Top 2017 stories: Gwadar fisherfolk worry about OBOR

At the crucial end of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor – a vital part of OBOR – the Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea is being built fast, leaving local fisherfolk terrified about loss of homes and livelihood
<p>As Gwadar develops in the background, the fisherfolk of Gwadar seem to have no space [image by: Zofeen T Ebrahim]</p>

As Gwadar develops in the background, the fisherfolk of Gwadar seem to have no space [image by: Zofeen T Ebrahim]

A stray dog snoozes under a red boat lying next to a rickety teashop at Sur Bandar’s quay, where a few dozen small boats are bobbing in the Arabian Sea. The water is clear and a school of fish is swimming near the shore. It is Friday, and instead of going to sea, the fisherfolk have headed to the nearby mosque at midday.

The harbour front is very quiet compared to the one at Gwadar, some 20 km away, where a Chinese deep sea port is under construction, promising to transform the sleepy town into a global trading hub.

In contrast, at Sur Bandar’s quay the fisherfolk gather and chat over endless cups of a strong, sweet concoction they call “doodh-patti“, or just watch the world go by. I ask some if they have heard of the much-touted China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), but all shake their heads.

CPEC remains an unfamiliar name to these men in Sur Bandar [image by: Zofeen T Ebrahim]

They do know that a port is being built at Gwadar by the Chinese, though they have never seen a Chinese person.

CPEC is a 3,000-km corridor from Kashgar in western China to Gwadar in Pakistan on the Arabian sea. It slices through the Himalayas, disputed territories, plains and deserts to reach the ancient fishing port Gwadar. Huge Chinese funded infrastructure projects, including road and railway networks as well as power plants, are being built along the way. Originally valued at USD 46 billion, the corridor is estimated at USD 62 billion today.

CPEC is part of China’s One Belt one Road (OBOR) initiative, a massive regional trade and diplomatic venture that covers both land and maritime routes linking China to the rest of Asia and to Europe.

See: Interactive map: China-Pakistan Economic Corridor

The port under construction at Gwadar is owned by Pakistan government’s Gwadar Port Authority and operated by state-run Chinese firm China Overseas Port Holding Company (COPHC), which will run it for 40 years. For China, Gwadar is strategically perched near the Arabian/Persian Gulf and close to the Strait of Hormuz, through which an estimated 40% of the world’s oil passes. According to the slick COPHC website, Gwadar is a gateway to the oil rich Middle East, central and South Asia.

Image courtesy: Gwadar Port Authority / COPHC

Fisherfolks’ fears

In Sur Bandar, though, the port development has brought only fear and uncertainty. While there has been no official notification, rumours are rife that it will bring an influx of fisherfolk displaced from Gwadar.

Saeed Mohammad, president of the Anjuman Itehad Mahigiran Sur Bandar (the Sur Bandar fisherfolk organisation), says he has heard from “those in the know” that it will happen but does not know when.

“But there is not enough space for their boats to berth here, it’s not even enough for us,” he exclaims, gesturing to the docking area.

Near the jetty at Sur Bandar [image by Zofeen T Ebrahim]

There are about 5,000 to 7,000 fisherfolk with 1,000 or so boats in Sur Bandar, he says, while the number in Gwadar is easily three times more.

The Gwadar Development Authority is constructing a jetty at Sur Bandar, which the residents suspect is to eventually accommodate the fisherfolk from Gwadar. The fisherfolk say the jetty’s breakwaters have been badly designed and the engineers failed to consult them in the process.

In Gwadar, the fisherfolk don’t want to leave

The fisherfolk in Gwadar have also heard that they will be displaced to Sur. “We have been told several times by security agencies that we should leave the port and fish at Sur,” says Dad Karim.

“We will not leave,” he says, speaking on behalf of his fraternity. “This is the spot where we can fish all the year round; at Sur, there are three months – June July and August – when fisherfolk cannot go to the sea due to high waves.”

Gwadar, he explained, is naturally protected by a hammerhead-shaped peninsula, which forms two almost perfect semi-circular bays on either side.

“It will take us two hours by boat to reach Sur; because our homes are here,” says Naseem Gajar, a fisherman with dark glasses fashionably perched on his head. He has a solution though. “Why don’t they shift us to New Mullah Band where they shifted the first set of fisherfolk some ten years back? There is no dearth of space and they can build us a jetty and a bay.”

Currently the fishing boats and the port co-exist [image by: Shabbir Ahmed]

In 2007, during the first phase of the construction of the port, approximately a hundred families living in a century-old settlement known as Mullah Band, where the port is currently located, were shifted nearer to the provincial chief minister’s house. They were promised alternative land to build homes, plots in a housing project and cash.

