Factories that transform West African fish into powder
The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the fragility of this employment landscape, as well as its corruption. In May, many migrant workers from fishing crews returned home to celebrate Eid as the borders closed. With workers unable to return to The Gambia and new lockdowns in place, Golden Lead and other factories have suspended operations.
Or they were supposed to. Manneh obtained secret tapes in which Bamba Banja of the Fisheries Ministry discussed bribes in exchange for allowing factories to operate during the lockdown. In October, Banja took leave after a police investigation found that between 2018 and 2020, he accepted $ 10,000 (£ 7,212) in bribes from Chinese fishermen and companies, including Golden Lead.
On the day of my visit to Golden Lead, I made my way to the expansive beach. I found Golden Lead’s new sewage pipe, about 12 inches in diameter, already rusted, corroded and barely visible above the sand mounds. A Chinese flag planted earlier had disappeared. On my knees, I felt liquid flow through. Within minutes, a Gambian guard appeared and ordered me to leave the area.
The next day, I headed to the country’s only international airport, located an hour’s drive from the capital, Banjul, to catch my flight home. My luggage was light now that I had thrown away the putrid-smelling clothes from my trip to the fishmeal factory. At one point during the ride, as we negotiated pothole after pothole, my taxi driver expressed his frustration. “This is the road that the fishmeal factory promised to chart,” he said, gesturing in front of us.
At the airport, I discovered that my flight had been delayed by a flock of buzzards and gulls blocking the only runway. Several years earlier, the Gambian government had built a landfill nearby, and scavenging birds descended in droves. While I was waiting among a dozen German and Australian tourists, I called Mustapha Manneh. I joined him at my home in the town of Kartong, 11 kilometers from Gunjur.
Manneh told me he was standing in his front yard, looking out over a trash-strewn highway that connects the JXYG factory, a Chinese fishmeal factory, to Gambia’s largest port, in Banjul. In the few minutes we had chatted, he said, he had seen 10 semi-trailer trucks pass by, raising thick clouds of dust as they drove, each carrying a container. 12 meter long expedition filled with fishmeal. From Banjul, these containers would leave for Asia, Europe and the United States.
“Every day,” says Manneh, “is more.
* Ian Urbina is the director of The Outlaw Ocean Project, a non-profit journalism organization that focuses on reporting on environmental and human rights issues at sea.
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