Dakar, Senegal - A Senegalese fisherman's collective is suing the owners of a fish meal factory, which they say has polluted their village and destroyed their livelihoods. The lawsuit is the first of its kind and could set a precedent for other communities fighting against fish factories.
Some 40 people assembled outside the courthouse in Thies, Senegal, on Thursday chanting protest slogans and holding banners that called for the closure of the factory in the town of Cayar.
The event marked what they had hoped would be the first day of legal proceedings between the Touba Proteine Marine fish meal factory and the fishermen's Taxawu Cayar Collective. However, the case was postponed to October 6.
"For any outsider who comes to Cayar, all they'd have to do is breathe to understand the difficulties we're facing," said Alle Sy, a member of the fisherman's collective. "People have fallen ill, seriously ill. Our life is too hard now. We know we won't be alone in this fight."
The factory has also significantly decreased the value of their land, he added.
The Touba Proteine Marine factory, formerly known as Barna Senegal, is one of at least a half dozen fish meal factories that operate in the West African country.
Fish meal is dried, ground-up fish that is used as fertilizer or animal feed. According to the environmental group Greenpeace, the Touba factory has dumped increasing and illegal levels of heavy metals into Cayar's land and water.
Critics say fish meal factories have contributed to rising food insecurity throughout the region. They say the factories take fish that would otherwise be consumed locally and export them as fish meal to European and Asian markets, where it's used to feed farm animals.
But Talla Gueye, the communications officer for the Touba factory, said the factory was established at a time when there was a surplus of fish being left on the beach.
He also refuted claims that the factory had polluted Cayar's water.
"The director and many of the workers live next to the factory, and no one has been diagnosed with illnesses due to the impacts of the factory," he said. "The people of Cayar want this factory to stay because it creates a lot of employment."
Demba Bathily is the lawyer for the fisherman's collective. He said the factory has been operating under the guise of bringing jobs and development to Cayar, when in reality, it only brings illness.
"Today, it is social and economic rights that are being violated. It is the right to a clean environment that is being violated," Bathily said. "And we want this to set an example - we want communities to understand that it is possible to stand up and fight for their rights."
Members of Cayar's fishermen collective said they plan to gather even more supporters and return to the courthouse in full force for next month's meeting.