grounds but also support wildlife species.”

According to reliable sources, the government may put a stop to the project if the European Union and the World Bank, currently funding major projects in the country, raise serious objections. It is very likely, the sources say, that these two agencies and some bilateral donors would compel government to pull a stop to an obviously unpopular project.