Africa's Unfair Battle The West's Poverty Subsidies

Farmers in Kenya, Burkina Faso and Senegal used to be able to make ends meet. Today they have trouble selling their goods because of subsidized exports from industrial nations that are sold in Africa at dumping prices. But will the West ever change?


Editor's Note: Industrialized nations spend billions to subsidize their high-tech farming industries. Surplus crops often end up being sold at rock-bottom prices in the markets of developing countries, making it impossible for local farmers to sell their products. Even the American food aid being sent to famine-plagued regions creates more suffering than it alleviates, because many governments prefer to wait for handouts than buy up their farmers' harvests. The lack of options is forcing thousands of Africans to risk the life-threatening journey to Europe.

It's a big day for a little boy, but it's also a day that will more than likely end on a depressing note. The fishermen know this, but none of them is willing to dampen the boy's enthusiasm on his first day of work.

The eight-year-old boy is visibly excited as he jumps through the surf off the beach of Mbour, a Senegalese fishing town, until someone hoists him up onto a brightly painted boat known locally as a pirogue. With two dozen fishermen crowded on board, the 18-meter (59-foot) wooden craft can barely remain afloat. Neither roof nor tarp protects the men from the blazing African sun. It's 10 a.m. and already 37 degrees Celsius (99 degrees Fahrenheit). The outboard motor roars into life and the boat heads out into the Atlantic.

Captain Badou Ndoye stands at the rudder and reads the waves. According to a Senegalese saying, a good captain can look at the sea and tell what kind of fish it holds by the way the surface moves. Bream make bubbles, mackerels make tiny waves and barbels produce small humps on the surface. Badou has 62 years of experience at sea. The 67-year-old is a third-generation fisherman. Five of his sons are also on board.

"Sardines," he says, opening the throttle. As the boat traces a wide circle, the wide net is tossed over the edge of the boat. This is the moment when the men grab the boy and throw him into the sea -- and into a future that no longer quite exists.

No matter how hard the boy tries to drive the fish into the net, in this coming-of-age ritual, it won't be enough for the fishermen to survive. Since the fleets of Toubabs, or white men, took over the fishing grounds, individual fishermen no longer stand a chance. Dragging giant nets and guided by highly sensitive sonar equipment, the industrial-size trawlers are literally pulling the life from the sea off the coast of West Africa. Some of these floating factories can hold up to 2,000 tons of fish at a time. It would take Captain Badou decades to catch that many fish.

An Unequal Match

But even if the local fishermen didn't have to use pure muscle power to pull their nets out of the sea, and if they had ice to keep their catch fresh and ships that didn't have to return to shore after a day's fishing, it would still be an unequal match. Unlike their well-equipped competitors from the north, these fishermen actually depend on selling their catches to feed their families.

It's a difficult concept for Mbour's fishermen to grasp: The supposedly market-oriented, industrialized countries of the north spend almost twice as much on catching fish as they earn from the catch.

Fishing companies from Europe, Japan and the United States are literally paid to pack their boats with state-of-the-art equipment. They buy discounted fuel and benefit from low-interest loans. Shipping is subsidized, and so are exports -- all with taxpayers' money.

Once their own waters are over-fished, they buy their way into other ones. Last year the European Union spent more than €200 million ($270 million) so its fleets could fish in foreign waters. From 2002 to 2006, the European Commission paid €12 million a year to Senegal alone for fishing rights. New contract negotiations have been underway since last summer.

This is all necessary, we are told, to safeguard jobs. But Captain Badou Ndoye is worried about his job, too.

The more valuable fish species are becoming rare because the foreign trawlers, in violation of international fishing regulations, have been pulling up young fish in their nets and not returning them to the water. Ndoye has also heard this from seamen who work on the foreigners' ships. On this particular day, after seven hours at sea, he returns home almost empty-handed. The day's catch consists of a few cheap sardines and anchovies, two squids and a few rosefish.

The mood on board is somber. Each fishermen will go home with no more than the equivalent of one or two euros, hardly enough to feed a family. Fish is Senegal's biggest export, with the fishing industry providing 15 percent of all jobs. Many of them are now threatened.

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