In Sierra Leone, Chinese port construction plan sparks ire
TITO GBANDEWA passes the hand on a beach in Sierra Leone that many consider one of the most beautiful in West Africa. Bark from nearby trees can cure a child’s cough, locals say. The nectar of its palm trees comes “from God to man”. In the distance, a boy is fishing for grouper; children play in the waves. If the government is successful, all of that will be gone, says Gbandewa, who runs a small resort on the beach. In its place will be a Chinese-funded fishing port covering 100 hectares.
Listen on the go
To have The Economist app and read articles, wherever you are
Play in App
The Black Johnson Beach Project (pictured) is officially described as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a global infrastructure program. Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world and has long needed a port for deep-sea fishing boats. China has agreed to give him $ 55 million to help build the port. But when details leaked in May, they weren’t well received. Many Sierra Leoneans fear the project could threaten the surrounding rainforest and the country’s burgeoning tourism industry. Some fear that the development will include a fishmeal factory, which could worsen the environmental impact. The government says it is wrong.
Even some fishermen were alarmed. All over the world, including along the West African coast, China is buying fleets and building ports to help meet its own demand for fish. “They are creating a closed loop for their own supply chains,” says Whitley Saumweber of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a US think tank. The impact is evident in West African waters, which are among the most overexploited in the world. Chinese boats represent three quarters of Sierra Leone’s modern fishing fleet. Reports abound that they are catching more fish than they are legally allowed to do. Locals who depend on fish for protein cannot compete. A single high-tech trawler can catch five times as much in a day as a small village fleet in a year. Controlling ports, or having preferential access to them, makes it easier to bypass international restrictions on overfishing.
The Belt and Road projects are often obscure. For that of Black Johnson, no environmental assessment was carried out. Landowners were not consulted. Tourism is central to Sierra Leone’s long-term plan to achieve middle-income country status, known as the “Agenda for Prosperity”. But a tourism official said his ministry was also not aware of the plan. The Fisheries Ministry said tenders for the construction contract would be open and transparent. Chinese media suggest that two Chinese companies have already made the deal.
It may smell fishy, but “there is no Chinese conspiracy,” says Jinghan Zeng, who monitors China-Africa relations at Lancaster University in Britain. Chinese investors are still relatively new to Africa, so they make mistakes, he suggests. Chinese state-owned enterprises often act like Western enterprises: seeking profit without worrying too much about the diplomatic interests of their home country. By asking China for the subsidy to build the port, Sierra Leone was not necessarily submitting: the country had previously ended plans to build an airport with $ 318 million in Chinese loans.
Many Sierra Leoneans would disagree. They believe that China is seizing the rich natural resources of their country (timber, minerals and fish) without any respect for the locals and with the complicity of corrupt officials. In a poll last year, only 41% of those polled said China’s influence on their country was positive. This was down from 55% in 2015, and a lower share than all but one of the 18 African countries covered by the study. The mood in Sierra Leone has also deteriorated since June, when a video posted on social media showed a Chinese worker attacking a Sierra Leonean miner.
China is also trying other ways to gain public support. Since the start of the pandemic, it has distributed 240,000 vaccines to Sierra Leone, more than the 192,000 provided by COVAX, a global vaccine sharing program. In July, the two countries celebrated 50 years of diplomatic relations; ahead of the anniversary, the Chinese ambassador said his country wanted to help boost tourism. If that involves attracting spendthrift Chinese visitors, the stunning Black Johnson Sands may not be on offer. ■
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the title “Hook, Line and Lead?