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Poverty and biodiversity

Plundering West Africa

by Frithjof Schmidt, Janna Schönfeld
Unequal competition before Senegal’s coast

Unequal competition before Senegal’s coast

The EU is heavily involved in the exploitation of Africa’s natural resources. In the process, it is contributing to endangering biodiversity and the livelihoods of large sections of the population. At the same time, the EU is thwarting its own development policy, and indirectly increasing migration pressure towards Europe. [ By Frithjof Schmidt and Janna Schönfeld ]

Fish and timber are crucial export goods for West Africa. They provide governments with urgently needed foreign exchange. As a result, already dwindling stocks are being over-fished, and forests are being destroyed. Large sections of the local people, however, live off the see or forests.

Some 80 % of the fish and timber exported from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) goes to the EU. These, however, are resources the local people need. EU-based firms are involved in illegal and destructive practices, which are quite common in West Africa’s fish and forest sectors. These companies are contributing to the destruction of ecosystems, reducing biodiversity far beyond the resources they immediately exploit.

Recent research has shown that climate change is exacerbating the pressure on forest and ocean environments. This is all the more so, where ecosystems have already been damaged. Oceans and forestes, moreover, are hotspots of biodiversity. At the Conference of Parties of the UN Convention on Biodiversity in Bonn at the end of May, both topics will get much attention.

Plundering bio-resources from West Africa goes against the grain of EU policy on development and environment. These practices do not help in the battle against poverty or the struggle for sustainability. Recent reforms and proposals made by the Commission may point in the right direction, but they do not go far enough.

What is needed is
– more diligent inspections, certifications and caps on the exploitation of fish and timber,
– better coordination of resource management in West Africa on the base of regional action plans,
– priority for the local people who depend on fish and forest resources, their participation in decision-making and fair share of profits,
– more local processing of the goods to boost the value added in sustainable schemes and, finally,
– financial, political and scientific EU assistance to African countries.

Although there is ample reason to criticise the EU, we must not overlook that a new kind of international competition for African resources is escalating. Emerging Asian countries such as China and some members of ASEAN are increasingly competing with the EU, and they do not impose any conditions in terms of environmental or social standards. The order of the day is thus to cooperate on the base of fair partnership and support African people in achieving what they need.

The waters off the coast of West Africa are now largely bereft of some over-fished species that used to be found here in large numbers, such as shrimp and octopi. Groupers face extinction. We do not even know the extent to which a number of species have been decimated. There is a lack of reliable data.

Monitoring the stock of fish in the seas is a complex, expensive and scientifically demanding task. The countries on the West African coast often have neither the necessary funds nor know-how. The populations of only five fish species were studied in Senegal: their total numbers have dropped by 75 % in the past 15 years. In the same time span, fishery activities rose twofold.

The UN Environment Programme estimates that foreign ships catch some 80 to 90 % of the fish off the coast of West Africa. The share caught by Asian ships, and those with flags of convenience, has been increasing in the past few years. In addition, countries like Senegal are investing in their domestic fishing industry to protect fishermen from foreign high-tech competition.

Technically sophisticated fishing vessels from the EU plow the waters, often leaving them empty. Industrial fishing ships drag gigantic nets through the water, destroying underwater plant life. They capture creatures they are not even interested in. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that the “by-catch” makes up a quarter of the total. Such practices not only decimate the species that are used commercially, but hurt the ecosystems in which these species thrive. Meanwhile, the catch in the nets of traditional African fishermen continues to dwindle.

To make things worse, a considerable part of international fishing is done illegally, without registration and beyond regulation. Everyone knows the pictures of African refugees risking their lives in small boats on the Mediterranean. But not everyone realises how migration from the West Africa relates to greater fish consumption in Europe. A case study conducted by Juliette Hallaire (2007) on the Senegalese coastal town of Yoff clearly showed what the OECD (2007) confirmed too: fishermen are increasingly using their boats to transport refugees because they can no longer make a living off of fishing.

Revenue from the fishing sector matters so much to a number of West African countries that their governments can hardly afford to limit exports or the activity of foreign ships. For instance, Mauritania has received more revenue from its fishing agreement with the EU than the EU transfers as development aid to the country. Financial flows entice West African governments to grant the EU and other foreign partners substantial fishing rights.

On top of excessive legal exploitation, illegal, unregistred and unregulated fishing poses enormous challenges. The FAO says that in addition to the officially approved 54,000 tonnes taken out of the waters of Guinea, an additional 34,000 are caught illegally – and that figure does not even include 10,000 tonnes of by-catch.

Within the EU, fish has to be sold with a label indicating the origin. Nonetheless, it is not always clear whether the merchandise was caught legally. Illegal practices include loading illegal catches onto registered boats on the high seas, frequent renaming of ships and sailing under “flags of convenience”. In 2007, a study conducted by the Environmental Justice Foundation found that more than half of the 104 ships studied were involved in some kind of illegal activity off the coast of West Africa. The European Commission says that illegal catches worth € 1 billion are imported to the EU each year. The Canary Islands are very relevant in this context. Their status as special economic zone combined with lax control of the ports makes it easy to bypass the EU’s relatively weak regulation on illegal catches.

Solving these problems will require close cooperation of all involved, both in West Africa and Europe. In particular, maritime cooperation has to be intensified at the regional level in West Africa, with a focus on sustainable development. Joint West African campaigns would make sense to monitor how individual species or entire ecosystems are doing.

When fish populations start to dwindle, foreign fleets should be forced to discontinue fishing first, giving priority to African fishermen. The EU should voluntarily enter into such an obligation to set an example for the rest of the world.

The EU and the West African countries must clamp down on illegal and unregistered fishing. Better exchange of information, more rigorous certification of origin, tougher punishment and black lists of criminals would serve that purpose – and so would more regular controls in ports and at sea. If the waters of West Africa are not to be irreversibly fished clean, all international fleets will have to be monitored stringently in accordance with maritime law.

At the same time, African capacities to dock and process fish should be expanded. The West Africa Network of Maritime Protection Zones founded in 2007 must be developed further. The EU should step up its financial, technical and political assistance.

It is most welcome that the EU has finally discontinued subsidies for the expansion and export of fishing capacities. First steps have been made to redesign commercial fishing agreements and turn them into genuine partnership agreements between the EU and West Africa.