Environmental pollution has become a topical issue on the African continent. This is largely attributable to the havoc it causes on nation’s environmental vegetation especially on Flora, fauna, and humanity. It has been linked to so many diseases such as respiratory, lung and other chronic diseases. In the Gambia, people residing along the Coastal fishing villages of Kartong and Gunjur have been protesting the presence of Chinese and Mauritanian companies, situated in their localities by accusing the owners of the companies of polluting the environment. Following the anti-environmental and maritime exploitation protest marches held in Kartong and Gunjur, in which a Chinese company, was allegedly accused of polluting the environment, Gambia’s Fisheries Minister James Gomez, has granted an Exclusive Interview to Freedom Radio Gambia, and the Freedom Newspaper, by shedding light on the controversy surrounding the story. The Minister said some Gambian and Senegalese fishermen have since been arrested in connection with the illegal dumping of a large catchment of juvenile fish along the coastal villages of Kartong and Gunjur respectively. However, Mr. Gomez tells Freedom Radio Gambia that the communities in the area have wholeheartedly welcomed the Chinese company, which is operating in their localities contrary to what the protesters have claimed. “The information is not… the people of Gunjur didn’t complain. Our fishing inspector on the ground realized that there was dumping of fish in Gunjur and it went to Kartong. So, we sent people on the ground to find out. What we find out was that some fishermen were using wrong fishing gears to capture juvenile fish from the coastal waters. They decided to dump the fish in the coastal communities of Gunjur and Kartong. We were able to apprehend who did this and they have been told to clear all the fish and take it to the right dumping site,” said Minister Gomez. Below is the full text of the interview we had with Fisheries Minister James Gomez. Please read on.
Mr. James Gomez, is Gambia’s Fisheries Minister. Mr. Gomez, we are made to understand that the people of Gunjur are complaining about the illegal fishing activity taking place in the area. What transpired? What happened?
The information is not… the people of Gunjur didn’t complain. Our fishing inspector on the ground realized that there was dumping of fish in Gunjur and it went to Kartong. So, we sent people on the ground to find out. What we find out was that some fishermen were using wrong fishing gears to capture juvenile fish from the coastal waters. They decided to dump the fish in the coastal communities of Gunjur and Kartong. We were able to apprehend who did this and they have been told to clear all the fish and take it to the right dumping site.
When you said you were able to apprehend the people behind the incident, do you mean they were arrested?
Yes, these are some fishermen and some fish transporters.
Are they Gambians or Chinese nationals?
They are not Chinese. They are Gambians and Senegalese.
Are they legally registered? Are they legally licensed to fish in Gambian waters?
Yes, they are. They are legally registered.
You mean the problem was not an issue. That the people of Kartong and Gunjur never complained. Is that what you are saying?
I went to Kartong on Saturday, and find some people demonstrating for a factory that has not even started operating. And my question to them was: Who have you contacted if you have a complain? They never contacted my Ministry, nor the Ministry of Environment. They have never written to us. I then told them that since I am here, can you select four people so that we can go to the Alkalo, and sit down and talk. They were even not able to select four people among themselves. So, I gave them my contact details and told them that if you want to discuss anything or complain call my office, and we can sit down and talk about these issues. But they have not called me yet.
And what’s the factory in Kartong all about? What is the factory all about?
Well, this is a fishing factory too, which was built. In fact, I don’t have all the details. I understand that it was built by a Mauritanian, who I have not seen. You must remember that our government is only four months old. And as a government, we have to honor all the agreements that anybody had with the former government. The factory is there, but the factory is not operating because the factory first must have an environmental clearance from the Ministry of Environment to start operating. They haven’t got that yet. They are not operating.
So, these are Mauritanian fishermen? Is that what you saying?
No, no, no… He is an Investor from Mauritania, who got Gambia government approval to build that factory.
We heard about the presence of Chinese fishermen in the coastal village of Gunjur and Kartong. What can you tell us about the presence of Chinese fishermen along the coastal village of Kartong?
What I know is that there is a fishing company, which is a Chinese company. They buy fish from the fishermen and the transporters and they will turn this into fish food and export it. They are not fishermen. They have a factory. They are buying fish and that’s what they are doing.
So, you are saying that the Chinese Company is not responsible for the environmental littering. They are not responsible for the environmental pollution? It is not the Chinese company; is that what you saying?
No, no.. I am not saying that. I am saying they have a company that is mixing sea food. Now, the Minister of Environment sends some technicians there and they came to find out that they were doing something that’s against the environment; the environmental laws. And they have been asked to correct that immediately.
So, it appears that you are blaming the local fishermen and not the Chinese company, if I got you right.
