Senegal Gas Deal Drives Locals to Desperation, Prostitution

. The gas rig brought hope to the residents of the seaside town of Saint-Louis when it arrived off the coast.

Residents of Saint-Louis in Senegal found hope when the gas rig was spotted off the coast. The fishing industry has been vital to the community for many years, but it was suffering from climate change and COVID-19. The officials promised that drilling would bring thousands of new jobs and diversify the economy.

Residents say that the rig brought nothing but problems, more unemployment, and poverty. In interviews with The Associated Press, some women said that the rig has forced them to become prostitutes to support their families.

In order to make room for drilling the 15 trillion cubic feet (425 billion cubic meters), of natural gas, discovered in 2015 off the coasts and Mauritania, Senegal, in West Africa, an exclusion zone was created, which prevents fishermen from working there.

The restricted area was initially small but grew to approximately 300 football fields in size, 1.6 square kilometers (0.62 sq miles), with the construction of the platform, which is about six miles (10 km) off shore.

The diattara, which is the word used in Wolof to describe the fertile fishery that lies beneath the platform on the ocean's floor, was soon overtaken by the construction. The catch and the paychecks were decreasing because 90% of the 250,000 residents depended on fishing as a source of income. The boxes of fish were reduced to small buckets and then disappeared.

Saint-Louis has been a center of fishing in Senegal for centuries. However, it has suffered many problems over the last decade. Climate change caused sea erosion, which washed homes away. This forced people to move. The trawlers of many illegal foreign countries, which numbered in the thousands, ate up huge amounts of fish and the local fishermen, who were using small wooden boats, couldn't compete. The COVID-19 epidemic halted the sale of their tiny catches.

Locals, officials, and advocates all agree that the rig was the last straw, pushing Saint-Louis to the brink. Benefits promised by the initial energy discovery off the coast are yet to materialize. The liquified gas deal, planned by a joint venture between global oil and gas giants BP, Kosmos Energy, and Senegal's and Mauritania’s state-owned companies has not yet begun.

The Walton Family Foundation provided funding for this story. All content is the sole responsibility of The AP.

In the past, women have made a living by processing fish while men caught it. Sons, husbands, and fathers spent weeks at sea. Families were unable to feed their children and pay rent because of the restrictions. They asked neighbors for leftovers. Some were evicted.

Officials in Senegal and gas companies tell people to be patient as the benefits and jobs from the gas agreement will manifest. Locals, however, claim that they have been deprived of their livelihoods with no alternative. This has led some women into prostitution. It's legal in Senegal since the 1950s, but it still causes shame to those who violate cultural and religious standards.

Prostitution is more convenient and reliable for them than working at a restaurant or shop, which pays less and can be difficult to find.

The AP was given the stories of four women who began having sex for money with men since the rig arrived in town. They were asked to remain anonymous because they felt ashamed. They have hidden it from husbands and their families. They claim to know others who are like them.

They explain that the money is a loan from their friends and family. The women know that prostitution is legal, but refuse to register with Senegalese authorities. This would require a health check and an official ID.

They refuse to legitimize the work that they claim was forced on them.

One family of seven hit bottom when they were forced to move. The father, 45-year-old Fisherman, lost his work. The five children aged 2-11 were not fed.

It wasn't enough. She tried other jobs and washed clothes, but it didn't work. She had to move in with family and feed her children each morning before they went to school.

She told the AP that she was compelled to prostitution in order to make money. Her shoulders were hunched, and her voice was tired. This she said from a hotel where her husband and friends would not be able see her.

She said, "It's difficult when we spend the money and my children eat food that I cook with the money."

In 2015, the family and other residents of Saint-Louis were informed about the gas discovery soon after it was made public. The family and others in Saint-Louis learned of the gas discovery shortly after it was announced in 2015.

According to gas companies, the Greater Tortue Ahmeyim Project, or the overall agreement, will produce around 2.3 millions tons (2.08million metric tons) a year of liquified gas, which is enough to sustain production for over 20 years. According to a report from Environmental Action Germany, an environmental and human-rights organization based in Germany, the total cost of the first and second phase is almost $5 billion. Energy companies have said that phase one is a multi-billion dollar investment but did not specify the amount.

