The activities of artisanal fishers in coastal communities across Africa constitute major sources of livelihood for many – the privileged and under privileged inclusive. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck with stringent lockdown measures following, the local fishers, together with their household and the poor who depend on them for sustenance, were thrown in a very difficult situation. For the fishers, the pandemic compounded already existing challenges such as polluted waters from oil spills and waste dumping, displacement threats, threats from industrial trawlers, fire outbreaks and other forms of environmental degradation that they were struggling with.
Fishers in Makoko, a fishing community which BBC described as “Lagos Floating Slum”, were struggling with threats of displacement by luxury property developers and other environmental problems when the COVID-19 lockdowns began. In the month of January, 2020, Ibeno community, a fishing settlement in Akwa Ibom State, suffered a fire outbreak that destroyed the fishers’ implements, leaving them with nothing to source for their livelihood.
Something had to be done to ameliorate the fishers’ condition. With support and funding from the New Venture Fund, the FishNet Alliance, an initiative of Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) responded by providing palliatives and fish nets/accessories to fishers in the aforementioned communities.
On 19 August 2020, HOMEF visited FishNet Alliance members at Makoko community in Lagos State with food items including bags of rice, vegetable oil, cartons of tomatoes and seasonings which were presented to each of over 50 fishers. On 28 August 2020, FishNet Alliance members in Akwa Ibom State and other fishers gathered at Ibeno community and were presented with food items and different sizes of fish nets and accessories. Hundred (100) food packs were given out and 35 FishNet Alliance members were empowered with the fishing gears.
During this visit to Makoko, the fishers lamented on the impacts of pollution on their environment and of the sand mining activities going on in their land and on how the lockdown measures deprives them of access to fishing grounds and daily income.
Akintimehin Claudius Adewole, leader of the FishNet Alliance in Lagos State, complained that “there are high activities of sand mining (dredging) going on in the area and that this has severely impacted on the livelihoods of the community people.”
Mr Adewole called on the government to roll out policies that protect the aquatic environment, clean-up already polluted areas and guarantee the rights of the people to a decent livelihood as fishers.
During the engagement in Makoko, there was a call for expansion of the FishNet Alliance to other regions in Lagos State. The vice president of the association of fishers in Lagos State, Mr. Segun Seminor implored that the FishNet Alliance be extended to all five divisions of the fishermen association where fishers are also facing the challenge of pollution including from toxic chemicals.
The presentation of the gift items at Ibeno was preceded by sharing of tips on how the fishers can monitor their environment especially with regard to oil spills which frequently occurs in the area.
The chairman of the FishNet Alliance in Akwa Ibom State, Rev Sam Ayadi, called on the government to consult and engage fishers in the drafting of policies to protect the aquatic ecosystems. This, according to the chairman, would enable government come up with all-inclusive policies that ensure the safeguarding of their rivers, creeks and seas and guaranty their livelihoods as fishers. He also called on the government to hold the companies that are polluting their environment accountable for their acts.
Issues of pollution by oil and gas exploration and waste dumping were highlighted. The case of the dead fish which washed ashore in many coastal communities between February and May 2020 was also highlighted and the urgent need for the cleanup of the entire Niger Delta the region was stressed.
Fishers and other stakeholders at the meetings in both Makoko and Ibeno made calls to the government to provide special supports for fishers and fish processors as they were highly impacted by the lockdown occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic. Specific calls made at both meetings include the following:
There should be increased participation of fishers in public policies with regard to the management of the aquatic environment.
Government should put adequate measures in place to help fishers during COVID-19 pandemic.
Traditional knowledge of fishing practices, including those that would help mitigate climate change impacts should be adopted in policies.
Polluting corporations should be held liable for the harms created, required to clean-up immediately and to duly compensate the affected people and communities.
Fishers should unite and engage in further dialogues to equip themselves with skills to serve as environmental defenders and to take actions to mitigate climate change.
There should be more exchange of knowledge between fishers in Nigeria and their counterparts in other African countries through the FishNet Alliance.
All Indiscriminate displacement of fishing settlements and sand-filling of fishing creeks and rivers should be stopped.
Corporations who have polluted the environment should clean-up immediately and duly compensate the affected people
In the meetings, the need for fishers in Nigeria and Africa to come together, unite, organise and forge a common front to act as watchdogs for their aquatic environment was emphasized.
FishNet Alliance is an Africa-wide network of fishers engaged in and promoting sustainable fishing in line with ecosystem limits. The Alliance opposes extractive activities in water bodies – including rivers, lakes and oceans and lends support to communities which are negatively impacted.