It’s almost three in the afternoon, and 86-year-old Sikina becomes friendlier when she sees her two sons approach on their little wooden boat. A minute ago she was waving away my camera. Now she says I can interview her if I buy her a bottle of beer. But don’t bother her sons, she warns me, they haven’t eaten since setting off fishing at 4am.Her sons are twins, in their fifties. They bring their boat in to dock and waste no time in rinsing their catch and preparing a meal. The family of three don’t have much food for the day: one large fish weighing less than a kilogram, three smaller fish, and an eel. A normal catch in this fishing village – enough to eat, not enough to sell.
Sikina is hungry. She watches as her sons prepare the meal, telling me that when she married into the village 50 years ago the boats came back with 150kg of fish.
This is a small fishing village on the western coast of Madagascar, just across the bay from the port city of Mahajanga. Head west from here, and you reach mainland Africa. Madagascar, Africa’s largest island, split from the Indian subcontinent 80 odd million years ago. It is a paradise of natural resources and biodiversity. At 580,000 km2, it can be easy to forget it is an island.
Amir, Sikina’s neighbour, is fixing his boat nearby and can’t help but laugh when he hears what she says. He tells me she’s joking. The best catches he recalls were ten years ago – 30-40kg a trip. Now it’s normal to catch only 2kg in an entire day. I asked Sikina what she would do if there were no more fish. She stood up and shook her head as she chased me off to buy her beer, saying that could never happen. Hearing this, Amir’s young wife, playing with her daughter, shook her head at me, saying fishing was becoming less reliable and they were preparing to move and look for new opportunities.
This was in August 2019, when I’d visited the village to learn about an ambitious new fishing deal. A year earlier, a “blue economy” deal had been signed in Beijing, which would have seen investment of US$2.7 billion (about 19 billion yuan). Madagascar is one of the world’s poorest nations, with 75% of the population living on less than US$1.90 a day. Before visiting the village, I met with someone who outlined the deal to me. He pointed out that Madagascar’s GDP in 2017 was only US$11.5 billion, making a US$2.7 billion investment hugely important, and that Mahajanga would be one of the trial investment sites. One of the promises made was that there would be fishing work for people like Amir and the twins.
But that trial, and the whole investment plan, turned out to be a mirage.