11 January 2016

Botswana: Clash Over Lake Ngami Fish

Hungry and broke fisherman who were last year driven away from catching fish at Lake Ngami are said have given up on upholding the law and are now thronging the lake in numbers to engage in illegal fishing.

As the drought hit hard in the Southern African region including in Botswana, fishermen who were last year forced to vacate the lake Ngami area, following a fish ban by the Ministry of Wildlife, Environment and Tourism are finding it difficult to stay away from the waters which have in recent years not only provided food for their families but was also a source of income.

This has in turn created more work for law enforcers patrolling the lake to ensure that the ban is observed and, according to observers, they couldn't like it less, hence they impose serious punishment on any offender they catch breaking the law. "These guys have made it clear that they would not take nonsense from anyone, hence they deal with anyone they catch fishing in the most extreme ways before laying any charges," said one Maun resident who confessed to have passed through the harsh treatment sometimes last year. In December, two decomposed bodies of fishermen who had gone into the lake illegally were found floating in it, days after they were reported missing.

Whilst they are suspicions that security agents maybe primarily responsible for the two's death either by driving them to the more unsettled part of the lake or by doing the actual deed, Acting Station Commander at Sehithwa Police Assistant Superintendent Mautlwabe Ikobeng has rubbished the allegations. According to Ikobeng, the two drowned on their own and have no one but themselves to blame. He, however, confirmed that they were currently battling to contain high incidents of illegal fishing in Lake Ngami. "Yes, ever since the Ministry of Wildlife, Environment and Tourism announced that it has imposed a fishing ban in the lake last year March, we have had to deal with a handful cases of people who violated this call," said Ikobeng.

So rampant are the illegal fishing incidents that police make arrests almost every week. "Police arrested and confiscated fish from 10 offenders in December last year during the search for the two men who drowned, before that 15 others were arrested in November. Just this week we arrested three more," he said. This clearly suggests that the police and other law enforcers are forced to avert the situation. "We have teams patrolling along the river banks and within the water-ways in the Lake almost every day, to make sure that the ban runs smoothly," he said. Ikobeng explained that though his team and other law enforcers were trying by all means to keep illegal fishermen away from the lake, the sneaky ones had a way of outsmarting them.

"We recently discovered that, they even go to the extent of setting up small camps in the reeds within the lake, where they spend days carrying out fishing activities without police detection," he said. With regard to the December case of dead fishermen, Ikobeng said it was unfortunate that anyone could accuse the police of such an act, saying that strangely they were no water patrols on the day the two met their demise. "Ke dikgang tse di teng, re reetsa fela re bo re re ba tsamaele koo," said the Police boss. The two, according to Ikobeng, were reported missing by their partner who had stayed behind when they went for a round of illegal fishing in the lake.

He, however, noted that the police and other law enforcers will exercise the powers exerted upon them to make sure that there is no illegal fish harvesting at Lake Ngami until the stipulated time lapse. "The ban will run until the end of February, until then we warn people to refrain from engaging in any fishing activity at the lake," said Assistant Superintendent Ikobeng. After Lake Ngami flooded for the first time in a long time a few years ago, Botswana silently became a significant exporter of unknown quantities of tilapia and catfish to countries like Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This prompted government to announce that they have taken the decision to ban any fishing activity at the lake from last year until March this year.

Speaking to this publication last year, The Minister of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism Tshekedi Khama said his ministry decided to impose the ban as a way of protecting the interests of Batswana and putting more stringent regulatory measures in place. Over 1000 settlers had, according to the Minister, set camp on the banks of Lake Ngami and the area (in Professor Roman Grynberg's words) looked like a refugee camp with scores of crowded tents. This, according to Khama, not only reflected the over-harvesting that was possibly taking place but was slowly becoming an environmental health hazards to the local villagers. "Government had to act swiftly to protect Batswana and to prevent possible fish species extinction," he said.

The Lake Ngami Conversation Trust board has since been given the opportunity to take control of the lake and are said to be in the final stage of doing that. The trust chairperson, Frisco Gabokakangwe, was quoted in the media recently saying that the board was doing its best to ensure the fishing season starts by March. According to Gabokakangwe, temporary measures would be put in place to allow fishermen to continue with their businesses, adding that "we could not close for more than two years because we understand that fishing is a source of income for communities."

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