Senegal’s navy acting on orders of Greenpeace?

It would be an amazing development on several levels, if it turns out to be true: The speaker of the Russian fisheries agency alleged that the "the army of the sovereign Republic of Senegal is acting under Greenpeace orders," in stopping the Russian trawler Oleg Naydenov and arresting its crew.

The spokesman went on to accuse Senegal of "piracy on a state level" and the Senegalese charge d'affaires in Moscow was called into the Russian foreign ministry to explain the behaviour of his country.

Much of the hyped up language that this affair has produced can be attributed to the fact that the Russian media and general opinion didn't take kindly to have its economic interests and the freedom of its nationals challenged by a tiny (in comparison) and seemingly unimportant African country. But underneath it all lies an interesting political conflict over the use of Senegal's marine resources that has been a long time coming. And yes, Greenpeace plays an integral part in that story.

The plunder of African waters

Senegal's authorities have charged the Oleg Naydenov and its crew with an offence well known in African waters: illegal fishing. Despite possessing long coastlines and rich fishing grounds, African states have notoriously week navies and  coast guards. For decades it has been common practice for fishing trawlers from the Americas, Europe and Asia to use this circumstance to their advantage, fishing African waters without permits and refusing to share the profits with the nations owning the territorial waters.

Additionally, single powerful nations or organisations like the European Union have often pressured African states into unfavourable fishing agreements that legalized the overuse of Africa's marine resources.

Apart from the obvious loss of government revenue, these practices also led to economic hardship for thousands of African fishermen, who saw their catches dwindle. In extreme cases, like in Somalia, illegal fishing has also contributed to violence by creating the conditions to bring forth piracy and other illegal activities.

Changing tides

Senegal has for a while been at the forefront of asserting its national sovereignty and economic interests over its marine resources. In 2006, it cancelled its fishing agreement with the European Union and last year, the new government under president Macky Sall went a step further and asked 26 trawlers from eastern Europe, Asia and the Americas to unload their catch in Dakar and leave Senegalese waters.

And this is where Greenpeace comes in. The environmental NGO has increasingly put its resources into Africa, in no small part due to the fact that it for the first time has an African at its helm, South African national Kumi Naidoo. While South Africa also has the strongest Greenpeace presence on the continent, Senegal has been another important hub for its activities. There is now a permanent Greenpeace office in Dakar and a strong financial and professional cooperation between Greenpeacers in Senegal and Germany, the organization's strongest national outlet by far.

Greenpeace has staged its trademark protest in support of stronger protection of Senegal's marine life in 2012, approaching illegal fishing trawlers in small motorboats and painting them with slogans. This is also, says the NGO, the first time that it noticed the Oleg Naydenov fishing illegally in Senegal's water.

From the distance one can't judge how much of an effect the Greenpeace campaign had, but even if it didn't cause official awareness of the problem, it at least correlated nicely with Senegalese policy priorities. It should also be noted that several Senegalese fishermen took part in the protests organized by Greenpeace and that local voices were very vocal in supporting the ban of foreign trawlers.

The case of the Oleg Naydenov

By taking the drastic step of arresting the Oleg Naydenov and its crew, Senegal's government was bound to incur the ire of Russia. But the involvement of Greenpeace, even though the allegation that the move was "ordered" by the organisation is clearly bullshit, raises the stakes further.

Just a few weeks ago, it was Greenpeace's turn to accuse the Russian government of piracy, when 30 of its activists were arrested in international waters after staging a protest against Russian oil exploration activities in the Arctic Sea. The Netherlands, the country where the Greenpeace vessel that carried the activists was registered, quickly petitioned the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg, which ordered the Russian authorities to free the activists and their ship.

Ironically, Russia now wants to ask the same Tribunal to secure the freedom of the Oleg Naydenov. The outcome of this case will be interesting, as Senegal's authorities claim that the Russian vessel was clearly in their territorial waters and also a "repeat offender".

Implications for Africa's marine resources

Senegal's actions could send a strong signal to international fishing companies and other African nations alike. Ideally, if the International Tribunal for the Laws of the Sea supports Senegal's charges, it will tremendously strengthen the legal position of African nations in such circumstances. This in turn will make it increasingly likely that other nations take action as well, investing in their naval patrol capabilities and securing their territorial waters from illegal fishing activities.

For fishing companies, having a trawler and its crew arrested is a nightmare scenario. The Russian claim that the Oleg Naydenov loses 30,000 dollars a day can't be confirmed independently, but should offer an impression of the financial stakes involved.

