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Our Fishing Heritage
Chapter 23. Recalled to Life

This is an account of the empowerment of poor artisanal fishermen in West Africa, in the country of Sierra Leone which I visited several times from 1988 to 1991. The efforts of the UN and bilateral donors were remarkably successful, but were later brought to nothing by the devastation of the civil war which spilled over from neighbouring Liberia during the dreadful period of mindless conflict and mass cruelty towards innocent villagers.

Sierra Leone was founded as a home for freed slaves. I have stood under the 220 year-old cotton tree in Freetown where the forefathers of the current nation gathered in 1792 to receive their liberty and take possession of the territory ascribed to them. (It was a reward for fighting with British troops in the American war of independence). The country is rich in natural resources, - diamonds, bauxite, forests, fertile soil, abundant fresh water, and extensive resources of marine fish. In Freetown it has a deep water port that could have been developed along the lines of Singapore. But corruption, mismanagement, greed, and the “diamond curse” have combined to reduce that potentially wealthy country to one of Africa’s basket cases. It is so sad, when one meets the truly wonderful young people of that struggling nation.

Colonialism can hardly be blamed for the present evils. British rule provided good education, law and order, and political stability. Diamond smuggling was largely kept in check. But once the colonial administration departed, things went downhill fairly rapidly. Siake Stevens, one of the better national leaders who quickly became dictatorial, was misguided and cheated by ruthless merchants. I was taken to the Fishery Offices in Freetown, for many years the barracks for a contingent of the British navy. One got the impression that after the last sailor or marine marched out, all maintenance and repair ceased. Cobwebs hung from the windows and rafters. Files lay in pathetic piles on the floor with no apparent attempt to keep them in manageable order. While we gazed on the depressing scene, one of the senior officers berated the aid programmes for not giving all the assistance in hard cash directly into their hands since “we are much better able to handle it than foreigners”. Inside the Ministry of Natural resources, (a building constructed by Chinese aid), it was heart-rending to have hungry civil servants beg for a few Leones to help feed their families.

All my life I have been strongly in favour of self-government for the nations of the world, but without a solid foundation of integrity and competence, independence can result in rule by the corrupt, the ruthless, and the greedily ambitious, as has happened sadly in a number of African States and eastern countries like Myanmar. But in each individual case there have been foreign powers willing to pander to corruption and to take advantage of the administrative weaknesses.

However, there was a bright if short period of progress and prosperity for the coastal fishing communities of Sierra Leone which benefited from some well thought-out and well-administered projects financed mainly by Germany and donors to the UN and FAO. The basic elements of a vibrant small-scale fishery were there. Fish were abundant in coastal waters. Local fishermen were skilled and industrious. But nothing was happening because they lacked fuel and fishing gear. These were available, but only if paid for in foreign currency. The local notes, Leones, were largely worthless. What the GTZ German aid officers did was to offer the fishermen motors, fuel and nets, - not for free, - but for payment in Leones. The response was overwhelming and the project had to ration the items to legitimate fishers rather than allow a few applicants to obtain excessive amounts of the gear and supplies. Sack-fulls of Leone notes appeared out of mud huts and rural villages that on the surface were quite impoverished. In a short time whole coastal area of Tombo south of Freetown, was replete with nets and motorized boats, and fish catches soared.

In the absence of ice, the common method of preservation was smoke-drying. This required a lot of fuel. So an unfortunate environmental result of the fishery was that the hill behind Tombo was denuded of trees, and a replacement planting programme had to be initiated. But there were many beneficial results. The GTZ project persuaded the fisher leaders to invest in a local school and medical clinic. This they eventually did. From the profits of their operations, books and medicines were purchased and a qualified teacher and nurse employed. The German donors provided the buildings.

Most African countries suffer from migration of poor people from the countryside to the towns or cities. It is a natural result of mechanization and land-grabbing by the wealthier citizens. The migrants sometimes get work in the urban areas, but often end up as squatters and beggars. But in Sierra Leone, a reverse migration occurred as people in Freetown heard of the prosperity of the fishing village of Tombo, and hundreds of them moved there to participate in the industry. The village population swelled in consequence and its new leaders, the chief fishers, had to organize sanitation, water supplies, and housing regulations to cope with the rapid growth. (It should be understood that outside of the capital in many poor African states, central government has little influence and provides next to no services). Time and again in my own work, we have tried to give rural villages some control over their own future and welfare. Governments are now at least giving lip service to the idea by initiating programmes of devolved administration.

