KAMANDI LAC, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — At dawn, a Congolese fisherman pushes off in his dugout canoe onto Lake Edward, nestled on the border between DRC and Uganda.
A light wind blows. The waves beat against the muddy shore behind him, where hundreds of fishermen examine their empty nets. Up ahead, the water stretches east over the horizon, toward Uganda.
He has two choices.
Should he pay a “tax” of 40,000 Congolese francs (about $20) to the armed group, known as the Mai Mai, that controls the lake within his own country’s boundaries — and net only a few small tilapia? Or, should he sneak his canoe over to the Ugandan side, where the government-regulated fish stock is plentiful — and risk arrest by a military patrol?
“It is a shame,” says Kasereka Makombo, who has chosen the first option for now, after 30 years of fishing on Lake Edward. “This morning, my nets only caught two fish.”
One of the seven African Great Lakes, Lake Edward, also known as Lake Rutanzige, lies 71% in DRC, 29% in Uganda. Since 2016, the Mai Mai have encouraged limitless fishing on the DRC side — even on spawning grounds — leading to a dramatic decline in fish populations. After years of unsuccessful DRC military attempts to permanently evict the group and enforce national regulations, Ugandan authorities now have ramped up efforts to protect their own waters.
Merveille Kavira Luneghe, GPJ DRC
A campaign was launched in March to crack down on anyone fishing without a license, says Flavia Byekwaso, a Uganda Peoples’ Defence Forces spokesperson. Between mid-August and mid-September, 64 Congolese and 100 Ugandans were arrested, he says.
But Adam Sandeta Mayele, a member of the Kamandi Lac Fishermen’s Committee, a self-governing group of DRC villagers, says desperation tends to outweigh danger — even as the risk increases for Congolese fishermen.
“Once caught, they are arrested by Ugandan navy, tortured, and have their prohibited fishing equipment seized,” he says. Some return after paying $300 in fines or with physical injuries, he adds, but none are willing to make public complaints that may jeopardize their lives and livelihoods — and further escalate conflicts in the region.
While denying that Ugandan authorities have mistreated any fishermen, Byekwaso says that both countries are closely monitoring the situation and have begun working together on an environmental protection plan.
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“We have come up with a joint committee to do monitoring and surveillance of illegal fishing activities,” he says.
As long as the Mai Mai control and profit from the lake, however, the local officials authorized to enforce fishing regulations say their hands are tied.
The DRC Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Livestock estimates that 80% of the fishing on Lake Edward violates regulations. Only 100 canoes are officially registered, but more than 700 regularly cast nets, says Christian Mumbere Wayireta, a department agent.
The agency receives death threats when officials try to destroy illegal nets, Wayireta says. “I fear for my safety.”
If the DRC government regained control of the lake, he adds, just two months would be enough time for the tilapia, catfish and other species to recover from the damage of the last five years.
Most fishermen would obey a temporary ban to restore fish populations, Mayele says, especially if other livelihood opportunities could be developed in their villages. But the government must be able to ensure the regulations apply to everyone.
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Others respond that if the fishermen kept their canoes docked as the first step, the Mai Mai would be financially weakened enough to loosen their tight grip.
“It seems that the fishermen are at the service of these rebels,” says Kambale Boniface, president of the Civil Society of Kamandi Lac, a village committee.
Both steps need to happen simultaneously, says Ophono Mumbere Kamundwavalya, who leads the government’s Department of Environment and Sustainable Development on the west coast of Lake Edward and works with the agricultural ministry to try to regulate fishing.
“I call on the fishermen to stop fishing illegally so that we still have fish and for the government to provide us with sufficient means such as dugout canoes to reinforce our patrols,” he says.
Whatever the solution, Makombo, the fisherman, says it will require the strong support of the government — preferably in his lifetime — so that the 65-year-old can once again pull up a net filled with hundreds of fish.
“Let the state impose its authority on Lake Edward,” he says. “Let fishing be regulated so that Congolese fishermen are no longer arrested on the Ugandan side.”
Apophia Agiresaasi, GPJ Uganda, contributed reporting for this article.