Hunger in the midst of riches

Posted: 10 October 2002

Author: Joanna Benn

While millions go hungry in Angola, the European Commission recently renewed its access agreement to fish in Angolan waters. This agreement delivers much-needed money to Angola, but will it help the country to develop sustainable fisheries, or will it simply lead to the same overfishing that has occurred in European waters? Joanna Benn reports.

The sour stench of sickness and death hit me as soon as I walked in. My first sight was a skeletal little girl, too weak to lift her head or even cry. Her grandmother was feeding her from a small plastic beaker. Sixty children filled the eerily silent therapeutic centre in Huambo, all with severe malnutrition. Many were already on the verge of death - a shocking testimony to the legacy of war in Angola.AngolaJoanna Benn / © WWF-CanonThe long-running conflict may finally be over, but the coming of peace to Angola has not ended suffering. It has brought devastating hunger. During the last few months of the war, government troops embarked upon a scorched earth policy to stop civilians feeding UNITA soldiers. It worked - but it also caused mass starvation.

Few fish

Hunger is affecting everyone in Angloa where aid agencies predict they will soon have to feed nearly 2 million people each month. The country's 15,000 artisanal fishers, who once worked in well-managed local co-operatives to catch fish for themselves as well as to sell to urban centres, are finding it increasingly difficult to feed themselves.

I visited artisanal fishers in Lobito, one of the main ports in Angola. There I witnessed an entire village struggle to painfully drag in a huge circular net, only to find it empty after hours of labour. Some walked away in disgust. A young boy trapped a sea bird and wrung its neck, a pitiful meal.

Further along the coast, a small wooden boat battled the waves, dwarfed against the rusting hulk of an abandoned Russian trawler. A small catch was brought in after hours at sea. Jose Manuel Antonio Filipe, a fisherman for more than 20 years, told me that commercial drag fishing is catching everything, even fish too small for consumption.

"Drag fishing takes everything. There are no nurseries left or places for the baby fish to grow. When they bring the fish on board they choose the ones they are going to sell and throw the rest away, which then dies. This is bad for us. Today we've caught fish but last week we were unable to catch anything. There are more fish out to sea but we can't go there without new equipment."

It's the same story with shellfish. "During the cold season they go into the mud to lay their eggs, but the drag nets catch everything", said Filipe. "In the last three years lobster is disappearing which didn't happen before. Now the lobster is endangered."

Limiting the catch

There are effectively no restrictions on what commercial Angolan boats can catch, in part due to the difficulty in enforcing regulations. Trawling is not allowed along the coast, but many artisanal fishermen told me that trawlers fish secretly at night between three to seven kilometres from shore. There is no surveillance to keep check on pirate fishing ships.

But perhaps more worrying for the artisanal fishers and the millions of hungry people is that Angolan waters are also one of the EU's fishing areas.

The European Commission has access agreements with many African countries to secure fishing rights for EU fleets. Such agreements are based on direct payment for the right to fish, and often include conditions for the number and types of vessels that EU fleets can use. However, environmental and development measures that could also be included in the agreement are rarely sufficient, if they are present at all. Sometimes there is not even any limit on the amount of fish that can be caught. This is the case for the agreement with Angola.

As aid agencies struggle in their colossal task of staving off hunger and plead for more donations, some in the EU seem as concerned about fishing rights for the EU's subsidised fleet as with helping Angolans sustain their own country. "We think that our agreement is in not in contradiction with the priorities of the national authorities in Angola - specifically, our agreement does not target species which are consumed internally in Angola," said Constantin Alexandrou, Deputy Head of Directorate General for Fisheries at the European Commission.

There is no denying that EU money for fishing rights represents an important source of hard currency for many coastal African countries. But where does this money go? Although it advises that a percentage should be spent on training and infrastucture, the European Commission has no say in what happens to the money once it reaches the Angolan treasury. To ensure that fishing agreements aid the country as a whole, WWF believes that renewal of access agreements should be based on an evaluation of the existing agreement from an environmental and developmental point of view and a proper assessment of fish stocks.

Fairer fishing

There's also the problem of overfishing. Catches by local and foreign commercial fishing boats in Angola last year saw a 37 per cent increase compared to 1999. At the same time, fish stocks in West Africa are a quarter of what they were fifty years ago, with the trend continuing all the way down the coast to Namibia. The cause of this decline? Overfishing - not only by local fleets, but also by foreign fleets, primarily from the EU, Russia, and Asia, attracted to Africa's fisheries as their own face collapse. If this continues, Angolan waters could soon be as depleted as the North Atlantic.

Are authorities in Angola turning a blind eye? The Angolan Ministry of the Environment and Fisheries evicted WWF from its building in Luanda, finally declining an interview. We did manage to view satellite monitoring of EU boats to ensure that EU trawlers stay 12 nautical miles from the coastline. If indeed all EU vessels in Angolan waters are subject to such a tracking system, this would be a good example for fisheries elsewhere. In principle, all vessels, including distant water fleets, should be monitored by such a system.

As it recovers from the war, Angola could be an example of sustainable development, the buzzword of the recent summit in Johannesburg. Apart from 1,600km of coastline, the country is also rich in oil and diamonds. But long-term development will require sustainable policies - not just from the Angolan government, but also other countries who harvest Angola's riches.

In May, the European Commission pledged fairer fishing deals with poor countries within its proposals for reforming the EU's Common Fisheries Policy this December. To prevent this pledge from becoming mere rhetoric, the EU must pursue fair and sustainable access agreements to protect the marine environment and secure jobs and food supplies.

Joanna Benn is TV Producer at WWF International

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