Migingo's big fish fight

David McGuffin on the shrinking waterhole that is Africa's Lake Victoria.
The disputed island of Migingo in the middle of Lake Victoria, on the border between Kenya and Uganda. (David McGuffin/CBC)

It takes two hours by fishing boat to reach Migingo Island in the middle of Lake Victoria.

And when you finally see it, jutting out of the lake's calm waters — half a hectare of rock covered in tin shacks — you wonder what all the fuss is about.

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Yet there is a lot of fuss over who owns this island, which sits right on the Kenya-Uganda border.

In March this year, a meeting between Uganda's deputy prime minister and the Kenyan foreign minister to discuss the island quickly descended into a shoving match.

Both countries have threatened to go to war over it. Violence breaks out here regularly.

Kenyan fisherman Paul Odhiambo sorts through his catch of Nile perch in the bottom of his boat moored along Migingo's rocky shore. His anger rises quickly when thinking of Uganda.

"They just come with tear gas. And spraying us with the tear gas," he says. "So these people are not human. Just look at them. They are carrying guns. Why? Why carrying guns at this small place."

'Like pirates'

It is indeed a small place, with a lot of people, 800 or so, mostly Kenyan and Ugandan fishermen, and their camp followers — shopkeepers and prostitutes.

Kenyan fishermen off Migingo survey their meagre catch. (David McGuffin/CBC_

They are all crammed into a space that is just a few thousand square metres, not much bigger than some suburban Canadian house lots.

The most recent addition to the mix is Ugandan paramilitary police.

They laid claim to the island by force earlier this year and maintain a tin-shack police station with a half dozen officers who carry semi-automatic assault rifles.

Ugandan fisherman such as Paul Boringo say lawlessness here forced Uganda to act.

"There are fewer Ugandans than Kenyans here," he says, "When they get us in the water, they overpower us, they beat us up, they take our things. They are like pirates."

The place with fish

Kenya has no such official presence even though the island is much closer to its shores and most of the people on Migingo are Kenyan.

For Migingo itself isn't the prize. What this fight is really about is the fishery that lies off its shores.

Fishermen like Uganda's Boringo and Kenya's Odhiambo began coming here about five years ago when the fisheries closer to shore — and their home villages — started to fail.

Lake Victoria's main fish export, Nile perch, are flown to Europe and earn Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda hundreds of millions of dollars in much needed foreign currency.

The catch is down by as much as two-thirds in other places on the lake, but Migingo is still fairly reliable.

"It is the place that's got fish, says Kenyan Felix Ouma, who weighs and buys the catches brought to the island. "If you go elsewhere, there's not as much fish as Migingo."

Temperatures rising

But even that is changing. As Ouma lifts a bunch of Nile perch onto his scales, he points out that five years ago there were only a handful of boats working these waters. Now there are hundreds and the impact of overfishing is beginning to show. 

"Now it is small, it is small," he says. "We are getting small fish as compared to the other times. Because during the old days we were getting a lot of fish."

Overfishing is one culprit, which some fishermen blame on corrupt fisheries officers.

"They are the people who are getting money, bribes from the poor fishermen and they continue encouraging bad fishing, making the decline of fish," says Odhiambo for one.

But some authorities feel the real problem with Lake Victoria's fish populations has its roots in the environment and climate change.

Some of the ladies of Migingo taking in the afternoon sun. (David McGuffin/CBC)

Rising African temperatures have coincided with a dramatic drop in the lake level. Standing on his boat, Adhiambo points to landmarks on the island where the water level used to be, about two metres higher.

Fish for tomorrow

The change in Lake Victoria is important because some 30 million people rely on it for their livelihood.

Though judging from Migingo's second biggest business, prostitution, it's a livelihood with fewer and fewer returns.

Remarkably for such a small place, there are three brothels on Migingo. During the day, the women pick their way uneasily along the island's rocky paths in high heels and shade themselves under umbrellas while primping each other's hair.

Doreen is Ugandan. She says she isn't a prostitute but that most of the other women on the island are.

"There is a lot of fighting on this island," she says. "The Kenyan and Ugandan prostitutes are always fighting over men. The men are fighting for women and everyone has sex without protection."

That is an apt analogy as well for the overall situation here, which is really more than just a local border dispute.

Experts such as Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environment Program, say the situation around Migingo points to a more worrisome problem.

"There is not an inevitability to conflict," he says from his office in Nairobi. "But what we have to acknowledge is that, in an era with more and more people and an ever higher consumption footprint, the scarcity of natural resources can amplify conflict."

For now, Kenya and Uganda have agreed to let an independent tribunal settle the dispute over Migingo.

But what about the next Migingo? Or the one after that? Or the fact that the people who suffer here aren't the ones causing the environmental threat to this lake.

Paul Odhiambho shakes his head when he thinks of the future.

"We are not in a position of fighting," he says, looking up from his boat at Migingo. "In this world today, we need to dialogue and sort out our differences, not coming with guns.

"We as fishermen, we know the need of fishing tomorrow."