Industrial Overfishing Causes Food Insecurity in Uganda

Children stand near a fishing boat at the edge of Lake Victoria in Uganda. Fish stocks are threatened in the lake due to overfishing. Photo: © Lightfoot55_Photobucket

Estimates by the Lake Victoria Fisheries Organization (LVFO) indicate that stocks of the Nile perch have decreased over the past decade from 1.9 million tons to only 600,000 tons in 2009. For each of the nations bordering Lake Victoria — Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya — exports of fish are falling, with yields dropping 10,000 tons in 2008, according to the international fisheries magazine Globefish.

Fishing has almost collapsed in Uganda, especially Lake Victoria,” said Seremos Kamuturaki, Executive Director of Uganda Fisheries & Fish Conservation Association (UFFCA). “The stock has dwindled tremendously, as evidenced by the fishermen’s small daily catches. This has resulted in very low incomes and a food-insecure fishing community. The people have nothing to eat.”

While  visiting in the United States, Kamuturaki explained the dire situation facing his nation in an interview with Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL). He was on a mission to ask for public support from the US, Canada, and the EU in boycotting Nile perch in order to save the livelihoods of local Ugandan fishermen and their families.

We asked Kumuturaki to begin by giving us some background. — Julia Wasson, Publisher

KAMUTURAKI: The major factor is the international fish export trade. Before that, there were enough fish for people to catch, to sell, to put money in their pockets — and to eat. Now, with increasing fish exports to Europe and America, this has directly increased the pressure on our fishing stocks.

In the past, fishermen used to fish fewer hours per day. But with the increasing demand, it meant that people had to fish throughout the day and during the night. And this actually had a bearing on the stock. Initially, the men who were hiring the boats started catching a lot more, much more than before. Then, to make it worse, they started catching even the smaller fish. Now there are no fish.

Seremos Kamuturaki speaks with National Family Farm Coalition President, Dena Hoff, at the Community Food Security Coalition in Des Moines last October. Photo: Joe Hennager

When there was a booming business in the fish export trade, many fish factories were established on the shores of Lake Victoria. There are about 25 in Uganda, about 30 in Kenya, about 20 in Tanzania. So, you can imagine all that over-capitalization on the lake.

BPGL: What is the effect of over-capitalization on the local people?

KAMUTURAKI: Over-capitalization meant that these factories had to break. They are there for profit making, and cannot operate at a loss. They have to get fish at whatever cost, whether they’re small fish or big fish. And so, all this pressure on the lake has resulted in collapse.

It is a major problem in the area. I tell you, people are very poor. The fishermen themselves don’t keep the fish. The little that is caught is taken away by the factory to be processed and exported to support the fish export and processing factories. So this is the major concern for me.

BPGL: What about breeding? Are young fish replenishing the stock?

KAMUTURAKI: That’s also a problem. There are two new dams in series just downstream of what they call the source of the Nile. These are in addition to one that was built in the 1940s. The dams have caused the water level of Lake Victoria to recede.

And when the waters recede, it means the shallow areas that act as fish breeding grounds are left bare. And being left bare means killing the eggs that were there and exposing the young fish to predators. So that has contributed to the dwindling fish stocks in addition to overfishing and destructive fishing gear.

BPGL: What is the effect on the local economy

The lack of fish is contributing to the extreme poverty of many families along the shores of Lake Victoria. Photo: © Lightfoot55_Photobucket

KAMUTURAKI: Before the introduction of the fish-export trade on Lake Victoria, women used to get fish from their husbands. They used to smoke sun-dried or dry-salted fish, sell them locally, and get money to feed their children and support the family. Now, with the increasing liberalization of the fish-export trade, it has meant that women have lost. They cannot compete with the strong factory agents who buy fish at the highest price.

Women are being thrown out of the business. What is happening now is that, for the woman to get fish, she has to sell her body. That is the negotiating tool. The man says, “If you want me to sell you fish, you have to go to bed with me.” It’s sex for fish. It’s crooked. Without that, women can’t get the fish, I can assure you. They can’t.

BPGL: What is happening to the families under pressures such as these?

KAMUTURAKI: A lot of families are breaking up. They are disintegrating because of economics. You know what happens in Africa when there is no food in the house, when there is no money? (It’s not only in Africa — it’s true with any human beings — it could happen in the US.) You’ll see families breaking. Without food, without money, there’s no life at all. And the culture is completely lost.

BPGL: What are you doing to try to solve this problem in Uganda?

KAMUTURAKI: For us, every year, we do campaigns. We organize a campaign at a regional level for all countries: Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania. Every year, we get support from the Oxfam Novib and Code Eight. We run these campaigns every year, and we condemn the government about it. We pressure the government to change these policies, which hurt the poor.

Nile perch were the primary food source found in Lake Victoria until overfishing depleted the stocks. Photo: © Lightfoot55_Photobucket

We have been doing this for the last three years on Lake Victoria. We haven’t succeeded, but we have the hope that we shall succeed. But what’s important is for the global north peoples and organizations to pressure the consumers in Europe and America not to eat the fish.

