China-funded port in Sierra Leone stirs environmental fears
Sierra Leoneans are protesting against an industrial port project in a lush village in the West African country, fearing the Chinese-funded project will destroy pristine rainforest and pollute the ocean.
A tourist attraction 35 kilometers (22 miles) south of the capital Freetown, the village of Black Johnson is nestled between stunning black and gold beaches and pristine rainforest home to chimpanzees and protected bird species.
A nearby turquoise lagoon overlooked by palm trees is also a seasonal breeding ground for fish and turtles.
But last month, the government announced plans to build a fishing port and processing complex in the village, raising fears the tropical idyll is at risk.
Citing the potential for thousands of new jobs in the poverty-stricken country, the fisheries ministry said China was funding the $ 55 million (€ 45 million) project.
Tommy Gbandewa, a dreadlocked eco-lodge owner named “Tito,” leads the resistance to the plan – on green grounds.
“If the Chinese come here, the environment is going to stink. The beaches are going to smell bad,” he said.
The controversy is at the heart of tensions between development and conservation in Sierra Leone, and comes as the government also seeks to promote eco-tourism to boost its economy.
Sierra Leone, a former British diamond-rich colony, is one of the poorest countries in the world and is still recovering almost two decades after the end of a civil war that claimed the lives of some 120,000 people.
– ‘Completely sensational’ –
Sierra Leone has rich fishing grounds, but few people are able to exploit the resource, according to the Fisheries Ministry, which said last month that around 140 foreign trawlers catch most of the country’s fish. .
The trawlers then process it and sell it abroad “with little or no benefit to Sierra Leone”.
The planned port is intended to siphon part of the profits to the inhabitants.
However, vaguely worded plans have alarmed residents, who believe Chinese investors also intend to build a fishmeal factory – an accusation the Sierra Leonean government has denied to AFP.
Fishmeal factories are common in some West African countries and often emit foul-smelling waste, pollute surrounding water bodies and deter tourists.
Wudie Bakie Koroma, spokesperson for the artisanal fishermen’s union, said he was in favor of the port in general.
But he said, “If a fishmeal (factory) is part of the project, we will not support it.”
Du Zijun, a Chinese diplomat in Freetown, said in a statement that the plan was to build a port rather than a “fish meat mill.”
“The accusations of not paying attention to environmental protection and destroying the ecological environment are completely sensational and hypothetical,” he added.
Sierra Leone’s President Julius Maada Bio is banking on the country’s abundant wildlife and rainforests to revive the tourism industry.
– ‘Right to land’ –
Locals have launched online petitions to overturn the government’s decision and have drawn the attention of the local press.
Tito told AFP that discontent was widespread. Government officials showed up accompanied by armed men to inspect the properties, he said, adding that he did not want to give up his land.
“I am Sierra Leonean and I have a right to the land,” Tito said.
Fisheries Minister Emma Kowa Jalloh, during a recent visit to Black Johnson, promised landowners would be compensated.
“We are not grabbing land,” she said, adding that the project was “very necessary” and would create jobs.
Green Scenery, a local environmental NGO, however, accused the government of failing to do environmental due diligence and urged it to cancel the project.
“Black Johnson is the only eco-tourism destination left in Freetown, we must protect it,” said group executive director Joseph Rahall.
However, not all residents are opposed to the port plan.
Pa Lamin Kargbo, the village chief, said the community lacked running water, electricity and a school.
He explained that much of the friction with the government stems from a lack of dialogue.
“We call for a peaceful resolution of the matter, so that everyone wins,” he said.
sb-eml / pvh