By the afternoon of 22 March 2018, a crowd had gathered in the Gambian fishing village of Gunjur. Police had arrived by truck. Rumours were circulating that arrests would be made.
After months of frustration and anger, Golden Lead, the Chinese-owned plant that had become the lifeblood the village's fishing trade, had been given a seven-day ultimatum. Villagers removed a factory pipe that was allegedly pumping waste directly into the ocean.
Local environmental activist Lamin Jassey said: “The police didn't stop us. They just said we should remove it peacefully. I think they too felt for us.”
In 2015 whispers of the factory’s arrival were being shared in the community. Initially, villagers were welcoming.
Badara Bajo, director of the Environment Protection and Development Group of Gunjur, said: “They were going to build a road from the main highway to the village and they said they were going to employ about 600 people. They were not able to build a good road and were unable to employ the number of people they promised.”
Around 80 people were employed when operation started in 2016. Residents disapprove of the factory’s use of ocean caught bonga shad (Ethmalosa fimbriata), for animal feed export to China.
Jassey said: “At first we heard the company would process sardines. For us living here every day bonga fish is the cheapest source of protein that everybody can have.”
Bajo explained: “When the company started the fishermen they were catching large numbers, trucks full of fish and a high demand. This made the price [of fish] rise up." Reared animal meat is too expensive in rural areas where 60 percent of the country’s poor squeeze a living.
Gunjur is emblematic of a rising tension in Africa-China relations in The Gambia.
Since President Adama Barrow took office last year, Gambia has continued to seek Chinese investment to kickstart a struggling economy and a poverty rate rate over 40 percent.
Compared to a decade ago, China has surpassed Europe and the United States to become Gambia’s biggest trading partner.
But Chinese firms are frequently accused of disregarding environmental standards in Africa.
Gambians successfully protested the planned use of part of a forest monkey park for a conference center being built by Chinese developers recently.
Golden Lead was taken to court by Gambia's environment agency (NEA) last June. It was forced to take immediate measures to treat its wastewater and pay a fine of $25,000 for flouting environmental regulations in an out-of-court settlement.
Jassey said: “They decided to remove the top pipe but without us knowing they had a second one there. We realised that the small fish and crabs are dying.”
The factory denies the waste pipe removed by villagers was still in use. Leo Huang, co-manager at Golden Lead, said: “the NEA took us to court and said we should cut the pipe, we made water treatment plans after the case had finished and the pipe was already cut."
He added that workers felt threatened over the incident of March 22. Huang said that “people were shouting at us.”
Isatou Touray, formerly Gambia's trade minister, and now its minister for health and social welfare, did not respond to efforts for a comment on the incident.
Five of those involved in the pipe removal were later arrested and put on trial, including Jassey.
The events in Gunjur ignited further protests in the neighbouring village of Kartong against Mauritanian owned and Chinese run fishmeal factory JXYG.
A large demonstration took place on 30 June against Nessim fishmeal factory in the coastal village of Sanyang, in Gambia's western region. Following this, the Gambian government announced the temporary closure of both JXYG and Nessim due to waste pollution.
The Gambia aims to increase fisheries as a percentage of GDP from 6.4 percent to 15 percent by 2021, as part of development plans. This will require an increase in annual fish catch from 53,719 to 74,000 tonnes.
Some 200,000 Gambian livelihoods depend on its fishing sector. But most fish in Gambia’s waters are already fully or over exploited, due to decades of free-for-all fishing. Just 4 percent of West Africa’s stocks are fished at sustainable levels.
Fisheries expert Dyhia Belhabib explained: “The very presence of fishmeal factories often means that local fish processors can no longer afford to have access to that fish because the factories give out really competitive prices.”
She added: “the consumer can no longer afford to buy the fish [caught] within their own waters."
Sainey Darboe, who edits Gunjur News Online, explained the fears being heard amongst many villagers: “They are engaging in unsustainable practices.
“My mother used to sell fish and would carry buckets of fish from the boat to the beach. It was what paid for my education."
In contrast to the factories cash buys for fish from local fishermen, women who dominate the fish trade in Gambia buy on credit, paying fishermen back once they make a profit. 39-year-old fish smoker Adi Jobe explained: “Now the fishermen don't want to do credit because they say they will just go to the Chinese and get cash.'
In the town of Kitty Tambana, 20 kilometres away from Gunjur, local resident Besenty Gomez patrols his community everyday: “I take photos, I take videos for people to see. I send them to the Ministry of Health and to the NEA."
On 23 January 2018, Gomez’s images prompted health authorities to visit the dumpsite. The subsequent report from Gambia’s Ministry of Health and Social Welfare confirmed the waste was from a nearby hospital and from JXYG, the fishmeal plant in Kartong.
While the environment agency took steps to temporarily shut down JXYG, the report advised that the area be fenced off to prevent further dumping. This has not been done.
The Ministry of Health declined to comment on its own report and why recommendations were not implemented. Dr Samba Ceesay, deputy director of health at the Ministry of Health & Social Welfare, responded: “since this issue is a sensitive one, I have decided to refer you to the permanent secretary to give you the ministry's position on the matter.”
Permanent Secretary Cherno Omar Barry said: “I admit it is a major concern and it is not our wish to see an outbreak of any disease but the dumping of waste in unspecified places causing environmental pollution is more under [the] Environment [agency].”
Seedy Touray, a local hotel manager, said that villagers fear a return to the old days of politics under former president Yahya Jammeh, who ruled for 22 years.
Before signing the affidavit to sue Golden Lead, Touray says his mother telephoned to warn him against it.
When Touray’s brother criticised the ex-regime on local radio, soldiers in a pick-up truck came looking for him. He fled to neighbouring Senegal and returned when Barrow became president.
Touray said: “I might end up losing my life ... But at the same time, this is my livelihood.”
The smell from the factory has affected tourism, he explained. “My business is forcing me to step out and to speak out for my rights.”
There are local fishermen who like the presence of the factories.
Kebba Jobe, a 24-year old fisherman, said: “You have more of a chance to sell your fish.”
But ongoing protests compounded by the repeated encroachment of foreign industrial vessels has diminished approval. Jobe said: “At night sometimes there are more than 10 or 12 industrial boats in our artisanal zones. They fish and go. We get less fish.”
Darboe explained: “We have a very different president to Yahya Jammeh which is a good thing.
"But the voice of the young is not really taken seriously. What people aren’t seeing is the long term effects of overfishing and damage to the environment. They are more interested in the immediate gains.”
Nosmot Gbadamosi is a freelance journalist reporting from West Africa. She can be reached on Twitter @nosmotg. This article was written with the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.