The investment from China, welcomed by the Gambian government, has angered the fishing community, which says Chinese fishmeal factories are disrupting life on its shores.
"I've worked here for 32 years," said Buba Carey, a Gunju fisherman who speaks Mandinka through an interpreter. "It only brings us misery," he said, pointing to the white building.
"Before the factories came here, there was a lot of fish in the sea. If you want fish [now] you have to cross the border to Senegal or Guinea Bissau."
A Kelefa Kamara who had come to buy fish and sell it locally arrived, arguing that he had raised the price of fish to the locals: "This factory doesn't accept us.
The people spoke of a facility operated by Golden Lead in the coastal town of Gunjur, about 45 kilometers (28 miles) south of the capital Banjul.
In total, The Gambia currently has three such factories: the other two, run by different companies, are located about 10 kilometers north and south of Gunjur, where fish oil and fish meat are produced and exported to China, Europe and beyond.
Over the years the fishmeal industry has raised questions about sustainability. It also consumes large amounts of fish, such as sardines and bonga, which account for at least half of the Gambia's total protein intake.
The Dutch NGO Market Change Foundation found that this largest fish factory accounts for 40% of the Gambia's total catch in one year.
The Gambia has developed close ties with China in recent years. China's first seafood factory opened in Gunjur under the controversial leadership of former president Yahya Jammeh was granted a 99-year lease in 2015, shortly after Gambia severed ties with Taiwan.
This is despite Gambia's law barring foreign nationals from leasing land for more than 26 years, according to policy watchdog Watch Gambia.
Shortly after Jammeh abruptly abdicated in 2017 and went into exile after 22 years at the helm – during which he was indicted by the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission for human rights abuses and widespread corruption – his successor met his Chinese counterpart. made to confirm their friendship.
China canceled $12 billion ($10 billion) of Gambia's debt that year and invested another $28.7 billion in agriculture and fishing.
Habitat contaminated with wildlife
However, the local Gunjur community is not happy with what happened to the Golden Bullets.
May 22, 2017 – Nearly a year after the opening of the fishmeal factory – the lake near the Bolong Fenio Nature Reserve fills with dead fish and turns a bright red.
A month later, the National Environment Agency filed a lawsuit against Golden Lead in the Magistrates' Court, alleging that the damage was caused by the factory's wastewater.
But operations resumed immediately following an out-of-court settlement of $25,000.
Apart from the pollution case, the company is involved in other legal cases.
Last month, Bamba Banja, a former senior fisheries ministry official, pleaded guilty to bribery after receiving at least five payments totaling $1,600 from Golden Lead between 2018 and 2020. He denied taking money from vessels seized for illegal fishing, but was sentenced to two years in prison and ordered to pay a fine.
Some in Gunjur are still concerned about the polluted quality of the river and some fishermen and workers told the BBC in December 2022 they had developed skin problems after wading in the sea near the factory. But there is no conclusive evidence that the disease is the fault of the manufacturer.
For most Gunjuri, the fish shortage is a concern: they say the stocks are over-exploited.
Golden Lead secures six-month contracts with mostly Senegalese fishermen using motor boats. The local fishermen who use the pirogue are second to none.
Manufacturers buy in bulk, paying $5 per basket, three times less than what is available at home. Some fishermen agree with this because it is a guaranteed sale, but it means that local people have less fish available and Gambians selling on Golden Lead make less money.
The large number of fish needed for processing can be seen at the time of harvesting.
When the boats arrived at the factory, many men ran ashore with 50 kg (110 lb) baskets on their heads, paying $0.50 each one way.
The effect is that fish become scarce in the local market and prices increase.
Gunju residents also say Golden Bullet broke its promise to the fishing community.
“They promised to build a road from the village to the beach and they promised to build a fish market for the community. They promised 600 jobs in the community here,” said Gunjur Village Head Dembo Darbo, known as “Alkalo”. , Let me know
That's not the case, though the city says it accepts monthly payments of around $815.
"Nothing compared to what they have," said the boss.
"We can show our disappointment. But the power is in the hands of the government."
According to a worker who requested anonymity, only 40 Gambians were employed at the Golden Lead factory in Gunjur, where conditions were poor and wages were inadequate at around $60 a month.
"They took money from my paycheck for income taxes and Social Security. I don't even have an account or Social Security number," he said.
Quota system foreseen
The current Minister of Fisheries, Omar Gibba, dismissed the criticism, telling the BBC that the factory had attracted foreign investment, provided much-needed jobs to local Gambians and had long since stopped dumping hazardous waste.
"Golden Lead has found a market for exporting waste in liquid form. Where, I don't know."
For example, the minister added: "The law does not say [80% of the workforce] has to be Gambian. Every investment has its pros and cons. It makes the company attractive."
He also tried to play down fears of overfishing, saying there was no scientific evidence for it.
However, environmental journalist Mustafa Manneh points to a 2019 United Nations report that sardinella and bonga are overexploited in Gambian waters and believes that in five years there will be serious consequences: "The amount they take every day will have serious impacts on our biodiversity." .. food insecurity can create".
Sir. Gibba could not say how much carp was currently being extracted from Gambian waters, but said plans were underway for a new quota system.
In addition, said the Minister of Finance, even though catching young fish is a problem, there are rules that govern it.
One of the main activists against fishmeal factories is microbiologist Ahmed Manzang, a member of the environmental group that brought Golden Lead to justice. Their civil lawsuit quotes $250,000 in environmental damages. But Mr Manzang was angry that the case had been postponed repeatedly since July 2017.
"I think China has compromised our legal system," he said. Gambian authorities did not respond to requests for comment on the allegations.
Recently, Manzang added, he and five other workers involved in the case were offered bribes at the factory, which they refused: "Fill envelopes. This is how it works."
Earlier, a Gambian called him and offered him around $4,000, allegedly on behalf of a Chinese company, to end his campaign.
To get answers to these complaints, I visited the well-maintained Gunjur factory, where it was very difficult to enter or talk to the Chinese owner.
Peter Zhu, a senior employer, told the BBC simply: "We are regulated by the government, what we are doing is right."
Asked directly about fish stocks, he replied: "I don't know. We are not fishermen, we are a company. How is the sea? I don't know."
Further attempts to contact the company were unsuccessful due to other allegations, such as bribery.
Manzang said there were signs that Senegal, Mauritania and The Gambia would continue joint efforts to protect their fish stocks in the future.
However, young Gambian activist Buba Janneh, who works with Greenpeace Africa, is less optimistic, even as the fight continues to overturn Golden Lead's legally binding 99-year lease.
The future would be "very bleak" for The Gambia, he said, if the lease had been in place at the time of his death.
Tom Ford is a freelance journalist traveling in West Africa