In the quarrel over building a gleaming “new Dubai” on two small islands off Pakistan’s Arabian Sea coast, the voices of the fishermen who have plied these waters for centuries often go unheard.
Steering his boat out of the Jamote jetty in the village of Ebrahim Haideri, 25-year-old fisherman Shakil said the islands around which he catches fish, crab and shrimp are now patrolled by armed guards.
“We have been fishing in these waters for centuries,” said Shakil, who did not want to give his full name. But when he tried to go near the island of Dingi recently he was apprehended by military guards and ordered to get into the “murgha” stress position, he said.
“If we did not do it they said they would hit us with batons,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
A month ago, the twin islands of Bundal and Dingi at the mouth of Korangi Creek in the port city of Karachi in Pakistan’s Sindh province were taken over by the federal government through an overnight presidential ordinance.
With an investment of about $50 billion, the government aims to develop a city that will “surpass Dubai” and create 150,000 jobs, Sindh Governor Imran Ismail said at a news conference in the capital Islamabad earlier this month.
But fisherfolk say the development on the islands – spread over 12,000 acres (49 square kms) – could destroy their livelihoods and that they have not been consulted.
“We continue to remain invisible to both the (Sindh and federal) governments,” Mohammad Ali Shah, founder of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF) that aims to protect the rights of fishermen and fishing communities, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Nasir Hussain Shah, the Sindh government’s information minister, rejected the central government’s takeover of the islands and said Islamabad had not shared its development plans. Pakistan’s Minister for Maritime Affairs, Ali Haider Zaidi, did not respond to a request for comment.
The PFF is leading a protest campaign against the island development, arguing the fishermen are “the rightful owners” of the territory. It has called upon the provincial government to protect the rights of Sindh’s fishermen.
“Do not think of these islands as mere tracts of land,” said Shah. “We are inextricably linked to them by culture, custom and heritage.”
He said thousands of fisherfolk and their families gather for traditional festivals on these islands every year.
But more importantly, the fishing communities are concerned about the impact of construction – and the diversion and pollution of water – on the islands’ fragile ecosystem.
“After the creeks dry up, the mangroves will die. This, in turn, will destroy the habitat of many marine creatures which is a source of our livelihood,” Shah said.
Fishing provides employment to 600,000 people in Sindh province, according to Sindh Fisheries Department’s director, Aslam Jarwar.
“Seventy-one percent of Pakistan’s fish comes from the province through the Arabian Sea, estuaries, canals and inland lakes,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The coastal waters are the habitat for 40 species of fish and shellfish and 15 species of shrimp, which make up 60% of Pakistan’s fisheries exports.
For fisherman Kamal Shah, the development will spell disaster: “They might as well kill us; we exist because of these islands, if they occupy them, it will be a death blow to our livelihoods,” he said.
Although no one lives permanently on the islands, lawyer Shuhab Usto said the fisherfolk had customary rights to use the land. He said it is clear the islands have been used as “transit stations” and “easement” by the fishermen for centuries.
“Suddenly dislodging them and depriving them of their right to earn a living is not legally tenable,” as it contravenes Articles 9 and 18 of Pakistan’s constitution, he said.
And the takeover of the islands has caused legal confusion for the fisherfolk, he said.
“Which high court do the complainants (fishermen) take their petition to? If the islands are the federal government’s property, these are beyond the territorial jurisdiction of the Sindh High Court,” he said, while the high court in Islamabad would not have jurisdiction over the territory.
The government has promised employment for the fisherfolk once construction work gets started although no details have been shared. Kamal Shah is sceptical.
“In the last over two decades the fishermen had been ousted from three prime fishing spots. Not only that, no villager has been employed either,” Kamal Shah said, adding that not only have fish stocks dwindled, but the areas in which the fishermen can cast their nets has shrunk due to development.
“Our people … used to fish where you now see the Marina Club and that string of restaurants,” he said, pointing in the direction of the private club reserved for the wealthy to moor their boats. “We are shooed away from there,” he said.
A nearby Pakistan Air Force base and the Port Qasim Authority, controlled by the Ministry of Maritime Affairs, are high security zones and security patrols prevent fishermen from entering the surrounding waters.
“The same will happen when developers come on these islands; we will be told we are trespassing,” said Shah.
The father of eight does not want his children to join his profession. “All my kids are studying,” he said with pride. “It is best they keep away from this.”
It is not the first time the islands have been eyed for development. In 2006, the government signed the multi-billion-dollar Diamond Bar City project with a Dubai-based real estate firm to develop the islands.
And in 2013, Pakistani real estate tycoon Malik Riaz signed an agreement with a U.S. investor to build the “world’s tallest building” on the island city. Nothing materialised from either deal.
Mohammad Ali Shah, the PFF’s leader, said he was hopeful the latest development plans would also be quashed.
“We want the governments, for once and for all, to make a policy that these islands will remain their natural self,” he said.