The region of the African Great Lakes is one of the places that has marked the evolution of life on earth. The first hominids walked on the land and the waters of Lake Victoria were for millennia a rich culture medium where biodiversity thrived, producing incredibly varied forms of life. A small fish called the furu proliferated for thousands of years in perfect harmony with its ecosystem.
In a relatively short space of biological time, little more than 12 thousand years, more than 500 different species had evolved from the original one. The fragile equilibrium of this African paradise was ruptured when humans introduced the Nile perch into the lake in 1956.
50 years were enough for this voracious predator to reduce the furu population, and that of other species populating this unique ecosystem to less than 25% of their previous size.
The alarming situation was discovered by a group of researchers in the early 1980s when their studies began to indicate a sudden and unexpected change in the numbers of aquatic fauna. Unfortunately it was not only an environmental disaster.
We can thank a talented Austrian director, Hubert Sauper, maker of the documentary Darwin’s Nightmare for bringing to public attention the situation afflicting Lake Victoria, as well as the human and social tragedy occurring on its banks,. Apart from the unquestionable artistic strengths of the work, it is the somber facts which make an impact.
The radical shift in the lake’s ecosystem, far from remaining hidden deep in its waters, had an immediate effect on the lives of the inhabitants of three countries living on its shores. People who for centuries had lived by small-scale fishing using pirogues gradually saw their catches diminishing, as their nets were no longer suitable for catching the much larger new inhabitants of the lake.
Fishing for furu using traditional methods was progressively replaced by intensive fishing to supply fish processing facilities which had been constructed with the help of foreign investment.
Today there are no longer fishermen with their own boats. Catching Nile perch is organized directly by factories controlled by foreign interests who pay a few dollars for the excess local labor.
In this new age of intensive perch fishing, tons of fish are transformed into frozen fillets which can be bought on supermarket shelves all over the industrialized west. The new business is geared to international trade and the fish from the lake account for the most of the region’s exports, but local people are left with next to nothing.
Fishing before the arrival of perch was subsistence fishing. But it had the advantage that it did feed people. If it had not been disrupted and abandoned it could have been improved. Activities connected to the perch fishing industry provide employment to a minute number of people compared to the past.
Within just a few years the abandonment of artisanal fishing has caused a loss of cultural heritage, methods and knowledge that had taken centuries to create. With no more fishermen, the people able to make and repair fishing equipment have also disappeared. In a twist of fate, perch stocks have also begun to decline due to overfishing and increasing pollution.
There are unfortunately too many examples of situations where animal or plant species introduced by humans — even if accidentally — have compromised existing equilibria. The case of Lake Victoria is more symbolic than others due to the very serious impact there has been on the lives of local people and it should make us think about the risks of upsetting natural balances.
The movie world has recently been showing a lot of interest in food and environmental issues. It was high time, since it can educate and inform. But it also means that the time is ripe for us to take action and take greater care not to make mistakes in the name of questionable progress.
First printed in La Stampa on March 27 2005
Adapted by Ronnie Richards