By SAM MEDNICK
SAINT-LOUIS, Senegal (AP) — For years, residents of the small fishing town of Saint-Louis in Senegal have been struggling. Climate change, foreign industrial trawlers and the COVID-19 pandemic have made it hard to earn a living on the water.
When officials announced a new gas project off the coast in 2015, the community was hopeful it would bring new opportunities. Instead, many locals say, the gas has only brought a wave of problems and pushed people to desperation. That includes forcing some women to turn to prostitution to support their families, they told The Associated Press in interviews.
The deal — planned by a partnership among global gas and oil giants BP and Kosmos Energy and Senegal and Mauritania’s state-owned oil companies — is expected to produce around 2.3 million tons (2.08 million metric tons) of liquified natural gas a year, enough to support production for more than 20 years, according to the gas companies.
The government and the companies say they’re engaging with the fishing communities in Senegal and Mauritania and trying to benefit the wider economy by locally sourcing products, developing the workforce and supporting sustainable development.
But locals say so far they haven’t seen the benefits.
Here are some takeaways from the AP’s report.
WHY DO WOMEN SAY THEY’RE NOW TURNING TO PROSTITUTION IN SAINT-LOUIS?
Four women shared their stories with The Associated Press. They said they started working as prostitutes because their husbands, all fishermen, could no longer make a living after the gas deal came to town and the rig restricted access to fertile fishing areas. The women all said they knew of several other women in the same position.
The women spoke on condition of anonymity because their families don’t know what they do. Prostitution is legal in Senegal, but the women don’t want to register, citing cultural shame.
For them, prostitution is faster and more reliable than working in a shop or restaurant — jobs that don’t pay well and can be hard to find.
The women explain the influx of cash as loans from friends and relatives. They know prostitution is legal, but they won’t register with Senegalese officials. That would mean a health screening and an official ID to carry with them.
They’re unwilling to legitimize work they say has been forced upon them.
For one family of seven, hitting bottom came when they were evicted. The father, a 45-year-old fisherman, lost his job. There wasn’t enough food to feed the five children, ages 2 to 11.
“I’m obliged to find money through prostitution,” she told the AP, her shoulders hunched and voice weary in a hotel room where she wouldn’t be seen by her husband or friends.
WHAT IS THE GENERAL SITUATION IN SAINT-LOUIS?
Saint-Louis is Senegal’s historic center for fishing, with 90% of the town’s 250,000 people relying on fishing for income.
But the town has faced many troubles over the past decade. Sea erosion from climate change washed away homes, forcing moves. Thousands of foreign industrial trawlers, many of them illegal, snapped up vast amounts of fish and local men in small wooden boats couldn’t compete. The COVID-19 pandemic shut down market sales of the tiny hauls they could manage.
The rig was the final straw for Saint-Louis, pushing it to the brink of economic disaster, according to locals, officials and advocates.
Traditionally, many women make a living processing fish, while the men catch it; sons, husbands and fathers spend weeks at sea. But with the restrictions, families couldn’t feed their children or pay rent.
In some cases, families had to pull their children out of school or switch them from private to public schools where the teachers don’t show up for days.
WHAT ARE THE GAS COMPANIES SAYING?
BP and Kosmos energy say they’re working with the fishing communities in Senegal and Mauritania.
More than 3,000 jobs in some 350 local companies have been generated in Senegal and Mauritania, according to BP. The company also cited its work to renovate the maternity unit at the Saint-Louis hospital and its help of 1,000 patients with a mobile clinic operating in remote areas.
In a statement to the AP, Kosmos spokesman Thomas Golembeski said the project will provide a source of low-cost natural gas and expand access to reliable, affordable and cleaner energy. He also cited access to a micro-finance credit fund established for the fishing community.
BP and Kosmos did not respond to questions about the women turning to prostitution. They also didn’t respond to questions about whether they stood by their initial risk assessment of the project, which acknowledged in a 2019 environmental and social impact assessment there were “a lot of uncertainties around the consequences for Saint-Louis fisherman” but still considered the intensity of the impact to be low.
WHAT IS THE GOVERNMENT SAYING?
The local government said people’s concerns about rig are overblown and the community needs to be patient, at least until after production, which is expected to start by the end of this year.
Papa Samba Ba, director of hydrocarbons for Senegal’s gas and energy ministry, said the objective is by 2035 half of all gas projects will go to local jobs, companies and services.
Local officials have acknowledged an increase in prostitution in Saint-Louis, but they attribute it to economic woes and widespread poverty in general, not directly to the gas project.