Exiled in Sierra Leone
The story of three men made destitute by illegal fishing and forced to turn to destructive mangrove logging shows the desperate need for environmental justice.
In the spring of 2020, Joe, Baggi and Kainyenga were all proud fishermen. Born and raised in the chiefdom of Sittia, in the district of Bonthe, Sierra Leone, they were part of a tradition that has lasted for generations.
Each morning, they prepared their canoes and paddled to the fishing grounds, each evening on the beaches, they unloaded the catch, traded with the fishmongers and returned home to their families.
But for all three, it is now a past life. A few months before we spoke to them in October of that year, trawlers fishing illegally in coastal waters destroyed their nets. They did not receive any compensation from the ship owners or the government. Having no way to pay their debts, they fled.
The people of Bonthe have relied on fishing as their primary livelihood and source of food for centuries. But this way of life is under threat.
Sierra Leone is plagued by illegal fishing, where foreign industrial trawlers invade coastal waters reserved for canoes. Their nets pick up vast amounts of marine life, destroying habitats, devastating fish populations and often tearing the nets of canoe fishermen.
Many artisanal fishermen in Sierra Leone take out loans to finance their fishing trips and equipment. They will borrow not from formal financial institutions, but from other members of the community, paying off their debts over time by selling their catch.
Most amount to around US $ 700-900 depending on debt estimates. A substantial sum for people whose monthly income should not exceed US $ 100.
Now, with no chance of compensation, Joe, Baggi and Kainyenga must live in exile. Whenever they hear that people from Sittia are in town, they go into hiding – partly out of fear of reprisal, but mostly out of shame. They haven’t spoken to their family or friends for months.
With no hope of return and no way to fish, the three turned to logging the mangrove forests in the Sherbro River estuary for a living.
Despite sporadic efforts to control cutting, mangroves are not legally protected by the central government of Sierra Leone. Instead, they are controlled by traditional regulations imposed by chiefdom authorities and community management associations in fishing communities.
Some places have done a better job than others at managing mangroves sustainably, but overall mangrove cover in Sierra Leone has declined by around 25 percent since 1990, according to estimates.
These ecosystems provide a huge public service to Sierra Leoneans. They support the fishery by providing nurseries and spawning grounds for most of the species sold commercially in Sierra Leone.
They protect shorelines from coastal erosion – a huge threat to the country’s coastal communities – and other direct impacts of the climate crisis, such as increasingly severe storms.
Mangroves also benefit Sierra Leone and the global community at large, as they absorb and store large amounts of carbon – four times more per hectare than tropical forests.
It’s easy to see the domino effect: if trawlers continue to fish illegally in coastal waters, destroying the livelihoods of local fishermen, more and more people will turn to mangrove harvesting as an alternative, and the protection and services that these ecosystems provide to communities and the planet will be lost.
With the loss of mangroves, a host of other intertwined environmental and human consequences are likely to follow.
Mangrove degradation means increased coastal erosion, which means a forced displacement of coastal communities and an influx to urban areas. Additional pressure on cities means increasing inequalities, poverty and tensions.
The story of Joe, Baggi and Kainyenga is not an isolated case. Fishermen regularly report that their nets are destroyed by trawlers and there is currently no way for them to get compensation from the culprits.
Only if we achieve environmental justice – the equal right to a safe and healthy environment for all, in a world where ecosystems thrive – can we end this escalating spiral of destruction.
When people like these men are able to make a fair and sustainable living without fear of being taken from them by those who exploit the natural world to the point of collapsing.
This sad story of exploitation and degradation is repeated around the world. The ecosystems that make up our vital system are under unprecedented pressure and the local communities and indigenous peoples whose lives directly depend on them are being torn apart.
That is why, as a global community, we must achieve environmental justice before it is too late.
Steve Trent is Executive Director of Foundation for Environmental Justice.