I am not blaming anybody. I am putting the facts before you. You know… Let us try to be very clear. We have a new dispensation in this country, but we want people to go by what are facts and not by rumors. I sent people; they went there. I myself, the whole Saturday, from 9 o’clock to 4 o’clock, I visited Kartong; I visited Gunjur, and I visited Tanji. And I saw for myself, what was on the ground. I recommended to them that they must set up committees in all the three fishing communities so that all the stakeholders, would get involved in that community.
The people that you said that they have been arrested, are they going to face prosecution?
Well, I am not a law enforcer. What I know is the law is taking its cause. They have been arrested. They have been asked to take the fish where they dumped it. They have done that. So, what follows is, what the law will do with them.
How about the Chinese company? Is the company going to face any form of fine from the government?
No, no.. Why should you fine somebody? They have done what is wrong. We are saying correct it first. You have to follow due process. I am not a judge. Once they follow due process, the Minister of Environment will take the right cause. We cannot begin to come to conclusion before we know what is right.
Minister Gomez, we also gathered that the Gambia government has decided to outsource Gambia’s fishing industry by allowing Senegalese companies to take charge of fishing in our waters. How true is that?
That’s very wrong. We signed a protocol with Senegal, which is public document. The protocol is here. Anybody can have access to that protocol. We have a reciprocal agreement between Gambia and Senegal, so that fishermen from Senegal can fish here and fishermen from the Gambia can fish in Senegal. But before any of them do that, they have to obtain license from either Senegal or the Gambia, to do the fishing.
And so far, how many licenses have you issued to Senegalese businesses?
As I speak to you now, it is only this week, we are going to begin issuing out licenses. We have not issued any license yet. I have not signed even one license as I speak to you.
And is this going to disadvantage Gambian fishermen?
Let us look at the facts. Do we have Gambian fishermen? What I know in this sub-region, we have Ghanaians and Senegalese as big fishermen. That’s the truth. That’s the fact. We are trying to encourage our Gambians to be involved in fishing. We are even going to introduce a revolving fund; that will give Gambians access to money; to have their own boats etc. You must remember where we are coming from. For over two years, there was nobody fishing in this country. Licenses were issued to people that we do not know. You have an Executive Directive to go and fish. Now that is changed. We are trying to do the right thing. First, we came out with a regulation that was gazetted; how the industry is going to continue because there were laws already. And then we come up with a tariff. And now we are inviting people to apply. They go to the Director of Fisheries, and the fishing vessel would be tested, and once we are satisfied, they would be issued with licenses.
And how much does it cost for one to secure a fishing license in Gambia?
I am sorry. I cannot give you this detail. I never expected to be interviewed in this rather impromptu hour. There is a tariff. I cannot tell you from the top of my head. I know that there are different categories of licenses depending on the size of your vessel etc, etc. But on the top of my head, I don’t have those details.
And is it true that the fee is exorbitant? It is not affordable. That the average Gambian fisherman might not be able to afford a fishing license in the Gambia? Is that true?
That’s not true. You know.. people must understand that the Gambia had the cheapest fishing license regime. We did a survey of The Gambia, Mauritania, Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau, and Guinea to check how much people are paying. And we came back. We have only increased our tariffs by 35%. So, if anybody is telling you that we are charging exorbitant, that person is not giving you the right information. And I will encourage to ask for our tariff. You have somebody in Banjul. They can come to our Ministry, and get a tariff, and the regulation. That way, you will have right information.
What are your immediate priorities as Gambia’s Fisheries Minister?
My immediate priority is that we believe there is a potential in the fishing industry. And we believe that fishing can create employment just like Tourism is doing. So, we are putting our strategies together as to how this is possible. I have just signed a fishing protocol with Turkey. And part of the agreement, we have with Senegal, we are sending five Gambians to the training school in Senegal every year. We have to build our capacity. And last Friday, I met with Jaye Kah in Senegal, and they are coming to help us because most of the refrigerators we have in the industry have gone down. Nobody has use it for over three years. We are trying to get partners to come and help us. We have a lot of problems with storage. And in the agreement now, if I issue you a license, you will have to run 10% of your catch in the Gambia, so that it can go to the local market.
Some of the pro-environmental activists in Kartong and Gunjur, they are saying that the Chinese and the Mauritanian companies should be relocated somewhere. Is this going to happen anytime soon? Are you going to relocate these two companies?
But who is the government? You think any government will accept people would just come and say relocate this and.. Have they done an environmental study? The people that are demonstrating. Have they done an environmental study that can tell you that if this is situated here it will create a problem? When these people applied, they had to do certain things. The authority has to begin to say okay if this factory is here, what is the impact? All the studies were done before the authority was given for them to start that factory. So, do you think my brother, any government would just sit and when a group come and say we don’t want this in this area and let move it to another place? And another group say let remove it and move it to another place. I don’t think you will advise any government to do that.