BPGL: Which fish do you want us to boycott?

KAMUTURAKI: Nile perch from Lake Victoria. It is not being caught with sustainable fishing methods. That’s one reason. And second, the people are suffering socially and economically. So, if there’s a boycott on these continents, America and Europe, where the fish is consumed, then there can be some kind of pressure on our government to stop all these bad things. And that’s the only way to go.

We want the Ugandan government to change their policy from one of export to allowing people to catch locally and sell locally. That way there’s enough for people to eat in the future.

BPGL: What are you doing to try to pressure the government about the water level in Lake Victoria?

KAMUTURAKI: I can assure you that at one time there was a massive demonstration by various people, environmentalists and so forth. Some people were almost shot! My colleague died from an accident last year in September, and he had an accident because he was one of the demonstrators.

So, you see that’s how the situation is. When you want to fight for the rights of the people and you are demonstrating — or not even demonstrating, but you are expressing your grievances — government doesn’t tend to understand you. It’s driven by foreign investment. That’s the interest in our government.

BPGL: Are you seeing the effects of climate change in Uganda?

KAMUTURAKI: Yes, that is another major concern I have. Climate change on Lake Victoria has caused a lot of problems. I can attribute it to a massive cutting of the forest by the people, within the islands of Lake Victoria and along the shoreline. They cut the trees to build houses and to get wood for smoking fish.

Then, there is the recent palm oil project by an Indian company on Bugala Island. The whole forest was cleared just to plant palm oil. Can you imagine that? The forest had been acting as the regulator of the rainfall. Now, you can see the whole ecosystem was destroyed.

Lake Victoria is the largest lake on the African continent and is bordered by Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya. Art: © Ruslan Olinchuk -

BPGL: How was that allowed to happen?

KAMUTURAKI: The government allowed it, because the government wants to see more foreign investors and more taxes. And all this is driven by the World Bank. They profitize everything and liberalize the trade duties. It is the World Bank that is behind it. It is an IMF kind of thing. At the macro level, the World Bank is responsible.

I think the situation is so bad. People are telling the government, but the government doesn’t seem to bother. That is what they call industrialization or transformation of agriculture. The government thinks that these investments are okay.

BPGL: What is the purpose of your being in the U.S.? How does that relate to your work back at home?

KAMUTURAKI: Unless we in Africa build strong alliances with the organizations that are in America and Europe, where the consumers are, we shall not succeed in our campaign efforts in Africa. We need to build strong alliances and networks in Africa and with organizations, social movements, and the NGOs in America and Europe. Together, we can put pressure at a global level, at a regional level, as well as at a national level. It will not help us to only put pressure at a national level.

My purpose in coming here is to see that we are viewed as this kind of alliance, as well as for networking and the sharing of information. We must have solidarity in fighting these oppressors of human beings.

BPGL: How long has the overfishing by international interests been going on?

Industrial fishing is depleting the fish stocks so that local people have nothing to catch. Photo: © Lightfoot55_Photobucket

KAMUTURAKI: Since 1980. That was the beginning of the huge industrial fish processing factories in Uganda. Nineteen years is a long time for the companies to raid our natural resources. Trading in fish is not like a factory producing clothing. It’s a natural resource. It has a limit.

BPGL: You are seeking support from consumers in the US. I assume you would also like to have support from our president. If you had a chance to speak with President Obama, what would you say to him?

KAMUTURAKI: I would tell him not to support some of these policies, which hurt Africans. If he was not supporting them, they would stop. The system would stop. But the system is still continuing. Maybe he has not been told. He has to know, because he has heard these voices from the past president, so he has to know this was happening before. As a president, he must know. He’s informed. He’s briefed. I would tell him, “Please, stop supporting policies from Africa which hurt the poor.”

BPGL: What is your message for the American and European people?

If overfishing is controlled in Lake Victoria, poverty will decrease in villages along the shore. Photo: © Klaas Lingbeek- van Kranen

KAMUTURAKI: I want to appeal to people in the U.S. and Europe, for example, that there are very many efforts in Africa that are supporting genuine programs and genuine interventions, but they lack support. And I invite those who have the financial and material support to come and join the good-intentioned Africans like us to fight this trouble.

That is my appeal to Americans, because now I am in the land of America. An American who has good will, who has a good heart, and a good intention, I call upon him or her to come to our rescue. Let us join our hands together and fight this struggle.

We don’t have the capacities to be able to advance this struggle alone. We need the support of our brothers and sisters in America here, those who have the genuine vision to support the poor. That’s my message to Americans. And to the Europeans, I give the same message.

Let’s get our hearts together, and together we shall succeed.

We may feel like shedding tears, but we will not give up. We shall continue struggling, struggling, until one day, we know, one day, one time, we shall succeed.

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)