Written by Pa Nderry M’Bai
The Director General of The Gambia Tourism Development Board Abubacarr Camara has clarified that he was not the DG of the GTDB when the “Old Cycle Track” bird watching site land was allocated to a Malaysian company. He also says some portion of the land was allocated to the Malaysian company, not a Chinese company as it was widely reported by The Gambian local press.
“Certainly, as I mentioned to the honorable minister, actually prior to me taking up office, the land was already allocated. However, going through the files, it appears as it has gone through the normal process of land allocation in the TDA,” Mr. Camara told me in a phone interview on Monday.
“As I said, perhaps the DG that was there may not know the importance of that place as a bird watching site or so, that is why I told the bird watchers that next time, anytime that they feel that certain areas are key for bird watching, they should identify it and mention it to the authorities so that it can even be gazetted so that nobody can touch it. And again, not the whole area has been given, the only area that they are talking about is not the only that has been given. I have checked the sketch plan, but it doesn’t mean that every area in that place was given out,” he added.
Camara’s statement followed a protest march that was organized by 19 Gambian pro-environmental organizations, including Gambia’s bird watchers’ association, condemning the government’s move to allocate the land to Malaysian company. The Gambian government has been accused of being hostile to endangered species, a charge the government vehemently denied.
Gambian activists have been trafficking claims that the land in question was sold to a Chinese investor, but Camara disagrees.
“It was never sold; it was allocated through the normal land allocation processes done by The Gambia tourism board. It was never sold. It was allocated to some Malaysian company, not actually sold to Chinese, as been reported by many people. It is not a Chinese company; it is a Malaysian company,” the GTB boss stated.
When asked as to how much money was involved in the said the land to be allocated to the Malaysian company, Camara has asked to be given time to check his records.
“I cannot actually remember the figure, but it should not be more than $300,000 dollars. It is not more than that. I cannot find out but unless I get hold of the file, I will check,” he said.
Camara also says he is not aware of any kickback being given for the allocation of the said land.
“As far as I know, as I told you, I took over office when the place has already been allocated and I am quite certain, I have not seen anywhere even the documents to say that a kickback was given to anyone,” he said.
Camara says there wasn’t anything dubious about the land allocation. He says all the relevant procedures were followed by his ministry. He added that if the land was gazetted his ministry wouldn’t be able to allocate it to a foreign investor.
“We made some research to find out whether it was actually gazetted as a cycle, but there is nowhere we found that the place is gazette and also it is mentioned in our tourism master plan as such. So, I wonder where they get those things from,” he said while referring to the environmentalists have been taking issues with his ministry.
“And also, I had a meeting with the bird watchers association and they mentioned, they also have concerns about the place, I told them don’t always assume that everybody that comes to that office, know where the bird watching sites are. So, it is important that you make mention to the authorities your interest, where the birders have interest in tourism development area because the TDA is specially allocated for tourism development and hotel development is key. So, they really understood, and they said going forward they will come and identify areas in the tourism development area that they feel they should be reserved for birders,” he added.
According to Camara, the land was allocated to the Malaysian company by the past administration.
“To the best of my knowledge, the people that came to start a work because what happened is when a land is allocated to someone, there is a time frame and there are conditions. So, it appears that those investors were not coming, they were not forthcoming because when we find out from them, they said it is because of COVID, one of the investors or the key guy has contracted COVID-19 virus, so, because of that they could not come. We told them that well we have conditions for land allocation and as per your letter that was given to you by the previous administration, there are conditions for you to start work and also complete at specific time, so because you are not coming, we are just sending you a letter of warning to say that well time is going. I am sure that was how they sent a Chinese company to come and start doing a fence, not even to start work. But it is just the Chinese company that is doing the fencing, not that they even part of the company that actually owned the land, no, because the Chinese people that came to the office said they have been assigned by this Malaysian company to come and fence the place for them,” he remarked.
Camara says the Malaysian company has been asked to suspend work on the site pending further evaluation from the National Environment Agency (NDEA). He said the company wasn’t cleared to start construction work. He added that the company was merely trying to fence the property.
“As we speak now, the construction work is not going on now, because our level of the technical department, which is the public development department had warned the guy that, perhaps the areas that he, the total areas that he is supposed to develop should be looked at first because the thing is the plan that was given to them was just a sketch plan, it was subject to a survey in order to be able to do the proper dimension of the place. So, the guy has been asked to wait for the survey report so that he would know the exact size of the land,” he said.
“It is one of the requirements. We will never allow them to start work without NEA giving them that report and the approval. What they have now is just a provisional allocation and there are so many conditions in that provisional allocation,” he added.
Camara said the Chinese company workers who have been contracted to fence the property have been subjected to insults and harassment by other people prior to the suspension of their work.
Camara said he was not aware of rice fields being damaged on site.
“I am not aware that some rices were damaged. I think what they were doing is the perimeter fence. I don’t think if there is any rice that is damaged, well it would not be much because it is just the perimeter fence, the fence that they are trying to do, perimeter fence that they are trying to do, not even any work or hotel development activity has started there,” he remarked.