Pol­lu­tion clouds Gam­bia’s ef­forts to woo China

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

The Gam­bia is court­ing Bei­jing’s at­ten­tion af­ter re-es­tab­lish­ing diplo­matic re­la­tions last year, but vil­lagers and ac­tivists say Chi­nese in­vest­ment is a dou­ble-edged sword as they fight a firm ac­cused of dump­ing waste. Chi­nese firms in Africa are fre­quently ac­cused of pol­lut­ing the en­vi­ron­ment to pro­duce ma­te­ri­als ready to ex­port back home, in in­ci­dents recorded by ex­perts across the mines of Guinea, oil fields of Chad and forests of the Congo basin.

The gov­ern­ment is nev­er­the­less keen to kick­start di­rect Chi­nese in­vest­ment to turn around the stut­ter­ing econ­omy, though its en­vi­ron­ment agency has made clear it will tackle abuses of the del­i­cate ecosys­tem in this largely un­de­vel­oped west African na­tion. The res­i­dents of Gunjur, a Gam­bian vil­lage an hour south of the cap­i­tal Ban­jul had wel­comed the open­ing of a Chi­nese fish­meal fac­tory in Septem­ber 2016, hop­ing it would bring new jobs to an area re­liant on scant re­wards from fish­ing and tourism.

“When the fac­tory came here, a lot of peo­ple were happy, in­clud­ing me,” said Badara Bajo, the di­rec­tor of the En­vi­ron­ment Pro­tec­tion and De­vel­op­ment Group of Gunjur (EPDGG), a char­ity. “We felt that it would help cre­ate em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties and per­haps sus­tain­able in­come to lo­cal in­hab­i­tants,” he ex­plained, describing his im­pres­sions of the Chi­nese-run Golden Lead com­pany.

Fu­ture part­ner?

Ban­jul rec­og­nized Bei­jing as the seat of China’s gov­ern­ment over for­mer ally Tai­wan in March 2016, but the Asian gi­ant was al­ready one of the diminu­tive African state’s top trad­ing part­ners, with the Chi­nese snap­ping up valu­able rose­wood tim­ber ex­ports. Il­le­gal to ex­port in neigh­bor­ing Sene­gal, the prized wood was smug­gled over the bor­der into The Gam­bia from the south­ern Sene­galese re­gion of Casamance, sour­ing re­la­tions with Dakar.

Since Pres­i­dent Adama Bar­row took power in Jan­uary, Ban­jul has en­gaged in a charm of­fen­sive with Chi­nese busi­nesses, seek­ing fund­ing for the type of in­fra­struc­ture and en­ergy projects the gov­ern­ment says were ne­glected un­der for­mer leader Yahya Jam­meh. Bar­row praised Trade Min­is­ter Isatou Touray last week for sign­ing an agree­ment for du­tyfree trade with China, which he said would “make our goods more com­pet­i­tive, and boost our ex­port po­ten­tial.” Touray her­self told Chi­nese me­dia at a re­gional sum­mit in Abuja in May that “quite a num­ber of Chi­nese firms are cur­rently en­gag­ing with the new ad­min­is­tra­tion and we are mov­ing in the right di­rec­tion.”

Streams turn red

Within months of the fac­tory open­ing in Gunjur, res­i­dents be­gan to no­tice a bad smell, fol­lowed by lo­cal wa­ter­ways turn­ing red, and fi­nally wave af­ter wave of dead fish wash­ing up on the shore. Swim­mers in Gunjur’s la­goon be­gan to com­plain of skin prob­lems. “The fac­tory is very close to the la­goon. The la­goon is also close to the na­ture re­serve which we have man­aged for 22 years now,” Bajo said.

Alerted to al­le­ga­tions of waste be­ing piped di­rectly into the sea and the de­struc­tion of some the area’s man­groves, the Na­tional En­vi­ron­ment Agency (NEA) filed a law­suit against Golden Lead on June 14. Bajo and his col­leagues also or­ga­nized a protest in late May in the neigh­bor­ing vil­lage of Kar­tong, where another Chi­nese firm has its sights set on a fac­tory. Lamin Jatta, a Kar­tong res­i­dent, said the com­mu­nity “would not al­low the Chi­nese com­pany to pol­lute our en­vi­ron­ment, as this will drive Euro­pean tourists from our beaches.” Cases like Gunjur’s are test sites for the new gov­ern­ment’s will­ing­ness to tol­er­ate what ex­perts have de­scribed as Chi­nese firms’ fre­quent dis­re­gard for the en­vi­ron­ment and the rule of law in other parts of Africa.

In its charges against Golden Lead, the NEA al­leged that the Chi­nese com­pany was dis­charg­ing waste wa­ter from their pro­cess­ing plant into the sea at Gunjur beach with­out per­mis­sion. Golden Lead was also fail­ing to keep records of its ac­tiv­i­ties and waste man­age­ment as re­quired by Gam­bian law, it said. Nev­er­the­less, both sides agreed an out­court-set­tle­ment, with the firm promis­ing to clean up its act, said gov­ern­ment spokes­woman Amie Bo­jang-Sis­soho.

“The com­pany will re­move its pipes from the sea and will make a com­pre­hen­sive eco­log­i­cal as­sess­ment and re­store the dam­age done to the ecol­ogy,” she said, adding Golden Lead would “pay for test­ing of the wa­ter to know how and why it was af­fected.”

The Chi­nese pay

Bakary Dar­boe, the man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of the Golden Lead Com­pany, said he “re­jected the charges” de­spite the le­gal agree­ment, and noted that the firm em­ployed 64 peo­ple in the area to make an­i­mal feed to be ex­ported back in China. Af­ter all, not ev­ery­one in Gunjur is in­censed by the pres­ence of Golden Lead. “Un­like the lo­cal fish­mon­gers who buy fish on credit ba­sis, the Chi­nese pay in cash and take the fish,” said Alieu Saine, a Sene­galese fish­er­man who said the firm paid up to $2 mil­lion dalasi ($43,401) each time they pur­chased stock.

“The gov­ern­ment should en­cour­age the Chi­nese to set up more com­pa­nies like this one as it will keep young peo­ple busy and dis­cour­age them from em­bark­ing on the risky ‘back way’ to Europe,” Saine added, re­fer­ring to a Gam­bian term for the cross-Sa­hara mi­grant route. The vil­lagers, he added, would “get used to” the smell, as he had. —AFP

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