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Unitor in Uganda: Fish fillets to the West, fish bones to the poor

The export oriented fishery of Nile-perch in Africa's largest lake, Lake Victoria, is strongly criticised by experts who have been monitoring the development for years. Only crumbs are left to the poor, whereas both fish and profits go the West. NorWatch can reveal that the Norwegian company UNITOR, supported by around 10 million NOK (1 USD is app. 7.5 NOK) from NORAD, is one of the largest players in the doubtful fight for the fishery resources in Uganda.
Artikkelen er mer enn to år gammel. Ting kan ha endret seg.
The export oriented fishery of Nile-perch in Africa's largest lake, Lake Victoria, is strongly criticised by experts who have been monitoring the development for years. Only crumbs are left to the poor, whereas both fish and profits go the West. NorWatch can reveal that the Norwegian company UNITOR, supported by around 10 million NOK (1 USD is app. 7.5 NOK) from NORAD, is one of the largest players in the doubtful fight for the fishery resources in Uganda.

By Harald Eraker and Morten Rønning

The export oriented fishery for Nile-perch by Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania in Lake Victoria have, since the beginning of the 1980's led to less nutritious food for the local people, lost jobs, reallocation of people, breakdown of traditional family structures as well as deforestation. While the delicate fillets from the processing plants go to the rich countries, the losers are the millions of people around the lake who no longer can afford to buy fish - their most important source of animal proteins.

– This is a grotesque example of so-called development, says Eirik G. Jansen who has been researching the consequences of this fishery on the population around Lake Victoria.

– It has never occurred to us that this is problematic. If this is the case, the responsibility lies with NORAD (Norwegian Agency for Development Co-ordination) who evaluated the consequences of the project before we entered, says Jens Klev, representative of Unitor's Board of directors in the fish factory Clovergem & Fish Foods Ltd (CFF) in Uganda.

– We stand by the evaluation we did of the project in 91/92. If it is correct that negative consequences have occurred since then, we are sorry. But like everybody else, we do not posses a crystal ball which enables us to look into the future, says assistant director Cato Haugland and Stein Torgersbraaten, who dealt with the project, in NORAD.

The Nile-perch does not belong naturally in Lake Victoria. But after the British set it out in the 60's, the stock increased dramatically during the 80's. The previous diverse fishery changed to become a «three species fishery», dominated by the Nile-perch, which is a predatory fish.

– A new revolution followed in the wake of the growth of the Nile perch. The enormous demand for the fish spread to the other countries around Lake Victoria. Originally, there was a local and regional marked which could hand the five-doubled catch. But rather quickly, a marked for the Nile-perch grew in the industrialised countries, says Eirik Jansen, who is associated with the Centre for Development and Environment (SUM) at the university in Oslo.

To satisfy the new marked, several fish processing plants were established around Lake Victoria. Today, 50 such factories are spread around the lake, and they process the fish and export the fillets to Europe, the Middle East, Japan and USA.

In the beginning of the 90's, the export oriented activity also got a Norwegian player. By the help of 10 million NOK from NORAD, Clovergem Fish and Foods was built up in Uganda, by Lake Victoria. NORAD set as a condition that the Norwegian company Ticon Isolering should, in addition to building the factory, have 19% ownership in CFF. A few years later, UNITOR took over Ticon Isolering, and CFF was part of the deal.

– Today, our company CFF is among the 5-6 largest players within the export of Nile-perch from Lake Victoria, says Jens Klev of UNITOR.

Lost jobs
The factories around Lake Victoria have the capacity to process far more fish than is available. Their fight for the resources has consequently led to virtually all Nile-perch being exported, which again resulted in price increase.

The increased prices have led to loss of jobs for those who previously lived off the fishery.

– Thousands of women who previously dried and smoked the fish along the beaches, have now lost their jobs because the fish is brought directly to the processing plants. In addition, thousands of women who traded the fish and sold it at the many local and regional markets in East Africa have lost their job because the local population can not afford to pay as much for the fish as the processing plants can, says Eirik Jansen, who has not dealt uniquely with Unitors activities, but has researched the consequences of the export oriented fishery in general.

Increased poverty
The UN Food and Agricultural organisation FAO has warned against the effects of the export for many years, and is concerned with the food security for the population in the area. Investigations have shown that the state of nutrition for children from poor families have worsened, and child mortality has increased.

