Friday, March 9, 2012


The sand as it used to be before sand harvesting began. Photo courtesy: Sandgrains

The beach in Ribeira da Barca, a village in the Cape Verde archipelago off the coast of West Africa, used to be a vast stretch of black, volcanic sand. Kids played football and their fathers hauled in the day's catch in their small, weathered fishing boats.

Today, the sand has gone, collected by local people and sold to build houses to feed the island's construction boom. The locals have no choice – the fish have disappeared, and with them the islanders' livelihoods. The reason for this can be seen bobbing out at sea: giant European trawlers that are legally allowed to fish the waters according to an EU treaty ratified by the Cape Verdean government. The sticking point is that they often exceed their quotas.

I wrote a blog approximately 3 years ago about European fishing boats taking illegal fish from Somalian waters and dumping barrels of toxic waste in these same waters. The question I asked about the hijacked fishing vessel Captain Richard Phillips was: Was he really the victim of overfishing and men desperate to feed their families?

Somolian men had turned to piracy to support their families after all the fish disappeared and they could no longer make a living. They maintain that European fishing boats took more than their limit and polluted their waters. These were men who were desperate to feed their wives, children; and, for some, aged parents.

I hope to God that I never have to experience the lengths I would go to in order to feed my hungry babies.

In addition to depriving families of their livelihoods, illegal overfishing alters the ocean's food chain. If major predators such as sharks decrease, smaller fish are no longer obliged to live near the coast and move off – out of reach of local boats. The result is that, some days, the local fishermen still trying to make a living come home without a single catch.

Sandgrains, by Francesca Tosarelli

Collecting sand is hard, dangerous work. With the beach already harvested of all its sand, men have to wade into the choppy sea and shovel it up from the sea bed. They fill buckets carried by women who must sprint back to shore to avoid being smashed by the breakers, dropping their loads and being cut and bruised. It's illegal, but the authorities seem to turn a blind eye. The pay is poor, too. It usually is when one group is exploiting an oppressed and/or desperate people. The truckers who buy the sand sell it on at three times the price. All the profit without any of the risks or back-breaking labour. Sounds like a familiar tune to me.

The destruction of the beaches also has drastic environmental consequences. If the ocean has no physical barrier, seawater contaminates the groundwater with salt and damages crops.

Once again, the finger can be pointed at European fishing vessels who come in and take more than allowed. Perhaps, a few even disgorge some of the more questionable liquids or items on board. The ocean becomes unable to sustain everything and the Cape Verdeans can no longer support themselves by fishing. In the meantime, the family still needs to be fed, clothed and sheltered.

Although they are doing it to survive, the Cape Verdeans depleting their beaches of sand are doing more harm than good. Exactly how much harm, only time will tell.

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