Thursday, April 26, 2012

The delicate balance of our ecological systems

When I was in school, we were taught that the cause of malnutrition in our communities was the lack of sufficient protein in the diet. Today, I am much older, and have observed that there is a malnutrition epidemic in the Lake Victoria region in Kenya where fish, a rich source of protein, is supposed to be a staple. At first, I thought this was a uniquely Kenyan problem. Then I saw Hubert Sauper's documentary, Darwin's Nightmare. Apparently, a similar problem exists in the Lake Victoria region of Tanzania.

The film demonstrates how commercial fish harvesting over the years has exhausted the fishing stock in Lake Victoria, creating an ecological crisis. The Nile Perch fillets harvested from the Lake are processed then transported by commercial aircraft to Europe. The same aircraft rarely arrive in Tanzania empty. In fact, they usually bear arms that are then off-loaded under the cover of darkness. So we have a situation whereby Europe is enjoying fish fillets from Lake Victoria while the locals feed on the remains of the processed fish: skeletons from which the fish fillets have been removed. In the meantime, other locals are killed by the buyers of the illicit firearms when violence erupts in the region.

After watching Sawyer's documentary, I looked into the history of the ecological crisis in the lake region. According to available information the Nile Perch are an alien species of fish, which was introduced into the lake in the 1960s, just before Kenya became independent. Over the years, this alien species had decimated local fish stocks by predating on indigenous fish species. Thus, an ecological imbalance has resulted in the lake.

The locals used to subsist on the lake's indigenous food species. However, these have been depleted by the Nile Perch. In the meantime, the most substantial protein source in their diet is the waste from the Nile Perch processing factory:  Nile Perch remains. Thus, they live on a diet deficient in the nutrients that they need. The people in the region have no means to secure separate sources of vitamin A and omega 3 fatty acids. They  do not thrive. Hence poverty, malnutrition and disease are common in the region. As if this is not enough, Lake Victoria is considered to be one of the large fresh water lakes whose future survival is threatened.

For long, residents of the Lake Victoria region have complained about the exhausted fish stock in the lake. There has been little if any response from the sitting governments. A few years ago, I remember reading newspaper reports that indicated that Monsanto was already in the region, and that the introduction of other genetically modified species in the region was a possibility. In some areas, the locals were uprooted from their ancestral land to facilitate these 'innovative projects'. Their only compensation was a promise of maize supplies to subsist on every harvest season.  Maize based diets are apparently at the root of chronic malnutrition in the region. So that news did not bode well for Lake Victoria region's people, whose nutritional status is already declining .

When I read reports of this kind about environmental degradation and the development of supposedly superior species for human consumption anywhere in the world, I often wonder how local leadership fits into the picture. How do governments decide that the efforts of scientists and multinational corporations are for the good of their people? Is there a rigorous effort to look into the pros and cons of the proposed projects? Does money change hands? Are the locals informed about the details of the deals? How about the rights of other nations? In the case of Lake Victoria, which is a resource shared by 3 countries, how do the decisions made by one nation impact the other 2? Most importantly, what is the long-term impact of foreign species and GMOs (genetically modified organisms) on the environment and on the people?

Concerned people need to start taking these questions more seriously and thinking about the legacy are we leaving our children.

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