– Investigations show - and I have seen it with my own eyes as well - that the only form of fish the poor can afford today, is remains from the processing industry, primarily the fish that remain on the bone of the Nile-perch after it has been filleted, says Eirik Jansen. He used to live by Lake Victoria during his research in the '70's, and returned there a year ago.

Unitor's board representative in CFF, Jens Klev, has an entirely different impression:

– We are of the understanding that fish bones with remains of fish is seen as a delicacy among people. The remains are smoked and sold at the market, with jubilation, says Klev, who believes that NORAD certainly will do something when they are alerted to the problems.

– You say that the conclusions should have been different, but this is water under the bridge today. Besides, we are a loan institution which can not intervene now or take responsibility for Unitor's actions, say Haugland and Torgersbraaten in NORAD:

In 1992, one kilo of fish remains, that is head, bones, guts and some fish meat, cost as much as a whole fish in 1989, according to Harris, Wiley and Wilson's study: Socio-economic Impacts of Introduced Species in Lake Victoria Fisheries, London 1995.

«The export oriented fishery is a threat, both with regard to employment and food security, for millions of poor people in East Africa».

Rich Fisheries - poor fisherfolk: The effects of trade and aid in Lake Victoria Fisheries (Eirik G. Jansen, 1996).

Clondyke atmosphere
The catch increase of the Nile perch from Lake Victoria was explosive during the 80's. In 1979 the total catch was 3000 tons, in 1989 it had increased to 325.000 tons. The total catch in 1989 was as much as 500.000 tons.

The increased fishing activities attracted tens of thousands of unemployed who got a job in the fishing and processing industry. Initially, the price of fish was low, and people could afford to buy it.

But as it appeared that markets also outside East Africa were interested in fillets from the Nile perch, the price increased and groups who were not previously involved with the fishery, established themselves in the area. The processing plants buy much of the fish they process from local fishermen.

But these local fishermen using nets are increasingly pushed out of the picture, for the benefit of boats owned by companies outside the area. The result of this increase is, according to Jansen, a fishery which is not sustainable, and many marine biologists are concerned with the Nile perch stock in the future.

Export to Israel
Today, Unitor's fillets from CFF is exported to Israel. But according to the company, Europe, and particularly Southern Europe, is considered as a coming marked.

CFF has its own boat which it uses to buy fish several places around the lake. With full operations, CFF expects to have around 100 employees, and capacity to export one 40 foot container with frozen fillets every day.

The fishery was previously run as a family business, with the men fishing and the women drying and smoking the fish. The fishing activity alternated with agriculture. The development has led to a more cost demanding fishery, where outside interests increasingly have taken over. Today's requirements to boats, equipment and crew, have made it virtually impossible for the fishermen of the past to compete with the foreign companies.

The old system for sale of fish has collapsed because of the increased prices. On the Ssese-islands in Uganda, the local people have been forced to smoke large amounts of fish because they can no longer sell the fresh fish. The need for firewood for the smoking has led to deforestation on the islands.

Authority approval
The authorities around Lake Victoria have seen good opportunities to get foreign currency through export of the Nile perch, and many of the projects are based on money from development aid.

Previously, the countries around Lake Victoria did not have any fishing authorities to speak of. However, attempts to regulate the fishing for the Nile perch in one country have led to the boats delivering their catch to another.

A large increase of theft both of boats and equipment have led to general mistrust in the area, and fishermen claim that their work has become a heavy burden after the export started, according to Harris, Wiley and Wilson. There have been several strikes among the Ugandan fishermen, but they have not led to improved working conditions or higher salaries.

The increase of foreign currency, road building and jobs have not balanced out the negative consequences by far. According to Jansen, the money largely ends up with the owners of the processing plants and the boats. The fishery, which was previously based solely on local resources, today depends on import of nets, lorries and fish processing machines, among other things.
UNITOR in Uganda
Unitor owns 19% of Clovergem Fish & Foods ltd. The share followed Unitor's purchase of Ticon Isolering in 1994. The Swiss company Clovergem AG owns 71%, while a government owned Ugandan development fund owns 10%.
NORAD has given the company a loan of about 10 mill NOK and 325.000 NOK in education support. In addition, NORAD has given a guarantee of 200.000 NOK which will be paid out to the company when it can show that the environmental requirements have been fulfilled.
The entire project has cost around 33 mill NOK.

Norwatch Newsletter 3/96