As the profits to be made from fishing diminish with rising fuel costs and poor management of the sector, fishermen are increasingly turning to drugs and people trafficking to boost their meagre incomes, fishermen in Bissau and the Bijagos islands told IRIN.
“Fishermen get involved [in drug trafficking] because they can earn more money from illegal activities,” said Mody Ndiaye, special adviser at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Guinea Bissau.
According to Ndiaye, large boats head from Latin America to the Bijagos islands, an archipelago of 90 islands 60km off the coast from the capital, where they divide up their large hauls into many smaller fishing boats which proceed along the coast to unload their cargo in the Gambia, Senegal and Guinea-Conakry.
Guinea Bissau has increasingly become a transit hub for organised criminal networks trafficking drugs from Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil through West Africa to Europe.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates several hundred kg of cocaine go through the country each week, while according to 2004 figures from the International Office of Migration, one million West and Central Africans head clandestinely to Europe every year.
“Ideal” trafficking environment
Bijagos archipelago is an “ideal” ground for disembarking large quantities of cocaine according to Ndiaye. “For traffickers the rule is to make a maximum profit with a minimum risk. This area is difficult for police to control because of its geographical configuration which make it a place from which drugs can be transported relatively safely.”
When not using boats, traffickers will land planes on clandestine runways built in the Bijagos islands.
“Lots of my friends have left fishing to get involved in illegal activities such as transporting people or drugs,” said Abdullah Dieng, a fisherman in the capital, Bissau.
Other factors favouring illegal trafficking are the lack of judicial police units across Guinea Bissau, the low numbers of police patrolling the borders, and widespread corruption which means much of the trade is overlooked by the authorities, according to Ndiaye and the International Crisis Group. An ongoing armed rebellion in southern Senegal also fuels the trade.
While fishermen “regularly” run at a loss when fishing, he said they can earn up to US$720 for each person trafficked northwards up the coast to Senegal. “If you have a big boat you can take up to 60 people at a time and you’re guaranteed a profit,” Dieng said.”
Transporting drugs can be even more profitable, said a fisherman who asked not to be named. “We know the sea very well so it’s obvious they’ll look to us to help them,” the fisherman said. “I know there are risks but I think it’s worth it to take them.”
Fishing no longer pays
While fishermen stand to earn several thousand or more dollars to transport people and drugs, the income from fishing is inconsistent. Before setting out to sea fishermen must fork out up to US$336 for the two tones of ice needed for a short trip, US$86 for the required 60 litres of fuel which must be procured on the black market, as well as boat hire charges. If their catch is not good or much of it goes unsold as is “often the case,” they may even run at a loss, “which happens more and more regularly,” said Dieng.
Fishermen tend to be contracted out to a manager who rents their boat, feeds and houses them, and pays them once a month. “We live a hand to mouth existence – I live on scraps of change for cigarettes and drinks,” said Ndiaye.
One problem is no one is buying their fish. The lack of decent roads into the interior of the country combined with prohibitive fuel prices makes it too difficult for fish-sellers to transport fish any further than Bissau, creating a saturated market. Fishermen cannot increase the price of fish any further because people simply cannot afford to buy it at inflated prices.
“Fishermen here have no financial power - they can’t further increase the price of fish because no one will buy it,” director-general of the Ministry of Fisheries and Maritime Economy Cirillo Vieira told IRIN.
For those who traffic, it’s a different story. “If you want fast money and are willing to take the risk, that’s the only way to get it,” said Dieng.
The UNODC is starting to work with the government to help it build up its security and justice system so that the authorities have a better chance of catching and punishing these traffickers. Some security forces patrol the seas for cargo, but they are few and far between and according to a fisherman on the island of Bubaque in the Bijagos, trafficking around the islands is on the increase.
Vieira is taking a different tack. He hopes to tempt fishermen back to fishing by making the industry more profitable. He has received US$1 million over two years from the European Union to improve management of the industry and market conditions. But even he knows his options are limited. The fishing ministry receives just 5 percent of the government’s paltry annual budget, despite fishing bringing in 40 percent of the country’s annual revenues, and most of this money can only cover staff salaries.
“Fishermen face so many problems nowadays so there’s a lot we need to do to give them more incentives,” he said.
For fisherman Dieng the temptation to traffic is always there. “Me, I am here to fish… if I have bad months the temptation is there, but I try to resist it,” he said.