As evening falls over Sierra Leone’s Banana Island archipelago, thousands of bats stream from their beachside roosts and circle over the jungle village of Dublin.
Below them a struggle is playing out over an unexpected commodity: the lowly sea cucumber — a fleshy, sausage-shaped creature that scavenges for food on the seabed.
It is a struggle that is familiar to many in the West African country.
Sierra Leone’s resources — diamonds, gold, fish and more recently iron ore — have been extracted and exported in great quantities throughout its history, yet the country remains one of the poorest in the world.
While the Banana Islanders have no use for sea cucumbers, in China they are prized for their medicinal properties and as a natural aphrodisiac.
Growing demand — estimated at about 10,000 tonnes per year — has depleted stocks around the world, leading traders to search ever further afield for new harvesting grounds.
Locals say when the first Chinese traders arrived in Sierra Leone four years ago to harvest the island’s little known, red-spined variety of Stichopus sea cucumbers, they called themselves investors.
When prices skyrocketed, the islanders hoped the windfall would both make them wealthy and bring development to the village.
Moses Taylor, a former village chief known locally as Lord Moe, recalls the visitors’ promises with bitterness.
“They said they would build water pumps in the street, they said they would build street lights,” he said, sprawled in a flower bed smoking cheap cigarettes. “They said they would build community centers, but they did nothing for us.”
“They just used us and dumped us like rubbish,” said Abu Bakar Kanu, a cucumber diver smoking marijuana with friends down the street.
The locals say after it became clear the development promises were not likely to be met, they banned diving with the oxygen tanks and air-compressors that they themselves cannot afford, and called on all cucumber buyers to pay 200,000 Leones (US$46) to the chief before they could operate.
Local cucumber dealer Reginald McCarthy said these rules have been ignored.
“Now they come from Kent with boats and oxygen,” he said. “You can’t stop them.”
Chinese traders running their export businesses out of Tombo village on the mainland a few kilometers away did not want to talk to Reuters about the locals’ complaints. However, Mohamed Bangura, who works for one exporter who asked to be identified only as Cham Jr, denied they were breaking any laws.
Cham’s father was one of the first to export sea cucumbers from the Banana Islands, and is also one of those accused by the islanders of reneging on their promises.
Bangura acknowledged that the villagers’ expectations had not been met, but contended the region was still better off. He said his company had supplied a generator to Tombo Village, for example.
“The islanders are the main beneficiaries of our trade,” he said.
However, without access to international markets and lacking the capital to start sea cucumber trading operations of their own, the locals say they feel powerless.
Sea cucumber diving is a lucrative option compared to the meager earnings offered by a fishing industry hard hit by illegal and unregulated foreign trawlers.
Abu Bakar, who is in his 20s, has been diving since the beginning of the cucumber windfall. Selling his catch to Chinese buyers enabled him to invest in land on the coast to the south of the capital, Freetown.