A similar successful project was mounted on the coast farther south, at Shenge. These villages and their small near-shore islands were once slave trading bases during the period of that wicked and callous trade in innocent human beings. I have seen the remains of iron posts and rings there where the unfortunate victims were chained prior to them being shipped to America in appalling conditions. The Shenge project was also based primarily on fishing, but had a more integrated approach to local development. It also took longer to establish as the FAO staff wisely deemed it better for all interventions to be agreed to and fully supported by the villagers, before they were enacted. This in development jargon is known as ‘participation’, and it is vital for long term sustainability. In

1988 I was asked by the FAO to review sites of past projects in Africa, Asia and south-East Asia, and to assess the degree of success or failure, and to identify they key factors in success. Accompanying me on that mission was Jean Luis Gaudet, a fine French-Canadian with a lifetime’s experience in mainly franco-phone countries. What we discovered was that there was no single factor that guaranteed success, but usually a number of factors, that may have had quite a different mix in different lands or continents. However, two elements that were evident in each case of success, however limited, were meaningful participation by the people, and an integrated approach to economic and social development. These were evident in the way Shenge progressed.

Unlike Tombo which developed rapidly due to a concentration on, and a massive increase, in fish production, Shenge interventions were spread out to involve local processing and ancillary industries, and innovations to improve the quality of life. What many of the villagers, young and old, said to me, was, “We like this project very much because every person in the community benefits”. Shenge fish drying avoided the toll on local forest timber because the project introduced kilns that conserved fuel. There was more emphasis on quality of dried or smoked fish and that raised the price, if not the amount of the product. Benefits were spread to the women-folk who started to open shops, restaurants, overnight guest houses, dress-making and hair dressing salons.

So the fishing villages of the Sierra Leone coast showed that beneficial development was possible, and that it could be village-based, and small scale.

Previous development initiatives had focused on a ‘single fix’ or ‘technical fix’ solution, like an ice plant, or boat yard, or cold store. These usually had limited impact. This was rather I think, the way my own government treated the Hebrides and West of Scotland, with its ill-thought-out projects to improve the regional economy by investing in things like a fish meal plant, a pulp mill, or a massive quarry for building materials. Local people were barely consulted on the viability of most of these ventures, and were not surprised they turned out to be social, economic, and environmental disasters.

Around the same time I was asked by the Director of Fisheries, Freetown, and UNIDO Vienna, to try to resurrect the offshore fishery in a way that would benefit the country and the people. I drafted proposals for a deep sea fishery management body, along the lines of the company that ran the international airport, - sharing the revenues with the government and with the traditional fishery sector, investing some money in facilities at Freetown port, and some in equipment for the artisanal fishermen. My ideas were accepted by the Director of Fisheries and the Minister of Natural Resources, and forwarded to UNIDO, the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation in Vienna, who were to locate funding and some technical assistance. But unknown to us, other less altruistic persons were showing an interest.

A copy of the document was passed on unofficially to an English consulting firm which purloined the material and put it in a proposal under their name. They then came to a private agreement with the Minister of Industry, to share the profits between himself and the company if he would approve of the venture. One of England’s senior fish inspectors was involved, as was a British helicopter firm. A management company was set up and started to operate, and to rake in money from fees for access to the offshore fishery. The Director of Fisheries was angry at the ‘theft’ of a project that could have helped the local fishermen, and enabled the country to upgrade fishery facilities in Freetown. The local fishers were furious at what they saw as the ‘sell-out’ of the offshore fish stocks to foreigners who were going to contribute nothing to the country apart from under the table payments to a corrupt Minister. There were strong public protests over the type of project and the undemocratic way it was approved. Eventually the consulting firm was kicked out of the country after 3 years operation, to the delight of the national fishery sector. One of the company consultants told me that in the last few months he could not step out of his hotel at night for fear of his life.

But the exploitation of Sierra Leone’s fishery was nothing compared to the looting of its diamonds, or to the horrific war that enveloped that lovely land and brutalized its people, and destroyed what was showing so much promise.

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