by Moizza Binat Sarwar – Sindh Education Foundation
Every winter, the fishing community of Karachi celebrates a mela on Bandar island in honor of Yousuf Shah, a local saint who lived in the community 400 years ago. In November 2006 the mela was marked by a concurrent protest against the sale of Bandar and Buddoo islands as real estate property to the U.A.E based company by the name of Emaar. The fishing community’s representative organization Pakistan Mahigeer Tehreeek approached a documentary maker and Shirkat Gah to provide a platform for their protest. One of Shirkat Gah’s main concerns for a number of years has been the entire coastal ecosystem encompassing not only the coast’s natural environment but also the livelihood of its fishing communities because as Najma Sadeque says “every economic issue is an issue of resource and hence an issue of the environment and every economic issue is inevitably a political one.”
Shirkat Gah’s Najma Sadeque is a hallmark name in the development sector, a journalist-activist with more than 25 in the field. As a journalist she has had deep associations with both the Dawn Group of Newspapers and The News. In 1975 Najma Sadeque became a founding member of Shirkat Gah which to this day has one the most integrated approaches to economics, environment and women’s awareness that can be witnessed in the development sector. Her organization has been associated with the coastal community of Karachi for a few years. In this interview, Najma Sadeque holds forth on the process and implications of the sale of two islands off Sindh’s coast to a private U.A.E. based company.
Shirkat Gah does not have a mandate per se restricted to working with fisher folk. Women’s empowerment, green economics and the environment are issues that inevitably encompass the coastal ecozone and its inhabitants. Ms. Sadeque’s personal association with the fishing community began because of the sudden loss of livelihood to women in the fishing communities. “This occurred when nylon nets replaced cotton nets in the fishing industry. Previously, womenfolk in the fishing communities had been solely responsible for the manufacture and repair of cotton fishing nets. The harm was two fold. The nylon nets have smaller holes that capture juvenile fish as well that are of no value to the catchers. Usually these juvenile fish are grounded into chicken feed which I’m sure the chicken can do without. More significantly though, the shift to nylon nets resulted in a loss of earnings for the women in the industry coercing them to work as domestic laborers which they generally describe as a humiliating experience. Shirkat Gah stepped in to help these women grow organic food so as to become self-reliant in the production of food.”
From there on Shirkat Gah’s association has only deepened with the fishing community. As part of this association they filmed a documentary recording the protest against the sale of the two islands. The documentary was made in two portions under the direction of Deneb Sumbul. The first portion covered the mela and the protest while the second focused on the implications of the sale to the coastal environment and fisherfolk livelihood.
Fisheries, says Ms. Sadeque, have been a controversial issue for decades but have rarely garnered any attention from the press because of a number of reasons. “Firstly, fisheries are not a growth area and hence that automatically undervalues the importance of fishing folk. For the past several decades, foreign fishing agencies have been given immense preference particularly with the Deep Sea Fishing Policy that allows foreign trawlers to catch fish through satellite tracking. The fact that this directly affects the sustenance of fisherfolk is of no interest even to Karachi’s local population because a) the fishing folk are a small community and b) the geographical distance from the city translates into a humane distance as well”.
Fisherfolk at this stage have a toehold on minimum income. The sale of Bandar island however has come as a huge blow particularly to the 50 families who were living on the island. “None of these families were given prior notice of eviction. They were just asked to pack up their things and leave the island immediately. “Additionally these islands have tremendous economic value to fishing communities who live along the coast of Karachi. “Previoulsy, Ibrahim Hyderi used to be the biggest fishing village until housing development made it too crowded for proper processing of fish. Most fishing folk now retreat to the islands to process their fish and dry their nets etc. More significantly though, the islands harbor important reserves of mangroves that play an essential role in Pakistan’s fishing industries.”
Mangrove forests are not only the breeding ground for fish and fish eggs (90% of marine life begins in mangroves) but more importantly provide climate cover. The effects of coastal storms such as tsunamis, cyclones and typhoons are severely blunted by mangroves. A testament to that fact is the example of Bangladesh where proportional to the decline in mangroves (“as result of intensive application of bad technology in shrimp farming courtesy Western demand from shrimp” informs Ms. Sadeque) Bangladesh’s vulnerability to flooding and coastal storms has increased dramatically.
“What astounds me,” emphasizes Ms. Sadeque, “is how the government of Pakistan is not concerned about losing the fishing industry all together when you combine the impact of trawlers, mangrove reduction and now real estate development on these islands. Forget the fisherfolk for an instant and let’s talk their language. It’s an export industry. Once it is gone, it’s finished. The concept of Shaamalat, of “common land” exists for a reason. You cannot privatize shaamalat because it is only in their aggregate condition that they serve purpose, you disrupt an entire economy if you dismantle it on individual basis”
When the documentary was completed, Shirkat Gah hosted a conference to showcase the documentary to other NGOs and in particular local politicians. The documentary significantly captured their interest and local politicians began to visit the island. Due to the tidal cycle, the best bet to reach the island is via low tide boats of which there were two in Karachi. One belongs to the Forest Department or rather belonged because soon after the visits began, both boats were burnt down. “The last time our team from Shirkat Gah had tried to reach the island, we found it guarded by uniformed authorities. What I find outrageous is that the secrecy with which the sale has been accomplished. The government of Sindh found out about the sale to Emaar from the newspapers through a statement issued in Islamabad on the 27th of Sep. The purpose is to make the island ‘another Dubai’ and in the whole deal Emaar will have 85% equity while Port Qasim will have 15%.” Following the report on the sale of the two islands has been the announcement of project Crescent Bay to the same company, a project that will conceivably turn up to 14 kilometres of the Karachi coastline into a separate and private enclosure.
“When Dubai was developing from a desert, it limited foreign ownership to the extent that contractually 50% of the ownership of any development project had to belong to a local,” says Najma Sadeque, “Pakistan has done nothing of the kind. At the common sense level, you have to wonder, if this deed was done for the benefit of the people of Sindh, they why was it such a secrecy?”