Report: Sierra Leone Sells Rain Forest to World’s Worst Polluter China

Sierra Leone's Foreign Minister Alie Kabba (L) and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi shake hands before proceeding to their meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on January 11, 2019. (Photo by Andy Wong / POOL / AFP) (Photo credit should read ANDY WONG/AFP via Getty Images)
ANDY WONG/AFP via Getty

The government of Sierra Leone appears to have concluded a deal this month with China to convert 250 acres of beachfront property and protected rainforest into a fishing plant and harbor.

Local and international activists condemned the deal, thus far confirmed only by vague press releases, as a “catastrophic human and ecological disaster” and a “disaster for the country and the planet.”

The UK Guardian noted on Monday that the only statement from the Sierra Leone government on the Black Johnson Beach deal was brief press from the ministry of fisheries that said a harbor for tuna and “other bigger fishing” would be constructed on the site, including a “waste management system” to “recycle marine and other wastes into useful products.”

Local critics pointed out that description sounds like the “fish mill” the government insists it will not allow its Chinese business partners to build.

Minister of Fisheries Emma Kowa Jalloh confirmed a “grant” from the Chinese government will drive the project, while her government will contribute the needed real estate – only about half of which is actually owned by the Sierra Leone state. The other half is private land seized through “compulsory acquisition” to satisfy China’s needs, allegedly with about three cents on the dollar of land value paid to the infuriated former owners.

“I can categorically tell you there is no fish mill going in at Black Johnson. What we are doing is a fish harbor that will be built by the Chinese government. A fish mill is something where you go and catch all the baby fish and grind it into food to give to piggeries, and fish in aquaculture – and that is so not true,” said Jalloh.

When the deal was first announced in July 2019, Chinese ambassador Wu Peng noted that China owns about 75 percent of the industrialized fishing vessels operating near Sierra Leone. He listed “construction of a fishing harbor with facilities done by Chinese investors” as one of the next steps to “strengthen cooperation between the two countries.”

Wu added that China was sensitive to concerns about overfishing, so it has not allowed any new ships to operate in Sierra Leone’s waters since 2016. However, the Sierra Leone Navy and global monitoring groups identified and seized several Chinese-flagged fishing vessels operating illegally in the area, including two captured in April 2021.

Local landowners complained the $55 million Chinese harbor deal would destroy the rainforest and marine ecosystem as well as severely depleting fish stocks. They argued small indigenous fisherman would be wiped out by the project. 

“If they do this here, the water will be dirty, there will be a lot of oil and noise, the trawlers will be all around. Our own fishermen won’t have a place to fish. Everything will be spoiled. Tourism will be finished,” former fisherman and ecotourism businessman Tito Gbandewa told the Guardian.

Legal advocacy groups have demanded to see social and environmental impact studies for the harbor project, as well as details of the “Chinese grant” that will finance construction. Lawyers said the government approved the project suddenly and without adequate public notice.

International monitors fear Chinese overfishing is depleting stocks across West Africa, capitalizing on the ineptitude and corruption of local governments. 

The BBC in March reported on a Chinese fish processing plant in Gambia that utterly destroyed a vital lagoon with pollution – and was fined a paltry $25,000 by Gambian officials. Gambia also ordered the Chinese to stop dumping toxic effluent into the lagoon. Their solution was to build a pipe that dumps it into the ocean on a public beach instead. Angry locals occasionally try to destroy the pipe, but the Chinese rebuild it, with the approval of Gambia’s government. Gambia’s minister of fisheries told residents to think of the horrible stench from the pipe as the “smell of money” flowing from China into Gambia.

China built its devastating Gambian plant, and several others, by canceling about $14 million in Gambian government debt and investing $33 million in agricultural and fisheries development. The project was part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a project through which the BBC noted Beijing has become “the largest foreign financier of infrastructure development in Africa, cornering the market on most of the continent’s road, pipeline, power plant and port projects.”

China is the world’s largest producer of fish, and it has launched increasingly aggressive “aquaculture” projects as global demand for seafood increases. The United States imports about 80 percent of its seafood, much of it from China. Some of that “imported” fish is caught locally and processed in China, a situation that also exists in West Africa. As one Gambian activist complained to the BBC, China has a habit of snatching up Africa’s fish, using them to feed the stock on Chinese fish farms, and selling processed fish back to Africans at a premium.

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