The companies have stated that the first phase should be completed by the end this year. Gas production will then begin.

Residents of Saint-Louis claim that they were warned as early as 2018 that they would lose their access to certain fishing waters. By 2020, installation of the breakwater area (where the platform is located) began.

BP, the project's operator and investor in Senegal & Mauritania, owns nearly 60%. The project will create thousands of new jobs in a country where 30% of the 17 million residents are without electricity.

Email was sent to BP and Kosmos officials by the AP asking for comments on this story. The AP asked for comments on the companies' efforts at mitigating the effects of lost revenue in the community and their response to women who claim they have turned to prostitution.

Thomas Golembeski, spokesman for Kosmos, said in a statement released to the AP that Kosmos has worked to establish relationships with local communities and its employees regularly visit Saint-Louis to inform residents about operations and to act on their feedback. Golembeski said the project would provide low-cost gas and increase access to reliable and affordable energy. He also mentioned access to a microfinance fund set up for the fishing community.

Other questions were referred to BP as the operator of the project.

BP responded to the AP with prepared statements. BP stated that it was working with fishing communities in Senegal, Mauritania to improve the economy and local products by sourcing locally and developing the workforce. According to BP, more than 3,000 new jobs have been created in Senegal & Mauritania in 350 local businesses. BP also cited the renovation of the maternity unit in the Saint-Louis Hospital and the help it provided to 1,000 patients through a mobile clinic that operated in remote areas.

Local officials, residents and advocates say that they haven't found many jobs or options to counter the economic losses.

BP didn't respond to any follow-up queries. Neither BP or Kosmos responded to the AP's question about women who claim they were driven into prostitution.

Locals use only one word to describe the difficulties caused by the gas project: Fuel. Fuel is all that they see as wrong with the community.

The rig is visible in the distance, off the coast. The platform is easy to see on a sunny day. At night, the lights resemble the lights of a cruiser docked off-shore. Saint-Louis still smells of fish, as small wooden boats called pirogues line the shores. Horse-drawn carts transport the diminishing catch into town.

Fishermen who have seen the storms of the past and the changes in the industry, say that the gas deal is a problem on a whole new scale. This is largely due to the exclusion zones. The exclusion zone is too large for smaller boats, which leads to overcrowding and a depletion of fish stocks.

Aminou Kane is the vice-president of the Association of Fishermen Anglers of Saint-Louis.

He said that since the area has become inaccessible, fishermen are leaving, risking life migrating into Europe or fishing illegally on the border in Mauritania, where they could be arrested.

Kane, 46 is in the final group. He used to make more than $1,000 per week fishing in Senegal, but now he makes about half of that amount fishing across the border.

She said that her husband also tried to fish in Mauritanian water. He left to work in Mauritanian waters a year ago, and his wife has not heard from him.

Despite the money they make from prostitution, women who spoke with the AP say that despite the income, many struggle to feed and house their families. Some parents have had to pull their children out of private schools because they couldn't afford the tuition.

Women can earn up to $40 per client. The women work in hotels and men's houses when their wives are away. Most clients are wealthy Senegalese businessmen and government officials.

Local contacts are used to find clients. Some of the men were family friends who the women had initially approached for money or loans. They claim that the men insisted on sex as a condition of the money. Some men were paying well initially, but now they are not.

Other women are able to find prostitutes through established networks of men.

An anonymous woman told the AP that she has been operating a business connecting men to prostitutes in Saint-Louis for seven years. She works under the name Coumbista to keep her family's identity secret. She said that her clientele has dropped in recent years due to the loss of income for young fishermen as a result of the gas project.

She said that the number of women looking for sex jobs increased at the same time, doubling her list. She is aware of 30 women who began sexwork because of financial problems related to gas and general poverty. She said that most women perform the work in secret.

She is a 29-year old woman who came to her last year for help after her husband quit fishing. Since then, she has sneaked out of their house at least three times per week after they have put their children to sleep. She tells him she is going to visit friends or family.

