Ngami fisherman face eviction… and starvation
Scores of fishermen camped along the shore of Lake Ngami blame the lake’s Conservation Trust for their booming but illegal fishing trade.
The men maintain they have no choice but to break the law, citing the Trust’s continued failure to issue fishing licences as the cause of their criminal activity.
Breaking down the situation into simple terms for The Voice, one of the fishermen, Sekakela Sekakela, explained for many the option is simple: fish of starve.
“The Trust has long promised to issue us licences, but to date they have not issued a single one. We could not just sit back and watch people from other areas harvest fish from right under our noses while we wait for licences. So we followed them into the lake and did the same because we also have to benefit from resources in our land,” explained the Maun native.
Another fisherman, Aaron Kemolebale, says since the outbreak of Covid-19 last year, many people have lost their jobs and turned to mother nature to make ends meet.
“I left Maun where I have the security of a house, comfortable bed, electricity and clean water to come and stay in the thick bush, enduring gruelling mosquito bites and risk being attacked by snakes and wild animals. The main reason is hunger, that is why we are here, we are out of jobs because of Covid-19!” he reiterated.
Like many in the area, Kemolebale was employed by a safari company but lost his job shortly after the pandemic hit.
“Nobody should take the blame for the scourge but we all need to eat and survive regardless of it all. We are trying to earn an honest living here; where do you want us to go?” demanded Kemolebale.
The fired-up fisherman was directing his question to Lake Ngami Conservation Trust, who had brought Botswana Police Services and the government’s Wildlife and National Parks Department to the lake to address the fishermen.
They were given until 21 April to leave the lakeside or face possible forced eviction and prosecution.
“What you are doing is illegal and you know it. So before we force you to do the right thing, kindly start packing your staff and vacate,” urged Moutlwatsi Ikobeng of Botswana police.
For years, Lake Ngami has been a lifeline for Ngamiland inhabitants, its waters rich with fish.
Lying behind Sehitwa village, roughly 100km from Maun, in more recent times the lake has become a site of bitter rivalry between government, the Trust and fishermen.
Ikobeng added that sometimes drowning incidents and stock theft are reported as the water source is also used as a drinking hole by local farmers.
Around 2015 and part of 2016, the Ministry of Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism suspended fishing activity at the lake.
When the ban was lifted, only those with licences were allowed to fish.
A 12-months ban on exportation of dried fish to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zambia was later enforced, putting a further strain on commercial and licenced fishermen and women.
When the ban finally ended, the region was in the midst of a drought that saw the lake reduced to a muddy deathtrap, with cows, hippos and crocs regularly becoming trapped in the thick sludge.
When the water finally returned early last year, Ngamilanders flocked back to the lake desperate to make up for lost time.
However, while the dry spell ended, the issue of licences remained.
Attempting to soothe the agitated crowd, the Trust Manager, Tuelo Bapedi stressed they were in talks with the Wildlife Department regarding the fishing quota in the lake.
“We cannot issue licences when we do not know how much the government has allowed us to catch from the lake,” he explained.
Bapedi further stated the Trust has designated camping sites which will only be allocated to licenced fishermen.
“We understand the situation but my advice is that when you know you are stealing like you are doing from the lake, you shouldn’t be bringing your whole families and refrigerators to stay here because things will get complicated once you are forced to vacate with immediate effect. We have not neglected the lake as some of you think, we are waiting for quota that will guide us on how to move forward,” he insisted, responding to accusations the Trust had neglected the lake during the drought and were only interested in cashing in now that it was full again.
On fisherman who is believes this to be true is Kedumetse Peba, who relocated from Mohembo, roughly 300km away to camp at the lake.
“Where was the Trust when we were cleaning the lake of carcasses, animal skeletons before the water arrived in the lake. We were removing cattle bones not our kak; we removed dead hippos from there. You (Wildlife officer) may not recognise me because I was dripping and covered in mud then!”