Gambians embrace new freedoms with environment activism

Hundreds of Gambians were grateful for the jobs created by a Chinese-run fish processing plant that arrived in 2014. Then they were shocked when dead fish began washing up on a nearby shore.

Residents of the coastal town of Gunjur reported chemical residue on their skin after swimming that made them itch. Environmental activists blamed the Chinese-owned company, Golden Lead Import & Export.

After activists said the company had failed to remove a pipe accused of spewing toxic waste into the sea, local youth issued an ultimatum: Dig the pipe up, or we will. In March they did, storming the beach.

"We'll be willing to face any charges in defence of our community," their leader, Amadou Scattred Janneh, told The Associated Press. He is now out on bail facing criminal trespass charges.

For more than two decades, few in this tiny West African nation dared to speak out under the dictatorship of President Yahya Jammeh. Opposing voices were silenced by arrests and killings during his dictatorship.

A new era began when Jammeh was swept out of power and went into exile early last year. And as new President Adama Barrow's government has promised wider freedoms, Gambians are now speaking up as part of a nascent environmental movement.

After the protest over the fish processing plant, Gambia's government ultimately allowed the company to reinstate the pipe but required waste water to be treated before being discharged.

The company's general manager, Bakary Darboe, denies causing marine pollution and has accused the activists of damaging property.

Janneh's arrest hasn't stopped other environmental activists in Gambia from holding regular demonstrations over the depletion of natural reserves along the country's coastline.

Such activism is long overdue, filmmaker and activist Prince Bubacarr Sankanu told The Associated Press.

"The pressure on our meager natural resources is getting higher and higher, thus making proactive environmental activism an inevitable tool for good governance," he said.

Another high-profile demonstration earlier this year ended in the deaths of three protesters who had demanded the end of sand mining activities by the Julakay Entreprise company in the village of Faraba Banta.

The sand is used in construction but the practice has been accused of damaging Gambia's coastline and local farming, which is often residents' only source of income.

Inspired in part by such confrontations, Gambia's president in September set up a land commission to look into the challenges of administering one of the country's most important resources. Nearly 80 percent of the population relies on agriculture for a living.

"As a country, we have been hurt because the foundation of our democracy had been shaken and corrupted," Barrow said during the commission's swearing-in ceremony. "The former government abused the rights of the citizens, and many communities lost their land for political or dubious reasons."

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