One of the greater scandals of the European Union – not only for the money they cost but for the damage they do, and the people they kill – are third country fishing agreements, whereby the EU pays third world countries to allow member state fishing fleets to exploit their waters.
These deals are big business. Between 1993 and 1997 they accounted for 1053 million euros from Community funds and in 1998 accounted for five percent of the total Community external budget.
Yet, according to a report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), issued on 27 December 2001, "Developing countries which open up their waters to foreign fishing fleets may lose far more than they gain". The report goes on to note that over-exploitation resulting from such deal is "driving people into ever greater poverty" as well as "robbing the marine environment of a key link in the food chain".
Argentina was cited as an example of how devastating can be the economic impact, the report assessing that the current EU agreement had actually cost the country $500 million whereas, had they developed their own fisheries, they could have made $5 billion. This is reinforced by the Namibian experience, where the country refused to enter an agreement with the EU and developed from scratch an industry which is worth $10 billion.
The UNEP report described the impact of the fisheries agreement on Argentina as "stark" and, of another agreement in Senegal, noted that it had had "a serious impact on local food supplies". Courtesy of a British Channel 4 TV documentary on the Mauritania agreement, we know that the agreements actually cost lives. Over 200 local fishermen have been killed, some deliberately run down by EU fishing boats. Others have been lost as they have been forced further out to sea in frail craft in order to catch the fish left by the industrial fishing fleets.
Yet all of this seems to have passed by the Commission. It sponsored its own report in 1999, which concentrated on the economic benefits to Community countries. This is a strange slant, considering that much of the funding comes from the external (i.e. development) budget.
However, even this report - which was essentially a "whitewash" - conceded that there were problems with the agreements, noting that countries "did not always have sufficient means to enforce inspection arrangements", something of an under-statement. It also records that, as regards the funds paid to third countries, "the destination of the funds paid into national budgets is not traceable".
In fact, this is the biggest scandal of all. Most of the money paid from Community funds goes to the political elites of the countries concerned. Very little of it reaches the indigenous fishermen who are effectively robbed of their livelihoods. Essentially, money from EU taxpayers - including the poor - is being paid to the rich of third world countries - robbing the poor to feed the rich!
Despite all this, a new agreement with Mauritania was agreed in 2001, covering a five-year period from 1 August 2001 to 31 July 2006, making it now the biggest and most expensive fisheries access agreement that the EU has with a third country.
The deal costs 430 million euros, allowing 248 vessels from Spain, Italy, Portugal, France, Greece, the Netherlands, Germany and Ireland to pillage the waters, targeting a range of stocks including hake, crustaceans, cephalopods, tuna and crawfish.
As the Institute for European Environmental Policy observed in a recent report, "such is the nature of the fishing agreement system that it confounds the very purpose for which development aid is supposedly made available. Clearly, the damage done is not sustainable and third country fishing agreements should be discontinued."
Now, further evidence has come to light which points up an unexpected side effect of the EU’s barbarous practice. Summarised in the National Geographic and on the BBC, a report in today’s Science magazine gives evidence that these third country deals are also driving some of the bushmeat trade in Africa.
Dr Justin Brashares and colleagues from the universities of California-Berkeley, US, and Cambridge, UK have told the Science magazine that consumption of bushmeat in Ghana rises whenever the supply of fish in the country falls. The region is blighted by overfishing, much of it by EU-subsidised trawlers, says Dr Brashares. "We took annual estimates of wildlife abundance and compared them with per capita fish supply and found that years of below average fish catches had greater declines of wildlife on land."
Brashares' team could also see this link played out in meat markets, where more bushmeat was being traded in years of low fish catches; and on game reserves where poaching increased at times of poor fish supply. What is more, this link was most obvious in coastal communities.
The possibility that over-fishing off West Africa might be having an impact on land biodiversity has been suspected for some time - but this is the first clear evidence to tie the two together.
Other bushmeat research groups working in West African states - such as Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia and Equatorial Guinea - believe the link probably exists in their areas, too. Although many of the species taken for bushmeat are often small and abundant creatures (such as rats), significant numbers of rare and endangered animals are also being trapped and shot for food, including the great apes.
"The species we see having declined most drastically [in Ghanaian reserves] include almost the whole suite of large carnivores - the African wild dog, lion, hyena, and leopard," Dr Brashares said. "Certainly primates are hit hard; things like the black and white colubus monkey; elephant, hippopotamus and bongo antelope are also taken."
So much for the EU’s concern for the environment, biodiversity and third world development. Full of honeyed phrases and gushing concern, the reality is that it is a big bully pressurising weaker states. "These (fishing) agreements are extremely unfair," says Daniel Pauly, director of the Fisheries Centre at the University of British Columbia, Canada. "If you have a very powerful economy negotiating with a weak one, then it's very difficult for the weak ones to say no."
But it is the hypocrisy of it all that really gets to you. We have known for many years that these deals should be stopped. And what does the EU do? Precisely nothing that addresses the issue.