She told the AP that she was always worried about being seen by those who knew her. The AP spoke to her in the backseat as she turned onto a quiet street downtown. She pointed at a nondescript hotel, one of the two hotels she had sex in since she began. I never imagined that one day, I would be doing it.

In Saint-Louis, the local government acknowledges that illegal prostitution has increased in recent years. Officials do not attribute the increase directly to the energy agreement, but rather to economic problems in general.

Lamine Ndiaye is the deputy of the Saint-Louis Mayor. She said that poverty, in general, forces women to become prostitutes.

He said that the grievances of the people about the rig were exaggerated and the community needed to be patient, as it would take some time before they could see any dividends.

According to environmental experts, fossil fuel extraction is particularly harmful for communities whose economies are dependent on natural resources.

Dr. Aliou Ba of Greenpeace Africa, a Senegalese citizen and head of the oceans campaign, said: 'If land or sea on which farmers or fishermen rely is poisoned, their jobs, access to food, and communities can be ruined.' This has occurred in many African countries, including the Niger Delta. Oil and gas contaminated the water and killed fish, ruining the way of life for many fishermen.

He said that the process was already underway in Saint-Louis and that the community is already suffering. 'If authorities allow this to spread along our coastline, hundreds of thousand of jobs in the fisheries industry will be put at risk and millions of people who depend on the fish as a source of protein in this area will be in danger.'

The companies warned that Saint-Louis could face problems shortly after the signing of the gas agreement. In a 2019 assessment of the environmental and social impacts of BP's and its partners' actions, BP said that there were 'a great deal of uncertainties' about what would happen to Saint-Louis fishermen if they lost access to fishing grounds. The report said that the impact was low but still considered to be significant.

BP stated that to mitigate the economic impact, gas companies are evaluating possible options for a sustainable artificial coral project in Senegal. They also support 47 national apprentice technicians in a multi-year training program, in preparation for working offshore, and creating jobs and opportunities in the supply chain, BP added.

BP announced that the technicians will receive 16 months of university-level training in Scotland at Glasgow Caledonian University and gain internationally recognized qualifications.

BP has not responded to any questions regarding whether or not it stands by its initial risk assessment.

Papa Samba Ba of the Senegal Gas and Energy Ministry, who is in charge of hydrocarbons, says that by 2035, half of all gas project proceeds will be allocated to local companies, jobs and services.

The first phase of the project is expected to invest 8.5% of gas in Senegal. However, the local market has not been set up and it could take two years for the market to become operational.

Industry experts are also concerned that Senegal will not have enough skilled workers despite its training, because it does not have a long history of oil and natural gas drilling.

The fossil liquefied natural gas industry provides very few direct jobs. These are often given to outside experts, not locals. This is according to Andy Gheorghiu a climate consultant, co-founder and German-based environmental organization, Climate Alliance against LNG.

Experts point out scenarios that have occurred in the U.S. Locals claim that in the Louisiana fishing village Cameron, where gas export terminals are operated, the people promised jobs have not been fulfilled and the fisherman from the community have been displaced.

James Hiatt is the director of For a Better Bayou and lives near Cameron Parish. He also works for an environmental group. He said that the gas companies had promised a new fishing pier, marina and restaurant, but none have been built.

The AP emailed Venture Global - the operator of the gas terminal that residents claim made promises several times, but did not receive a response.

According to environmental watchdogs, it makes more sense to invest into renewable energy. According to Climate Action Tracker (an independent project that tracks climate action by governments), Senegal can create five times more jobs in this sector each year until 2030 than in the fossil-fuel industry.

Most people don't want gas companies to leave, despite all the pain they attribute to it. They want the situation to improve.

One woman of 40 years old wiped away her tears as she said, "When I think about my former life, and my current life, it's difficult."

She said that she was forced to turn to prostitution after her husband moved out of the city last year and stopped contact. She has sent two of her three children to public school because the teachers are often absent.

She said, "I hope someone will help me get out of this mess." "A situation that no one would want to be in."