Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Wales in Cape Verde

With a blog named Natur Cymru there’s a presumption that the subject will have something to do with Wales other than a Welshman such as me happening to visit. Well, São Vicente, or St Vincent, one of the Cape Verde islands, has a tenuous coal connection, enough to warrant a mention.

Mindelo - capital of Saint Vincent 
All of the islands are volcanic in origin and São Vicente has a huge natural harbour formed when the seaward wall of a volcanic crater collapsed into the sea. This, combined with its position as a natural stepping stone across the Atlantic, made it an ideal coal-bunkering station in the heyday of steamships.

At any one time there were 34,000 tonnes of coal from the Rhondda, shipped via Cardiff, ready to refuel coal-hungry ships on their way to or from Europe to South America or Cape Town. At its peak this was the 4th major coal-bunkering station in the world, after Port Said, Singapore and Malta.

The many expats left behind a cricket team, a golf club and several words such as ‘ovatime’ which have crept into creole, the unofficial but spoken language. The official language remains Portuguese, as this was their colony for 500 years or so until 1975.

White sand from the Sahara
A popular place for the British expats to live was Mato Inglese on the slopes of Monte Verde, the ironically named Green Mountain, which it is anything but. The island is desperately short of water and these days Mato Inglese is more or less deserted as its water supply has dried up. The island has a few boreholes yielding water but apart from that the 80,000 residents are dependent upon a desalination plant and supplies from the neighbouring island of Santo Antão. 

In recent years there has been a construction boom fuelled by tourism developments and by emigrés returning to their homeland – emigrés are said to account for 20% of GDP. A sad consequence of the construction boom is the illegal taking of sand from the beaches compromising the breeding efforts of several species of turtle including leatherbacks and loggerheads. Most of the sand is volcanic black but the windward side of the island also has dunes of white sand blown in from the Sahara.

The reason for so many emigrés is the sporadic rain, leading to crop failure, many deaths and tens of thousands of Cape Verdeans escaping to survive; the current population of the 9 islands is half a million. When it’s a matter of killing to eat and survive it’s no surprise that the local wildlife is an obvious target and one of the easiest targets was the baby Cape Verde Shearwater, on the neighbouring uninhabited island of Raso, with each chick yielding an ounce of flesh. According to the 2014 edition of Bradt’s travel guide this starvation time necessity became part of a modern day annual ritual to celebrate the end of famine, with thousands of chicks being slaughtered each October. Fortunately this practice has been outlawed and suitably policed since the last cull in 2008. There is an exceedingly gruesome YouTube film of the 2008 cull which was used as part of the pressure to encourage the government into action.

The islands are 300 to 500 miles to the west of Senegal in the middle of a vast expanse of prime fishing territory and a target for the world’s fishing fleet. The Chinese are said to be there, removing the fins of sharks, but I saw no evidence of this. However, my local guide said that of the 80 corner shops in Mindelo, the capital of São Vicente, 78 were owned by Chinese whom you never see. Maybe because they’re always out fishing? 

For several years the EU has had an agreement to fish these waters and is currently paying Cape Verde €500,000 a year for the rights to catch up to a certain quota; but policing must be impractical over such an expanse with just two(?) patrol boats to cover it. While I was there I saw a ship carrying the Spanish flag offload at least two containers of frozen tuna and marlin.

Second hand information says the local fishermen are suffering from the arrival of factory scale fishing with fish prices rising due to less volume. The story also goes that the presence of the sharks frightens smaller fish to stay closer to the islands for protection – but with their removal, the fish are now much further out to sea, beyond the easy reach of the locals’ small boats.

I can’t verify any of this from what I saw but the sight of fish being landed, prepared on the beach and sold in the market was a colourful spectacle.

On a drive round the island I saw a group of fishermen struggling to haul their boat up onto the sand so I gave a hand. Our taxi driver felt honour bound to help as well and after about ten minutes the job was done. Getting me to pull or push at the same time as the rest was difficult – there was no ‘1-2-3 heave’ but more of a ‘grunt-grunt-grunt’.

When the boat was safe one of the fishermen, with dreadlocks, came across and shook my hand African style. He said thank you and for a moment I thought he was going to give me a fish, but instead he asked for 5 Euros. I am sure he had an opinion about the presence of foreign fishing boats.  

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