On a larger scale, the incident shows the increasing self-confidence that African nations display when it comes to the protection of their economic interests. And even more positively, the increased willingness of Senegal's authorities to protect its resources can at least in part be attributed to popular pressure and NGOs like Greenpeace. This is important, because it means that Senegal's civil society is gaining the strength and competency to play the important role of a watchdog of corporate and government activities in the resource sector.

Full disclosure: I acted as a volunteer spokesperson for several local Greenpeace chapters in Germany and also took part in several protests supporting Greenpeace positions against environmental destruction. I have a strong positive disposition towards the organisation and its demands.

The Niger Delta through the eyes of George Osodi

Probably hundreds of reports have been written, published and promoted about the environmental damage that oil production has produced in the Niger Delta. Thousands of pages have been filled with interviews, research, facts and policy advice on the ecological, economic, political and economic ramifications of uncounted oil spills, corruption and crime associated with the business in Nigeria.

Still, for most people it is still hard to really get what is happening in this specific part of the world. And this is where George Osodi comes in. By now, he is probably one of the most famous Nigerian, if not African, photographers and his breakthrough came with his series of photographs on the Niger Delta. He captures photos of extreme beauty, which often only reveal environmental destruction, poverty and violence at the second glance. Much more accessible than any report or working paper, his images provide an intense glimpse into the challenges that come with resource wealth, especially for local communities.

The International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, UK, featured Osodi in a special exhibition titled "Oil boom, Delta burns" and has published an interview with the artist with corresponding sideshow of his works. Osodi is also portrayed in a longer piece by Al Jazeera, which focuses on his current project, photographing Nigeria's traditional rulers. Enjoy!

Oil boom, Delta burns: photographs by George Osodi from National Museums Liverpool on Vimeo.

Tanzania plans uranium mines

Several African countries are looking to enter the ranks of uranium producing countries. Tanzania and Malawi are probably furthest along this road, with Niger, South Africa, Central African Republic and the DR Congo all among current or past producers.

For those who want a quick introduction into Tanzanian plans to develop its uranium deposits, this article by Deutsche Welle provides some of the most important facts:

Not far from Tanzania's capital of Dodoma is the rural area of Bahi. The small village in the heart of the country on Africa's coast, though, is sitting on a proverbial "gold mine," one that has raised eyebrows at both the national and international levels: uranium. Tanzania has been carrying out exploratory drilling operations for a number of years so that it might soon begin the real business of uranium mining. People who live in Bahia, however, have reacted to the drilling with skepticism. […]


Koczy recalled the risks of nuclear energy, pointing to the nuclear reactor catastrophes in Chernobyl and Fukushima. But she also said there were potential safety risks in Tanzania, which are high during the mining of radioactive ore. Uranium's utility for Tanzania itself is very limited, Koczy said. The German parliamentarian criticized the fact that the large majority of mining licenses have gone to foreign firms, with the public having no oversight as to the profits secured by these companies.

Tanzanian Minister of Energy and Minerals Sospeter Muhongo views the future brightly, though. For workers, safety risks will not be an issue, he said. […]


In southern Tanzania, the uranium is thick and close to the earth's surface. That brings yet another danger: A gust of wind can blow uranium dust from surface mining operations and into the surrounding landscape.

For CESOPE director Lyamunda and his organization further north in Bahi, the issue is clear: The best thing would be for Tanzania to desist entirely from mining uranium. His group is not alone in that opinion. At a conference in Tanzania that took place in early October, his call was supported by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and the Germany-based Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

The Tanzanian project is also one of the focal points of the documentary "Atomic Africa", which is worth seeing in full if you are interested in the topic. What do you think, should Tanzania and other African countries develop their uranium deposits and nuclear energy plants despite the great environmental and health risks involved?

Panda protects Virunga: WWF files complaint against SOCO at OECD

In an interesting twist of the battle over oil exploration in the Virunga National Park in Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, environmental protection NGO WWF has put in a formal complaint about SOCO International plc at the OECD in Paris.

WWF today has filed a complaint alleging that British oil company Soco International PLC has breached international corporate social responsibility standards. WWF contends that, in the course of Soco’s oil exploration activities in and around Virunga National Park, the company has violated environmental and human rights provisions of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. - WWF press release

The WWF goes on to allege that SOCO has used state security to put pressure on local communities. SOCO denies the claims that it breached international standards in its activities in the DRC:

SOCO would like to make it clear that all alleged breaches of the voluntary guidelines raised are absolutely ill-founded, tendentious and not supported by the facts. - SOCO press release

Cynics will argue that it would be impossible for SOCO to work in "close collaboration" with the government of the Congo and still hold up international standards of good business behaviour, seeing that corruption, mismanagement and violence against opposition is deeply ingrained in the politics of the country. But even by Congolese standards, the government's plans to let SOCO explore possible oil reserves in and around the Virunga National Park are contentious.

