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Sierra Leone’s Harbor Deal With China Riles Fishermen, Conservationists

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When Sierra Leone’s government inked a $55 million deal with China to develop an industrial fishing harbor on 100 hectares of beach and protected rainforests, conservationists and local fishermen were outraged.

The project at Black Johnson Beach borders Western Area Peninsula National Park, home to endangered species such as duiker antelope and pangolins, and the waters burst with sardines, barracuda and grouper, according to a report by The Guardian in the United Kingdom.

The vague details of the deal upset local fishermen, who catch 70% of the fish for the domestic market, and enraged conservationists who say no one conducted social or environmental impact assessments on the project. Part of the land is a lagoon that opens up into a river during the rainy season. It acts as a fish breeding site, and its water flows into Whale Bay when it rains.

“This deal would destroy pristine rainforest, plunder fish stocks and pollute fish breeding grounds and marine ecosystems,” Steve Trent, chief executive officer of the Environmental Justice Foundation, said in a statement. “Alongside this, it would restrict the areas in which small-scale fishers can make a living and displace people who rely on the beach for other livelihoods, including eco-tourism.”

Locals didn’t know about the project until after the deal with China was signed. Two legal groups have written to the government demanding to see the environmental impact assessment studies.

More than 200,000 people work in small-scale fisheries in Sierra Leone, where locals have protested the presence of industrial trawlers in their waters for years. Local fishermen say the trawlers often engage in illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and harass them by running over their canoes and nets.

Rumors that a fishmeal factory will be part of the deal were refuted by Emma Kowa Jalloh, Sierra Leone’s fisheries minister.

Sierra Leonean President Julius Bio acknowledged that the project is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) meant to expand trade by building roads, ports, dams and railroads in Africa and other parts of the world. BRI financial deals are notoriously opaque.

“Landowners will be fully compensated, and all environmental due diligence will be done,” Bio said in a statement. “The Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources will work with all stakeholders for the effective implementation of this project.”

James Tonner, who owns land at the beach, wants the project stopped. Tonner said the government compensation rate was about 30 times lower than the market value of the land.

“Under the constitution, the government can sequester land if it is in the public interest,” Tonner told The Guardian. “Even if this is just a deep-water harbor, it is not in the public interest because it’s not a suitable site. There are fish breeding sites in the lagoon. It will wipe out the local fish people live on.”

Tito Gbandewa, Tonner’s stepfather, runs an ecotourism business on the beach and worries that an influx of industrial trawlers will pollute the water.

“Our own fishermen won’t have a place to fish,” Gbandewa told The Guardian. “Everything will be spoiled. Tourism will be finished.”

Others worry that the harbor will encourage even more IUU fishing, which costs Sierra Leone $29 million a year. About 75% of IUU incidents in the country are connected to China, according to estimates by China Dialogue Ocean.

Like other West African nations, Sierra Leone has struggled for years to restrict IUU fishing. In March, the Sierra Leonean Navy — with the help of Sea Shepherd Global — arrested five trawlers, including two flying Chinese flags, on illegal fishing charges in two days.

Sierra Leone’s government has threatened to close businesses, take court action or withhold port clearance certificates from fishing companies that don’t pay taxes. The country also has invested in six patrol boats and other equipment to better monitor its waters.

Jalloh, the fisheries minister, told The Guardian that the new harbor aligns with the country’s plans to bolster the fishing sector.

“We want to grow, we want to be classified as an upcoming country,” Jalloh told the newspaper. “There must be development, and somebody has to sacrifice. I’m not saying everything is going to be 100% perfect, but we will make sure that it is near-perfect.”

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