Environmental worries or China bashing? The Sierra Leone fisheries harbour controversy

Ton Dietz

Ton Dietz is Emeritus Professor of the Study of African Development at Leiden University, and a former director of the ASCL. He is a human geographer by training.


I was asked to participate in a Dutch radio programme (VPRO Bureau Buitenland, 27 May 2021), about a controversial issue regarding Chinese support for building a fisheries harbour in Sierra Leone. I accepted this invitation, because I had just written my part of a document about ‘Sierra Leone at 60’, and was (again) quite shocked by the history of that country, and by the extreme poverty of most of its inhabitants amidst great environmental and mineral wealth, with major exports of titanium, diamonds, aluminium, iron ore, gold, tropical hardwood and fish (Belgium and China currently being the most important export destinations).

Duiker antilopes and pangolins
To prepare myself for the radio interview I tried to find background information about the allegation that China would destroy a national park and neighbouring fishgrounds in Sierra Leone by giving a grant of $ 55 million to the Sierra Leonian government to develop an ‘industrial fisheries harbour’ near Black Johnson Beach and the ‘whale bay’ of the Western Area Peninsula National Park, not far from the capital Freetown. The park is famous for its duiker antilopes and pangolins, and the beach area for its natural beauty; the rainforest coming near the ocean.

'Catastrophic' project
On May 17, two journalists, Karen McVeigh and Kabba Kargbo, wrote an alarmist piece for The Guardian, talking about a ‘catastrophic’ project. It criticised both China and the Sierra Leonean government for supporting this project that would destroy the environment (both the rainforest and the ocean and its fish spawning grounds) and would also destroy the livelihood of local fishermen and ‘owners’ of the beach, and the tourist prospects of this ‘paradise’. They talked about an ecological and human disaster, and they wrote that various NGOs had already warned about the disastrous results. To make things worse, these NGOs accused the Sierra Leonean government of extreme secrecy and of not following the law. They asked for openness about the environmental and social impact assessment (according to Sierra Leonean law, this is a requirement since 2008).

CNN picked it up
A first reading of The Guardian article indeed produces a shock: not again! And: ‘how is this possible?’ That was also why, for instance, CNN picked it up on May 20, and as a result the story got a huge impact, enough for this Dutch radio programme to broadcast it as a major topic, with two invited speakers: a person with knowledge about tropical rainforests (and indeed very critical about the project) and myself. I was confronted with a major dilemma.

Environmental consequences
On  the one hand, as an environmental geographer, news about foreign ‘support’ to projects in Africa with dramatic environmental consequences are too numerous to ignore, and despite a lot of ‘win-win’ talk, ‘the right to development’ (and accompanying greed and grabbing) these projects often ignore environmental care. China is no exception, and it does not have a clean record of environmental care, neither in its own country nor in the projects it supports abroad. And China’s general responses (‘we do not interfere in a country’s internal matters’, and ‘African countries are mature enough to decide for themselves’) are reasons for doubt if local rulers are totally indifferent to environmental matters, poverty alleviation, decent work, or other things that matter.

Great friend of China
On the other hand, I also have reasons to be suspicious about the way The Guardian and CNN have reported about this matter, and the way it is taken up by Western media and environmental movements. The timing is interesting. Sierra Leone was one of the early countries to end its support for Taiwan and embrace political relationships with China. That already happened in 1971, ten years after gaining political independence from Great Britain. During the 1970s and 1980s Sierra Leone became a major receiver of Chinese development assistance and also of a Confucius Institute. During the civil war (1992-2002) these relationships were severed, but afterwards China became important again. President Ernest Koroma (2008-2018) became a great friend of China and accepted many Chinese gifts and loan offers, including a huge project for an airport and railway system. In 2018 his political opponent accused him and his party (and the party’s candidate for the 2018 elections) of corruption and misbehaviour, partly connected to the aftermath of the Ebola epidemic (2014) and to the Chinese projects.

COVID-19 vaccines
Julius Bio won the presidential elections of 2018 with a narrow margin, and immediately cancelled many projects of his predecessor, including the Chinese-supported airport. President Bio hoped for much more generous Western support, particularly when Sierra Leone was hit by the COVID-19 epidemic. That support did not come as expected, and China started a goodwill campaign, being the first country offering COVID-19 vaccines. In early May there was even a phone call between Xi Jinping and Bio, probably to normalise the relationship. China also offered the gift of the new fisheries harbour, a Sierra Leonean government wish since the early 1970s for which there had never been any Western or other donor support. After the turmoil caused by the publication in The Guardian, the Minister for Fisheries and Natural Resources, Ms Emma Kowa-Jalloh, was very quick to respond (in fact the same evening) accusing The Guardian of false news and unfounded criticism. On May 20 the Chinese Embassy in Freetown added a severe attack on misinformation, pointing to lies in the article.

Damage by Western mining companies
It is interesting to note that the Western press has never really been interested in the severe environmental damage and socio-economic misery caused by the huge mining projects in Sierra Leone, many of them owned by Western mining companies. The wealth created by these projects has mainly benefited these Western companies, and has not even resulted in a class of ultra-rich local rulers: the GINI coefficient in Sierra Leone is quite low for African standards. Sierra Leone was and is one of the poorest countries in the world, with also a dismal health and education situation, despite decades of mineral and environmental exploitation (and destruction). So why is there suddenly so much attention for this ‘catastrophic Chinese support’? Amidst growing anxiety among Western countries about the increasing Chinese influence in Africa and elsewhere, political circles in Western countries were obviously happy with the election of the new President of Sierra Leone, and became worried about his recent and unexpected ‘Chinese turn’. So the environment is then an easy target for some ‘China bashing’. The Guardian’s publication is the next one in a row of many western press activities that develop an anti-Chinese atmosphere.

Proxy war between China and 'the West'
There is a proxy war developing between China and ‘the West’, and, like in the past, a lot of proxy wars first happen in the world’s peripheries, and they often start as propaganda wars. Of course, history can never predict what will happen next. But history can warn us against misinformation meant to create acceptance of ever more adverse policies against a new major competitor for world power. I recommend (re)reading The Sleepwalkers, a book about the way the First World War started, written by the Australian historian Christopher Clark in 2012. Then Germany was the awakening giant, and it took forty years (from 1870 to 1911) for a major proxy war between Germany and Great Britain and France in Morocco - the Agadir crisis - and then three more years for the Great War to start. China economically woke up from 1980 onwards: forty years now, with growing tensions between Western countries (USA, United Kingdom and others) and China (supported by Russia and many African and some Asian allies).

Creating an anti-Chinese atmosphere
This does not mean that one should not criticise China and its activities in Africa. And it is important to work together with and support critical voices in China and Africa; the Chinese environmental movement can be an important ally for African (and other) environmentalists. But one should be careful not to be used by producers of misinformation, and become part of attempts to create an anti-Chinese atmosphere that can end in a very dangerous calamity for mankind and for the world’s environment as a whole. Like in 1914, it only needs a spark.

Photo credit: Stunningtravel.nl

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Black Johnson Beach
national parks
The Guardian
Sierra Leone


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Very interesting Prof.