Virunga is a UNESCO designated Worl Heritage Site and supports a unique rainforest ecosystem. It is also home to some of the last populations of mountain gorillas and many other rare species. Recent legislation introduced into the Congolese parliament now tries to undermine the current regulations that forbid any exploration activity in national parks.

Adding to the environmental concerns, Virunga is also situated in an active conflict zone. Possibly as many as 50 different rebel groups are active in the park and surrounding provinces with the official army acting as one of the greatest human rights violators in the conflict.

H/T Jeune Afrique

ThinkBrigade: Hunger, rebellion, coup: Mali’s crisis has its history

I'm part of the new project ThinkBrigade, which brings together reporters and citizen journalists from around the world to experiment with new forms of collaborative and interactive journalism. This is my first piece for the project, but others will follow:

Mali is a landlocked country in West Africa, about two times the size of France. It is dominated by vast expanses of sparsely inhabited desert and the fertile surroundings of the Niger river. In historical times, the area was home to powerful empires and the ancient city of Timbuktu, with its architectural wonders, still tells of this era.

Mali is again in the news these days, but not favourably. There are no stories about enthusiastic tourists or cultural richness. Instead, Mali currently lives through a triple crisis: After a devastating drought,potentially millions of people face a hunger crisis. At the same time, a rebellion led by Tuareg fighters has engulfed the North of the country. And if this wouldn’t be enough, a coup d’état has brought a military junta into power in the capital and resulted in harsh sanctions by neighboring states. […]

Read the rest on ThinkBrigade!

Is genetically modified cotton really the new “white gold”?

Cotton farmer in Burkina Faso. NYTimes photo.

In an interview with Jeune Afrique (French) Jean-Paul Sawadogo, the head of the national textile association of Burkina Faso, "Sofitex", touts the advantages of genetically modified (GM) cotton.  Burkina Faso has been the first (and so far only) West African country to allow GM cotton onto domestic fields ten years ago.

By now, GM cotton is something of the norm in international cotton production. In 2009, 49% of the worldwide total area planted with cotton used GM cotton. As countries like the USA and Australia grow almost exclusively GM cotton and have a high productivity, one can safely assume that well over 50% of the worldwide crop is genetically modified.

GM cotton comes in two flavors. It is either genetically modified to withstand a certain kind of ultra-effective pesticide (commonly known as Roundup), or it has been enhanced to produce a certain kind of pesticide itself (known as Bt cotton, after the bacteria that provided the DNA for this). Both varieties have been "invented" by the US corporation Monsanto.

In Burkina Faso, the Bt cotton variant is used on 50% of the total planted area. According to Sawadogo, this has enormous benefits, saving the farmers long walks with heavy loads of pesticides on their backs, easing the environmental impact of formerly heavy pesticide use and enhancing productivity of the "white gold" by 30% (if the fertilizing regime is obeyed). Sawadogo wants to increase the share of Bt cotton in Burkina to 60% during the next season and ideally 90% in the future.

I see several problems with this anticipated reliance on GM cotton. Firstly, it subjects the cotton farmers (not to speak of the national economy of Burkina Faso) to the whims of a company. Monsanto is not exactly known for its do-gooding attitude and as the "creator" of Bt cotton with the political power of the USA behind it, relying on them as a "partner" is a risky gamble.

Bt cotton seeds have to be bought each year from a licensed reseller. This is fine for the farmers as long as Monsanto keeps the prices low. But it is a known fact that each and every monopoly gets abused at some point.

Also, the benefits are not as clear as Mr. Sawadogo makes them seem. The evidence on long-time productivity enhancement through the use of GM cotton is inconclusive, with different studies contradicting each other. It is telling that Sawadogo qualifies his productivity claim with the need to use the right fertilizing regime.

The benefits of having to use fewer pesticides are of course real for most farmers: they have to carry fewer loads to their fields and are not exposed to high amounts of the stuff. But I could imagine that the same effects can be attained by providing suitable transport, spraying equipment and training in the use of pesticides.

Farmers in Burkina likely make more money with GM cotton than with normal varieties. But at the same time they have higher expenses for the licensed seeds and subject themselves to the priorities of Monsanto.

The motivation of the government of Burkina to push for a higher use of GM cotton in the country and the region is meanwhile clear: As Sawadogo states, the government is in "discussions" with Monsanto to open a Bt cotton seed factory  in the country, for export into the "countries of the sub-region".