THE sea cucumber—a warty, sausage-shaped creature that feeds on the ocean floor—can sell for half its weight in silver in the markets of Guangzhou in southern China. This fleshy sea-slug is prized as a delicacy, a traditional medicine reputedly capable of curing joint pain and fatigue, and a natural aphrodisiac. As overexploitation has depleted stocks throughout Asia, merchants have sought the creature further afield. Six years ago, two Chinese traders discovered that the waters around Sierra Leone’s Banana Island were teeming with sea cucumbers; islanders have been diving for them ever since.
The leathery echinoderms only emerge from their hiding-places in the dark. So when night falls, Emmanuel Pratt slides out to sea in his brightly-painted canoe. Wearing a wetsuit and flippers, he takes a last drag of his cigarette before pulling a mask down over his face, and slipping into the dark water. Moments later the beam of his waterproof torch appears a dozen feet down as he searches for his new livelihood.
When the Chinese traders, known to the islanders only as Mr Cham and Mr Lee, first turned up, locals say they promised to use some of the profits from the sea-cucumber trade to boost the islanders’ quality of life. A motorboat, a community centre, solar panels and water pumps were promised in exchange for being allowed to operate there. Six years on, a group of young men sit on empty petrol cans in the rundown village of Dublin, passing a spliff around in the pitch dark. “They delivered nothing,” says another diver. “The traders made a lot of money and we didn’t get any of it.”
Similar words have echoed throughout Sierra Leonean history. For centuries foreigners have come to buy its resources—gold, diamonds, bauxite—but the country remains one of the world’s poorest, with a GDP per head of less than $800 a year. Yet despite the old complaint, most of the island’s young men are grateful that the Chinese came. They still get paid about $1 per cucumber.
“I did not have any work before, I had no plans, but now I have a trade. I built my house with the sea-cucumber money,” says Mr Pratt. He proudly gestures to his cement house. Painted lime green, it stands out against the other ramshackle clapboard structures. Imagine how much more could be built if the islanders got a grip on their own resources.