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“They’ve stolen our fish,” says Maty Ndau with an anguished cry. Ndau is standing in a desolate processing center in the fishing town of Kayar, Senegal, where, four years ago, several hundred women would have been busy drying, salting, and trading sardinella, a small silvery fish known as yaboi, or “the people’s fish” in the local Wolof. Today, there is silence.
In 2018, a Spanish-owned fish-meal factory opened in Kayar, around 60 kilometers north of the capital, Dakar. The factory, which turns local fish into animal feed, replaced a source of steady employment for women with a string of complaints: nauseating odors, flagrant pollution, and allegations of corruption and illegal fishing practices.
“[The factory] is toxic,” says Soulé Cissé, a taxi driver who lives 200 meters away. “I go to the next town to get water now,” adds Hadim Seck, a local boat maker.
Perhaps worse for a region where hunger quadrupled last year, the fish-meal factory took a key local food source and packed it up for export—a product largely destined for European fish and pig farms. It’s an inefficient international flow of protein. According to Aliou Ba, Greenpeace Africa’s oceans campaigner, “it takes five kilograms of fish to produce one kilogram of fish meal destined for developed countries.”
These gripes have catalyzed a movement 5,000 strong. Under the banner of the Taxawu Cayar Collective, meaning “to take a stand,” the community is taking the factory to court. Supported by the NGOs Greenpeace and Natural Justice, the collective is launching two legal offensives, says lawyer Ciré Bathily: an injunction and a main case.
“The injunction seeks to order the provisional closure of the factory under an abnormal neighborhood disruption,” says Bathily. The legal bid was rejected in November and the collective is still waiting for the judge’s long overdue justification to file for an appeal.
“The main case,” says Bathily, “is to permanently close the factory.”
The collective is accusing the factory of breaking myriad environmental and planning regulations, such as their claim that the factory is built illegally close to the town’s residential areas.
If successful, the case could serve as inspiration for other communities pushing back on the fish-meal industry, such as the residents of Gunjur and Sanyang in The Gambia who are protesting three Chinese-owned factories, and the fishers protesting factories in Nouadhibou, Mauritania.
Built by the Spanish company Barna in 2018, the Kayar fish-meal factory was sold when the legal proceedings began in September 2022. The new Senegalese owner, Babacar Diallo, changed the name from Barna Sénégal to Touba Protéine Marine after Touba, the country’s second-largest city and a holy place for Senegal’s Mouride Muslim population.
Diallo claims his factory doesn’t compete with local fishers and fishmongers because it only processes fish waste and offcuts into fish meal, not fresh fish. But if you follow the wooden pushcarts loaded with sardinella from the loading beach, it’s easy to find men openly placing the fish onto the lorries lined up on the sandy street. The mareyeur, or wholesaler, overseeing the process freely acknowledges these fish are destined for the fish-meal factory.
This demand, says Mor Mbengue, a fisher and Taxawu Cayar Collective member, is disrupting both the marine ecosystem and the trade network that gives this fishing town life.
Before the factory opened its doors, says Ndau, fishermen would sell to local processors—perhaps even to their mothers or sisters. Dried fish was sold locally, and exported inland to Mali and Burkina Faso. Now fishermen sell to the factory for double the price, and locals, says Ndau, no longer have enough to feed themselves. Some people, including herself, says Ndau, have resorted to buying the factory’s offcuts.
Ndau decries the perceived injustice: “They stop us migrating to Europe, but continue to take our resources.”
Globalization is not illegal, though, so the Taxawu Cayar Collective’s legal efforts are focusing on the corruption and mismanagement they claim goes to the heart of this case.
As an example, both Mbengue and Ndau reference how the factory owners originally bought the land from Kayar’s mayor for 50 times the market value, which they argue could explain its close proximity to the town’s inhabitants.
“There are powerful interests in this country who want to protect the fish-meal factories at the expense of communities,” says Greenpeace’s Ba.
Despite this, Bathily believes the collective could make waves beyond Senegal, although the main case has been continuously delayed since its initial March date due to national political turbulence.
If their legal bid fails, Bathily says the collective is prepared to take its case to the West African regional Community Court of Justice to argue that the factory violates Kayar residents’ right to a healthy environment.
Back on the fishing quay, Mbengue is convinced the town will prevail. The fisherman, known as le bagnkat—the resister—says: “I’ve never seen anyone challenge Kayar and leave victorious.”