Hunger in the midst of riches | WWF

Hunger in the midst of riches

Posted on
08 October 2002
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. A total of 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.

The 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.Aid agencies predict they will soon have to feed nearly 2 million people each month.

The world community, in particular the US, Japan, and the EU, is helping with supplies and seed donation. Delivering aid is not easy, however. Airstrips and roads that could be used for humanitarian deliveries have not yet been cleared of landmines. Even where landmines are not a threat, poor roads, broken bridges, and lack of infrastructure are severely hampering access to emergency supplies. When the rainy season arrives, things can only get worse. But the hunger is not limited to refugees trying to return home.

The country's 15,000 artisanal fishers, who once worked in well-managed local cooperatives 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."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.

There's also the problem of overfishing. Catches by local and foreign commercial fishing boats in Angola last year saw a 37 percent 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.In the meantime, people are still hungry.

In Chiteta, Huambo province, I visited a "quartering area" for ex-UNITA soldiers and their families. Here I met Isabel Cahemba Dos Santos, mother of four. She'd been in the camp for six months already and her eldest daugher had gone missing. When I asked her why she stayed there, she said she was waiting for help to go home. When asked whether she wanted food or money she replied "Anything, anything at all...." then looked away.

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*Joanna Benn is TV Producer at WWF International

Further information:
EU fisheries agreements

Developing countries with which the EU currently has fishing agreements with are: Angola, Cape Verde, Comoros, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Mauritania, Mauritius, São Tomé and Príncipe, Senegal, and Seychelles.

WWF's report on the EU-Angola fisheries agreement

The first fisheries agreement between the EU and Angola was signed in 1987. Agreements have normally been renewed every two years. The latest agreement was announced in July 2002, and will last for two years, from August 2002 to August 2004.WWF has released a report, The EU-Angola Fisheries Agreement And Fisheries In Angola, assessing this new fisheries agreement between the EU and Angola. It's key findings are that the agreement is not based on good governance, does not apply the precautionary principle, does not meet all available scientific evidence, and does not have provisions for the impact of the agreement on socio-economic and environment conditions.

WWF's work on marine issues

WWF's Endangered Seas Programme aims to protect the world's fisheries and the marine environment. The programme is working with governments, businesses, local communities, fishers, and conservation organizations to:
  • Safeguard fisheries and marine biological diversity by establishing marine protected areas
  • Reduce wasteful government subsidies that contribute to overfishing
  • Create market incentives for sustainable fishing through the Marine Stewardship Council's new certification initiativeThis work includes pushing for reform of the EU's Common Fisheries Policy, which is up for a once-in-ten-year review this year.