“I wouldn’t say we were not compensated, but some of our property has been grabbed by the land mafia,” said former fisherman Saleh Mohammad, who has gone into the cement business.

In addition, they were promised a hospital, a school and proper roads. Ten years later, the New Mullah band still has none of these basic services. The only school is far away and the teacher seldom turns up.

Not that the situation in Gwadar is much better, although they have heard many promises over the last dozen years.

On his visit last month, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had said 1,100 km of roads will be built within the city. “When roads are made, success follows; schools are built, colleges are built, hospitals are built…industries are established and progress and prosperity flourish,” he said.

But at the moment the town – situated in one of Pakistan’s poorest provinces, Balochistan – doesn’t have even basic services. A local journalist, Behram Baloch, says healthcare is rudimentary, and for women it is almost non-existent. For childbirth complications women have to be taken all the way to Turbat or even Karachi, nearly 500 km away. “In Gwadar, you will find just two or three general practitioners; Turbat has over two dozen.” He said that the Gwadar Development Authority Hospital which remained non-functional for eight years suddenly became serviceable in eight days last year after a visit by former army chief General Raheel Sharif.

No voices from Gwadar on CPEC

Elsewhere in Pakistan, not a day passes without someone from the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (N) making a reference to CPEC or how it will bring prosperity to the length and breadth of Pakistan, and in particular to Gwadar. Yet the voices of the indigenous fisherfolk of Gwadar – who make up 80% of the district’s 185,000 inhabitants – have been snuffed out.

Graffiti celebrates CPEC on the walls of Pakistan [image by: Zofeen T Ebrahim]

“In my own country, my own town and on my very own land, I am being welcomed as an outsider by someone who is actually the outsider,” says 65-year-old Dad Karim. Speaking about a recent meeting he had with the Chinese delegation working inside the Gwadar port, he says, “They smiled warmly, shook our hands and asked us how they can help us since we were their guests! How would you feel, tell me?”

A recent report in the Dawn newspaper, showcasing the Chinese plans for CPEC, seems to validate this type of thinking, in which locals are not part of the input on how CPEC will be developed.

Vocational training – will locals benefit?

The Chinese company says the fisherfolk’s livelihoods will not be affected and that once the factories are set up at the port there will be no dearth of work. “They will all be absorbed in activities related to their own occupation be it fish processing, or value addition,” says Dadullah Yousaf, a local working with the COPHC as deputy manager in the planning and development section.

“And those who want to continue with fishing will be provided with technology, nets, boats and engines for them to go out into the sea.” Yousaf says there is speculation that in 20 years there will be two million people employed in Gwadar, both from Gwadar and elsewhere in Pakistan and including 20,000 Chinese. “They will buy fish from the fisherfolk at market rates and eliminate the middlemen so they make maximum profits.”

A haul of fish at the Gwadar harbour [image by: Zofeen T. Ebrahim]

But the fisherfolk do not feel reassured. With more and more skilled workers making their way to Gwadar, locals with fewer skills and no education are likely to be left behind. The fear among local people is palpable. “We do not know anything other than fishing”, is a refrain you hear wherever you go.

Local educationist and poet K.B. Firaq says that it is important to open new livelihood avenues for the local people and to train them in alternatives skills through vocational training if their occupation was going to be lost.

“We are already late. In fact, this should have been a priority even before the construction of the port began back in 2000,” he laments. “Development is associated with economic growth and the social and human cost remains off the state’s radar. The locals were never involved in any port activity because they are not skilled.” The fisherfolk have never been supported in modernising their occupation or their vessels either, he says.

But skills development has been on the minds of the port authorities in the second phase of its construction. They have been planning to set up a vocational training institute in Gwadar for over two years. “The feasibility and design has finally been completed and in the next couple of weeks things will get rolling…There are 17 classrooms there which we plan to renovate and within two months begin the courses in motor winding, crane and fork-lifter maintenance, welding and Chinese language,” was told.

The fisherfolk already earn at least four times more than they could prospectively earn as skilled labourers [image by Zofeen T Ebrahim]

But even if the locals acquire those skills, they will find it difficult to earn as much as they do now. In a week, the fisherfolk can make from PKR 20,000 (USD 188) to PKR 50,000 (USD 471). The wages of an unskilled worker at the port are not more than PKR 20,000 a month, and those of skilled labour, somewhere between PKR 28,000 (USD 264) to PKR 50,000 a month. In effect, their earnings may drop to a quarter of what they make now, or even less.

