Known as Nam Lolwe, Nalubaale or Nyanza by the people who live around it, the largest lake in Africa is more commonly called Lake Victoria, a lasting echo of British colonial toponymy. Nowadays, a new form of colonialism casts a long shadow across the water, as Chinese aquaculture imports destroy the livelihoods of local fishers.
In an article for the BBC, Andrea Dijkstra writes how boxes of farmed tilapia fish which have traveled more than 8000 km and are “more than two years old” now dominate the market in Kisumu, Kenya.
The suffering lake
Catches in Lake Victoria have been shrinking for decades due to overfishing, and the introduction of non-native fish such as the Nile perch has only made matters worse for the endemic species. This has resulted in a massive loss of biodiversity—hundreds of species gone forever, hundreds more at risk of extinction—and biomass, while human populations around Lake Victoria have continued to grow rapidly. It has also pushed the price of locally-caught wild fish up to around $5 per kilo. At the same time, Chinese companies are exporting ever-larger quantities of farmed fish to Africa, and these sell for as little as $1.70 per kilo. In Kenya, where GDP per capita is around $4 a day, market traders have no choice but to sell the cheap Chinese fish if they want to feed their families.
Water, water, everywhere…
Yet not a drop to drink. The other reason for declining fish populations in Lake Victoria is pollution, from agricultural run-off, industrial dumping and sewage. Millions of people rely on the lake for their daily water needs, but it is increasingly unsafe to drink. As today is World Water Day, it’s important to remember that safe and clean drinking water is a human right, and much like the endangered species which inhabit Lake Victoria, many of the world’s most important sources of fresh water face existential threats. Nowhere is this more true than Sub-Saharan Africa, whose Great Lakes contain a quarter of the all the world’s unfrozen fresh water and perhaps as much as 10% of all the world’s fish species.
Slow Fish and Africa’s Great Lakes
The second largest lake in Africa, Tanganyika, face the pollution problems as Victoria. Earlier this year, the first ever Slow Fish event in the region was held in Kalemie, DR Congo, where fishers and environmental activists engaged in three days of constructive discussion on urgently-required action. Like Lake Victoria, Tanganyika is home to numerous endemic species facing a barrage of threats: overfishing, pollution, non-native species, and increasingly, global warming. As Jean-Pierre Kapalay, coordinator of Slow Food Tanganyika, explained to the delegates, “Lake Tanganyika is sick, and threatened by pollution and overfishing. These are evils that eat away at the lake, which now requires urgent supervision in order to save what still remains to be saved.” As a result of the event, the Slow Food Tanganyika Convivium has made a commitment to promote crabs as a cheaper and more nutritious source of protein, and to organize fishers around the protection, recovery and marketing of crab products as an alternative to fish.
What does the future hold?
While African governments feel obliged to accept unlimited Chinese imports as a condition of Chinese investment in infrastructure, there is little hope for the fishers of Lake Victoria, and the frozen boxes of two-year-old fish will soon be found at every fish market in Sub-Saharan Africa. While a few enterprising people may become rich as a result, the economic impact for the millions of people directly involved in traditional fishing will be devastating. And while Africa’s Great Lakes continue to be a dumping ground for all kinds of toxic waste, there is no reason to believe that the end of the local fishing industry will allow fish stocks to regenerate significantly.
Slow Food promotes a holistic approach to the entire food system, one that aims to guarantee good, clean and fair food for all. Of course, there can be no place for industrial fish farming in such a system, and we call on everyone, from governments to individuals, to reject it. We must also act immediately to stop the dumping of agricultural and industrial waste into our precious fresh water resources, or else we’ll contaminate the water we drink and the fish we eat. Thirdly, we must encourage fishing communities to be as sustainable as possible, both by easing pressure on overexploited species and reducing their own pollution. The world’s lakes, like the seas, are a common good: they belong to everybody equally. Taking care of our common goods and being able to pass them on to future generations in good health is the greatest task facing humanity, but one we must take on at all costs: the alternative is no future at all.
At Slow Fish 2019, you can meet members of Slow Food fishing communities and cooks from Africa in the Slow Fish Arena. On Thursday May 9 at 2.30 p.m. Loubie Rusch of the Slow Food Chefs’ Alliance in South Africa will talk about her relationship with her local fishing community, and on Friday May 10 at 2.30 p.m. members of the Aglou Artisan Fishers and Cooks community from Morocco will talk about their annual festival which unites artisan fishers in the cause of good food, conviviality and a collective response to their common issues.