The Gambia’s poisoned wildlife reserve

From ToxicLeaks

History of Bolong Fenyo Wildlife Reserve[edit | edit source]

The Bolong Fenyo Wildlife Reserve is a protected natural area near Gunjur, a small village in southwestern coastal The Gambia just 2 kilometers or so from the Atlantic Ocean. Gubjur is the first community in the country to own and manage its own nationally recognized wildlife reserve, and people living in the informal settlements around it have done so since 2008. The Bolong Fenyo reserve is a 320-hectare area along the “bolong,” the Mandinka language name for a creek. It is an important ecosystem, with wetlands and lagoons as well as savannah, and a haven for birds in particular. The Gambian people, working with the United Nations Development Program, have identified at least 74 species of birds (and 35 marine and land animals) living there or passing through on a key migratory route. With mangroves and mahogany, oil palm and baobab, the Bolong Fenyo area is protected for its flora species as well.

An area called the Fabadinka stretches 100 meters on either side of the bolong, creating a restricted zone that even hikers and birders are forbidden to enter. It’s because, although there is an ecotourism lodge nearby and community hopes to build on its economic value, the fragile Fabadinka zone is open only to environmental managers nurturing a recovery from an era before its conservation management. Those plans were disrupted in 2017 by Golden Lead, a Chinese fishing business operating in The Gambia.

Pollution by China’s Golden Leaf factory[edit | edit source]

In May 2017, Gambian villagers woke up to the news that “everything is red and every living thing is dead.” Stunned members of the Gunjur Environmental Protection and Development Group (GEPADG), so proud to contribute to global sustainability goals and to serve as stewards of a community treasure, cried as they took water samples from the smelly, blood-red mess. Sorrow quickly turned to anger and action as they realized that toxic damage to plant and animal life may have impacted their own health.

The pollution was traced to the Golden Leaf Factory, a Chinese fishmeal company accused of dumping dead fish and waste products into the nearby waters, and earlier found running an effluent pipeline that discharges directly to the ocean. Golden Leaf – still planning a second Gambian plant – also is at the center of West African overfishing that Gambians say destroys the fishing stock and the local ecosystem. Environmental activists say they have been threatened by Golden Leaf owners for their advocacy work.

Gunjur community’s lawsuit against Chinese company[edit | edit source]

Golden Leaf, established in 2015, initially denied responsibility for the Bolong Fenyo pollution, or the dead fish washing up on ocean beaches near its illegal discharge pipeline. Gambian officials also first blamed Gunjur locals for unsustainable fishing practices and dismissed activists’ concern over threats.

Yet after citizen appeals to President Adama Barrow and other officials, with demands for information about permits and regulatory oversight, The Gambia’s government agreed to settle out of court for USD$25,000 in fines levied against Golden Leaf for: withholding information about management of waste; discharging waste into the sea; polluting the environment, and failing to keep records of their company activities. The owners were required to pay for testing of the already-contaminated waters, and ordered to take immediate measures to treat their wastewater. They also were required to stop taking orders from local fishing communities for product that exceeded the facility’s capacity to safely process the fish, after authorities found some fish were dumped by locals whose product was refused.

Gunjur environmentalists decided that wasn’t the end of it. In July 2017, they filed for $330,000 in damages in a new lawsuit. GEPADG and other activists are demanding that The Gambia shut down the existing Golden Leaf plant and prevent the new one under construction in nearby Kartong from opening.

Environmental advocacy and future directions[edit | edit source]

Ahmed Manjang, a microbiologist from Gunjur who studied in Britain and works in Saudi Arabia, helped to ensure that water samples from Golden Leaf were processed in Europe and the results transparently reported. He said the Chinese company is one example of a much wider problem with West African overfishing. Greenpeace and other illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing watchdogs also have long warned of West Africa’s vulnerability to foreign operations, illegal fishing and stock depletion. Gambia cannot afford its own naval patrols, in a region that loses $2.3 billion a year to illegal fishing. The Barrow administration is exploring ways to work with private companies to help with enforcement.

About two-thirds of all fish destined for China comes from West African waters, according to a Pew research study, and Chinese environmental damage doesn’t end with the pollution at Bolong Fenyo.

The work at Gunjur’s community-owned preserve continues, as activists seek to protect their Gambian cultural heritage as well as their ecotourism economic potential and carefully regulated wildlife management. Yet the blow from the Chinese-owned Golden Leaf to their small village is a reminder of how much larger and more complex the changes in West Africa’s fishing industry are – and how urgent, in the global context of climate change and a sustainable future – is the need that they be addressed.