Locals eyed with suspicion

The heavy security around the port has made the fisherfolk more insecure. The military has trained a 30,000 strong security force to protect infrastructure and Chinese workers along CPEC and particularly in Balochistan province where officials claim insurgent groups are trying to derail the entire scheme. “We are looked upon with suspicion and are asked to carry our national identity cards, a copy of our fishing licence and even a photo of our vessel…as if we are terrorists,” snorts local resident Ilahi Bux.

Bux was badly beaten with by a metal rod last month after his boat crossed an imaginary line and found itself inside what the security people terms the “red zone”, a two-km long water channel next to the port.

“This is our prime fishing ground, where we have been fishing for centuries,” explains Bux. He says it was unfair to be asked to move out. “The livelihood of thousands of small fisherfolk is being completely disregarded for the security of a few Chinese.”

As the port develops, the fisheries will become more constrained [image by: Shabbir Ahmed]

On days when a dignitary visits Gwadar, an increasingly common occurrence, the fisherfolk are banned from going to the sea. “The day we don’t go out to the sea, there is nothing to eat at home,” Bux laments.

“The sea bed that side is ideal for fish and shrimps to spawn, but will be disturbed by the port activity,” says octogenarian resident Khuda Baksh Mallah.

Firaq predicts that once the fisherfolk are relocated, people in connected trades – boat making, ice factory, water, fuel, welding and motor repair shops – will also be affected.

“The problem is if the locals voice their concern, it is considered talking against CPEC, this being a national agenda and sacrosanct,” explains Behram Baloch. In the past people protested and came out on the streets, but all that has stopped. “Both politically and economically, people have been suppressed,” he charges.

Port development – slow to take off

For the nearly 800 strong Chinese and Pakistani work force the port and free zone is a forlorn place to be. The area is cordoned off by about 300 men from the Pakistan Navy stationed inside the port, says Dadullah Yousaf.

When I visit, there are no ships berthing or trucks loading and unloading. Shabbir Ahmed, the private secretary to the chairman of the Gwadar Port Authority, assures me that the “ships come and go” and I just happen to have come on an unusually “quiet” day. He is among the oldest hands at the port, having been employed there since 2004.

Since the first ship berthed back in March 2008, around 200 ships have arrived, bringing anything from wheat to fertiliser, dates to camels. “So far, we have only shipped out containers of sardines from Pakistan,” says Yousaf.

Currently the port is far from busy [image by: Shabbir Ahmed]

Some analysts suspect China is more interested in Gwadar as a potential naval base than a trading route through the Arabian Sea. Pakistani officials disagree. “It stands to reason that there is a naval interest in Gwadar, but there is a strong economic interest too,” said Kaiser Bengali, former head of the Chief Minister’s Policy Reform Unit of the provincial government of Balochistan.

In its first phase, the port was developed jointly by the governments of Pakistan and China at a cost of PKR 17 billion (USD 288 million) and inaugurated in March 2007. Control of the port was then handed over to the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) under a concession agreement for 40 years.

However, PSA was unable to expand or bring business to the port and concessional rights were transferred back to the COPHC in 2013.

At any given time, the port can berth two or three large ships with capacity of 50,000 DWT (dead weight tonnage). By 2045, the port will be able to berth 150 ships and cargo up to 400 million tonnes, and will have multiple logistics services, a huge storage facility and a nine-square kilometre industrial free trade zone (GPFZ). Phase 1 of the GPFZ will be ready by early 2018 – and will include a pipe plant, a cold storage and fish processing area, an e-bike factory and display centres for Chinese goods. The entire zone will be fully operational in 7-8 years and house over 400 companies and Pakistani-Chinese joint ventures.

Back in the town

The town of Gwadar is no longer sleepy, but it isn’t fully awake either. The Fish Harbour boulevard running along the shore has no tourists or sea food restaurants or souvenir shops like other seaside towns; here it is lined with real estate offices. But there is no beeline of investors. People inside these offices sit idle.

Developers and investors remain optimistic about the future and land prices have sky-rocketed here. But many locals say that they sold their land cheaply in the early 2000s when the port was first being built. In this new wave, it is “outsiders” who are now selling property at very high rates. Rafi Group, a real estate giant, made a ten-fold profit last year by selling the land it had acquired 12 years ago.

The town has sprawled out, leading to a spike in real estate prices [image by: Zofeen T Ebrahim]

In fact, other than the local fisherfolk, it seems everybody else is benefiting.

This story was originally published on May 18, 2017.