Botswana: Government fishing ban cuts lifeline to impoverished villagers

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    It smells nasty, but Maletelo Molathiwa, a
    resident of Sehithwa village on the edge of Lake Ngami in
    north-western Botswana, depends on it.

    In fact, until recently it was the linchpin
    of the local economy.

    The source of the stench is a pile of dried
    salted fish in a discarded metal basin in her backyard that
    Molathiwa can no longer sell.

    The government has imposed a year-long
    prohibition on fishing in the lake. This has had a crippling
    effect on Sehithwa – and one expert says it is entirely
    unnecessary.

    A single mother of six, 50-year-old Molathiwa
    used to brave cold winter nights camping next to the lake after
    she obtained a permit from the fisheries department last
    year.

    She would add salt to her catch, mostly
    catfish, and sun-dry it before selling the fish for P25 (R33)
    each at the local market to traders bound for the Democratic
    Republic of Congo and Zambia.

    When business was good, Sehithwa and other
    nearby villages exported 13,000 tons of dried fish a year,
    bringing in revenue of P84,000 (R109,000) a month to a
    desperately poor rural area.

    Now Molathiwa and 300 other fishermen can no
    longer ply their trade, after the ministry of wildlife, tourism
    and natural resources ruled that the ban is needed to conserve
    fish stocks.

    There is no life here any more,” she
    declared.

    The prohibition has also dealt a heavy blow
    to Zambian exporters, whose bales of fish have been stopped by
    Botswana officials at the border town of
    Kasane.

    But Professor Keta Mosepele, a biologist from
    the Okavango Research Institute who has conducted a study of
    fish stocks at Lake Ngami, says there is no evidence of
    over-fishing and that the lake remains
    healthy.

    He said the ban is not helpful because the
    lake will eventually dry up, as it did in 1984. “Let people
    fish,” he declared.

    The manager of the Lake Ngame Conservation
    Trust, Galefele Maokeng, agreed, saying that the government’s
    decision to impose a ban had no basis and was imposed before
    Mosepele’s research study was
    commissioned.

    We urge the minister to carefully analyse
    the study and lift the ban,” he said.

    The regional director in the department of
    wildlife and national parks, Timmy Blackbeard, said he was
    aware of Mosepele’s report and its conclusions. However, he
    said the government’s position on the ban “has long been
    explained” and could not be changed on the basis of a statement
    from a research institute.

    He declined to comment further, saying the
    minister was responsible for doing this.

    The minister of the environment, wildlife,
    tourism and natural resources, Tshekedi Khama, did not respond
    to questions over a three-week period.

    However, he has been quoted as questioning
    the sustainability of the fishing at Lake Ngami, telling the
    Maun Administrative Authority that fishermen sell a third of
    what they take from the lake and that it is unclear where the
    rest of the catch goes – suggesting that the fisherman catch
    more than they need.

    Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior
    official at the department of fisheries in Gaborone said
    government intends to improve regulation of fishing at the lake
    and work on “future management and plans”
    there.

    However, he also suggested that the
    government had failed to take on board expert opinion because
    it arrived “too late”. “You know that the minister is very
    proactive,” he said, sarcastically.

    Lake Ngami is a shallow depression at the
    distal end of Okavango region in the Okavango Delta. Whenever
    the Okavango River comes back to life, consumers, particularly
    those in urban areas, are delighted by the sudden influx of
    relatively cheap fish.

    Without a fishing industry, poverty is high
    among the 4,000 inhabitants of Sehithwa, with only one in five
    adults having formal employment. The rest take up temporary
    jobs with the social safety programme, which pays very
    little.

    Village chief Kgosi Domi Kandu said the ban
    has hit the village badly, as everyone used to benefit from the
    trade. He complained that his subjects are suffering, saying:
    “Some of them are now in debt and it is hard for them to
    repay.”

    The government said that falling fish stocks,
    partly caused by an influx of foreign fishermen from DRC and
    Zambia, prompted the initial ban on fishing at the lake in
    2015.

    The ban was partially lifted last year after
    about 3,000 fishermen pressurised the fisheries department in
    the delta town of Maun. But only 200 were then granted fishing
    licences, including Molathiwa.

    In April this year, this was replaced by a
    total prohibition.

    Molathiwa sold about 700 bales of dried
    salted fish for up to P17,000 a month. After the ban she
    abandoned her boat and fishing nets on the shores of the lake
    and turned to a precarious life vending sweets and fat cakes on
    the streets of Sehithwa.

    The conservation trust compounded her woes by
    demanding that she continue paying the monthly levy of P1,000
    for the upkeep of the lakeside fishing camps. Molathiwa
    invested more than P6,000 in the wooden fishing canoe, fishing
    nets and wages for staff who fish for her.

    She was on the point of exporting directly to
    Zambia when the news of the ban arrived. She said she nearly
    fainted from fear that her children would
    starve.

    The situation is also dire for Molemi
    Orapeng, a 36-year-old fisherman who was awarded a P100,000
    loan by the ministry of youth, sport and culture to expand his
    commercial fishing business. “I don’t know how I’m going to pay
    back the money,” Orapeng said, referring to the mandatory 50%
    of the loan he is required to repay.

    Orapeng said P80,000 (R104,000) of stock
    belonging to him is rotting at Kasane after it was intercepted
    by officials before it could cross into
    Zambia.

    Mollen Sebetwane said he has no option but to
    return to subsistence farming following the ban. He was
    attracted by the good profits from fishing, as livestock
    farming struggles as a result of persistent outbreaks of foot
    and mouth disease.

    Local fishermen are not the only victims of
    the ban – it has also left foreign traders stranded, as they
    are not allowed to move their large fish stocks out of the
    country.

    A Zambian businesswoman who did not want to
    be named said the situation at the border town of Kasane is
    dire. A small group of desperate traders considered legal
    action but were discouraged by the heavy
    fees.

    The Zambian embassy did not respond to
    questions about the plight of the stranded
    traders.

    A councillor for the ruling Botswana
    Democratic Party in Maun, Vepauni Moreti said the ban has made
    life very difficult for the Sehithwa
    community.

    I know of a school principal who left his
    job to venture into fishing. People should have been informed
    in good time. This was not done in good faith,” Moreti said.
    DM

    This article was produced by the INK
    Centre for Investigative Journalism in Botswana, in association
    with the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative
    Journalism.

    Photo: The sun rises over the Kwedi area
    in the Okavango Delta, around 30km north of Mombo, Botswana, 04
    October 2007. Photo: Gernot
    Hensel/(EPA).

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