But what they are saying is that, these two companies are in the business of polluting the environment thereby causing some health hazards to the residents of the area. What is your response?
But I am telling you, that is not correct because the licenses were issued, we do an environmental assessment, and the environmental assessment was done based on the environmental rules and regulations. And these people are making these claims, what authority are they making these claims on? Are they experts?
They are saying that it is not a good idea to have these companies along the coastal villages. The communities are not comfortable. They are complaining. They said they are likely going to be infected with pollution and stuff like that…
No, you see Pa, what is more interesting, you should contact the Alkalos of these communities and see whether you will get the same information that you are being told. I was with both Alkalos on Saturday, and they all welcomed this. They said this will bring to our communities job to our young people. This will bring trade to our people. They gave me examples how many are working in that industry. How many people are going to the market now. How many people are selling fish. How many people are drying fish etc, etc.
So, you are saying that the demonstrators have no reason to demonstrate. They are just disturbing the people.
I ask you Pa, if any of them can tell you this is the assessment we did, and these are the people we talked to. Now, we all know that everybody has the right to demonstrate, but before you demonstrate don’t you think that it is proper you have a dialogue with the authorities that are concerned. And if you cannot agree, then you can demonstrate. Let start by demonstrating, then you will return and say now let have a dialogue. I told you, I went there and said select four people and let talk; they were not able to select four people among themselves. I asked them: Have you ever contacted me, or Environment? They said no, we have not. What are you demonstrating against? They cannot tell you what they are demonstrating against.
I read a piece on social media. One of the organizers of the demonstration in Gunjur said if the government fails to redress the problem, they are going to sue the government. Are you worried that you might be dragged to court for polluting the environment?
The law is for all us Gambians. And the law is on the side of truth. If anybody can come to us with a report; a sound technical report to say this is what is not good; we want you to address it; we will address it. That’s why we are in government.
Okay, I just want you to clear this: You said some people were arrested in regards to the illegal fishing. That they used wrong fishing gears thereby causing pollution in the area. Were these people working for the Chinese company, or they were just private fishermen?
No, they are not. They are some fishermen and some transporters. They were working for themselves.
The information we received is that the Chinese company is responsible for the pollution. No private citizen has been blamed. They are calling out the Chinese company.
You see Pa, what is very interesting, I am telling you the facts. I am putting my integrity at stake. I challenge anybody to come. I will show you written information; written reports about what happened; I will show you our press release and what we said. Now, we cannot answer to any social media article because then we will not work.
We want to commend you for coming on record to shed light on the controversy Mr. Gomez. Before we let you go, quickly what advise do you have for these folks, who are in the business of using wrong fishing gears?
We have a law and we have our fishing inspectors right there. Anybody, who uses wrong fishing gear will be prosecuted in accordance with the law. Now, people are taking advantage because like I said, for over two and half years, there was no system. It was directives, directives. Now, the system is there; regulations are there; the law is going to be applied. But we are only four months old in government. We cannot just overnight change everything. It has to be gradual. We don’t even have the capacity. We have to employ the right kind of people; with the right kind of education; so that they can do these kinds of job. We are putting all these gradually. What we are asking people is, if you want to know the facts; like you are doing; call me, call my officials. There is no barrier. We have no hidden agenda. We are all working for our country. And we want the best for our country. And I think those, who are demonstrating want the best for the country.
Are you going to review the contracts that were signed between the former Jammeh government and the two companies: I mean the Chinese and Mauritanian companies? As the Minister in charge of Fisheries in the Gambia, are you going to look into the contracts that were signed?
No. I think you need to know what the process is about. It is not only my Ministry. These people went to physical planning, Local government etc, etc. And before they start operating, Environment will go there, and Environment would tell them before you start operating you have to do A, B, C Z.
So, these are legitimate investors?
Yes. Once they meet those standards, then Environment would issue a certificate to say yes, you can start operating.
Thank you very much Minister James Gomez for your time. We really appreciate it. Thank you.
Pleasure is mine. You are welcome anytime if you have any issues relating to Fisheries and water, and by extension all my colleague Ministers will welcome people to ask them questions about their dockets. Because we need to communicate with the Gambians and you are one avenue that we can use to communicate with them.
That’s very assuring Minister Gomez.
I would just once again reiterate; let us speak about facts; let us not go by rumors and gossips; let us just speak about the facts as being laid on the table.
Thank you, Honorable Minister, and have a great day Sir.
Thank you, you too. Bye, Bye.
Written By Pa Nderry M’Bai