Stop a pirate, save a life

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Temps de lecture : 6 minutes  

Empêcher un pirate d’agir, c’est sauver une vie

Environmental Justice Foundation is a British NGO founded in 2000. It believes environmental security is a human right. Through investigations and reports, it condemns illegal fishing, harmful effects of shrimp or cotton farming and protects climate refugees. It leads ground actions in 20 or so countries around the globe.

Two years ago, EJF was able to secure the funds needed to help local communities in Western Africa fight illegal fishing in their waters. Steve Trent and Benedict Allen, director and patron of the foundation tells us more about EJF’s campaign in Sierra Leone, the results they were able to achieve and the impacts on local communities.

First, can you explain what environmental justice means, and how EJF acts to protect environmental security around the world?

Environmental justice is about linking human rights and social needs with environmental security. It’s about giving people, usually the poorest and the most vulnerable a fair share of their natural resources and a chance to use it for their basic needs whilst maintaining a sustainable living.

The organisation was born out of the simple observation that virtually no one was linking environmental security with development issues. You could have a development agency and an environmental agency walk in the same area at the same time, one to hang bags of rice out, the other to save the trees, but they would never link the two issues together. They would never relate the fact that very often the bags of rice were needed because the trees had been cut down, and that the poverty that arose from environmental security helped reinforce those mechanisms which drive deforestation, overfishing and other environmental challenges…

EJF tries to work where other people are not working, focusing on the more complicated areas, conflict zones and post-conflict zones. Within those areas we work with local communities and local organisations and empower them to face the challenges that they meet to build environmental security and sustainability.

Very often it’s not about high tech, it’s not about big stand, it’s not about some logical framework, it’s about locally appropriate technology, understanding the culture, and helping local people get their hands dirty.

In Western Africa, EJF fights to stop pirate fishing. What is pirate fishing and what is the link between this practice, environmental justice and environmental security for local populations?

Pirate fishing is when you have fishing fleets that enter national waters of another country to fish illegally. They use highly destructive fishing techniques, run local fishermen down, literally running over their wooden canoes, cut their nets and beat them up. They are not paying any tax, not putting any fish back into the local communities that depend on them, they wipe out stocks because of the way they fish and then they happily steam back home, often to the European Union, to feed the fish market. Most of the time it is really hard to tell who owns the fishing boats because they fly under flags of convenience, they change their names, they change their core signs, they operate with slave labour on board. They break every rule in the book for catch profit.

In a country like Sierra Leone that up until recently was ranked by the United Nations as the second worst place on the planet to live, fish is a matter of life or death. Fish provides around 65% of all animal proteins consumed by the local population, so if you don’t have fish to eat, you starve. This isn’t about quality of life, it genuinely is a life or death issue. It also provides employment for about 230 000 people and all their families and extended network. So when you have these foreign trawlers coming into the near shore zone, they can cause untold damages, taking a commodity that a country genuinely can’t afford to lose.

Again and again, we were getting messages from the communities saying “we can’t feed ourselves”, “we have no money to buy anything”, “we can’t afford to school our children”, “we are suffering”, “we are afraid”. And all this was happening literally to supply the market place in South Korea or the European Union with a nice fish supper.

You can’t really over emphasize the importance of fisheries to the existence of those in Sierra Leone and across the region.

EFJ was able to launch a surveillance campaign in Sierra Leone 2010. Why was this country chosen?

According to most experts, Sierra Leone is the most affected region in the world for pirate fishing. When we did our assessment of it, we discovered that nobody was doing anything about it when these people really needed help. We went there so we could fill a gap rather than replicate other people’s work. It was tough out there, there’s no other way of looking at it, going out to sea when the next stop is Venezuela to turn round a 40m boat is not the easiest task in the world. That’s why no one was reacting. There was a clear need, an imperative for somebody to go there and that’s what led us to Sierra Leone and to set out an office and a project there.

What did the campaign involve? How were local communities integrated to the project?

We worked with the government, with enforcement agencies, with the village chiefs and the with woman societies. We’ve had to win their trust. For that, all of our staff over there is from Sierra Leone, not expats that go down there to win the country over.

It was about engaging these people, hearing their problems first, and understanding how they perceive the issue. Only then could we start interacting with them; could we say “ok, listen what is happening shouldn’t be. These trawlers shouldn’t be coming in, they shouldn’t ram your boats down or cut your nets. You shouldn’t be scared of going out at night.”

We gave them cameras and the phone number of our regional coordinator who’s got a high speed boat. We told them, “When you see a vessel that seems to be fishing illegally, call him, photograph it and we’ll come and document it”. We’ll take the data, prove that it’s been fishing illegally, take the boat back to port in Freetown and report back to the government and the European union. We used very simple modern technology, smart phone with geo-positioning data, gps attached, to document these trawlers. We literally had the information that was gathered by a man or a woman in a small dugout canoe in the far south of Sierra Leone landing on the European Commissioner’s desk within 24hrs of that fish being taken.

What were the results of this campaign?

The communities have been brilliant; they’ve felt that they could do something. We had over an 18 months period, something around 256 reports of pirate trawlers in this near shore zone. In the last 7 months on the coast of Sierra Leone where we work, there’s not been a single pirate fishing vessel reported.

The local communities are saying that they are seeing more fish but I’m not sure if I believe it yet. We’ve got a scientific study that we are doing next year, to try and get an assessment of what is happening to their fish stock. I think it’s too soon to say they are recovering even if the local people say they are.

The problem isn’t over though, those trawlers that we’ve got rid off in Sierra Leone, they’ve just moved up or down the coast to Guinea or Liberia. That is the key thing. We need to scale across the region.

Is EJF the only organization fighting pirate fishing in the area?

There is a lot of interest in it and a number of other organisations doing really good, really valuable work on this. But in the region, there aren’t many others. The World Bank is actually there with a project that’s looking at this but that’s tens of millions of dollars and a totally different piece. There are very few that have actually done what we have done, that is to work with local communities to empower them and get them monitoring, photographing these boats, keeping a sense that they can get rid of them in their waters.

What is the future for the program?

There always has to be an exit strategy. The program in Sierra Leone is a 5 year one. It means that we have 5 years to put down deep roots, to train local communities and give them the sense of horizon and opportunity that they can fight for their own resources. If within that 5 years, these communities are not comfortable doing this themselves, without us, then we’ve failed. That’s the deal, it’s not about another western organisation coming in and giving charity, it’s about them getting the power to do it, about choosing their way. We just try and facilitate that.

Because pirate fishing is a regional problem and goes beyond borders, we have or are going to set up other strategic hubs across the region, in Liberia and Guinea. The idea is to build fisheries intelligent network across the whole of the West African region so as to get rid of the pirates.

It won’t just end there. We need to look at the global scale of things and get everyone to get their hands dirty. We need to communicate on the challenges these communities face and confront governments who are clearly letting this happen. People see us as an organization that is going at it, as a simple solution to a very complex problem.

Interview by Roxanne Crossley

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