After an emergency law was passed to ban illegal fishing and trawling in the Arabian Sea, protests erupted in the port city of Gwadar in Pakistan’s Balochistan province. This ban has negatively affected the livelihoods of indigenous Baloch fisherfolk and sparked a wave of unrest.
Fishing trawlers from abroad and from other parts of Pakistan had been depleting the Gwadar coastline of its marine resources. These large trawlers, which used sophisticated equipment and technology to catch fish in deep waters, were cutting into the income of local fisherfolk in Gwadar, Pasni, Awaran, Khuzdar, and neighboring areas, who relied on basic nets to catch fish.
Following the passage of this fishing ban, indigenous communities are demanding their basic rights, including access to fishing in their own territorial waters, security of tenure for their settlements, better integration into the local job market, and improvement of educational and health facilities.
Baloch fishing communities also requested that the authorities secure their access to the sea and that traditional harbor routes be safeguarded from foreign companies and investors who could rob them of their livelihoods.
Since 2015, Gwadar has been the main port and linchpin of Beijing’s flagship China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is one of six corridors within China’s global mega-connectivity project, known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The CPEC is the only corridor currently close to completion and marks a key starting point for this grand venture, which aims to create an roadways linking China’s Xinjiang province to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea. CPEC and Gwadar port are constantly in the news and constitute an important part of the Belt and Road Initiative.
However, given the pushback from local communities dealing with resource appropriation, the tangible benefits of the CPEC remain elusive. Although Gwadar is second only to Karachi, the former has not yet become a bustling port city.
A spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mao Ning, downplayed reports of mass protests in Gwadar. She tried to explain to the media that the protests’ organizers had publicly stated that the demonstrations were not targeting China or the CPEC.
Although the protests might appear to be small enough to be easily contained, these demonstrations still reflect negatively on Gwadar’s port and Chinese and Pakistani policy. Both China and Pakistani will need to carefully manage this situation.
Gwadar is a small town with a population of around 200,000 people. Approximately 100,000 of Gwadar’s residents organized sit-ins and called for an end to the trawlers’ illegal fishing and "unnecessary" checkpoints, and blamed the government for turning a blind eye. Although an agreement had been reached last year after negotiations with the local population, that agreement has yet to be implemented.
Led by Maulana Hidayat ur Rehman, protestors have organized to form the Gwadar Rights Movement (GRM). This non-political civil rights forum has demanded cutting back trade with Iran, while Rehman also issued an ultimatum to Chinese nationals to leave Gwadar.
Section 144 of Pakistan’s Criminal Procedure Code was recently imposed to prevent unlawful assembly and the display of arms in Gwadar. The Balochistan Home Department issued a statement banning rallies, protests, sit-ins, and gatherings of five or more people in the port city. Mobile phone services were also disconnected for a week.
Authorities dealing with the situation in Gwadar have several issues to address. First, the security situation might be standing in the way of the economic "opening" of Gwadar, and preventing it from becoming a world-famous deep-water port in a prime location with exceptional geostrategic value.
Separatist rebels have resisted Beijing’s presence in Balochistan province. Following several targeted attacks on Chinese nationals, many parts of Gwadar city were cordoned off under security restrictions, and locals felt fenced out of their own community.
Gwadar has been kept on high alert with thousands of security personnel brought in and many surveillance checkpoints set up in the area. The government needs to create other job opportunities to engage the local population. A more inclusive policy towards Gwadar will be necessary to overcome feelings of ostracization among locals.
Second, both Pakistani and Chinese authorities could provide job training and new opportunities for discontented fisherfolk in Gwadar. Women from local tribes could make handicrafts and become financially empowered. Seaports and beaches have the potential to generate significant business activity and tourism, and holiday resorts could be built in the area.
Providing Gwadar with good public transportation and shopping malls could also economically uplift the struggling port town and provide employment for locals. From the outset, the Chinese presence and investment in the Gwadar seaport was supposed to help develop the local economy, since one of the goals of the BRI and CPEC is to uplift people in underdeveloped areas like Xinjiang and Balochistan.
Finally, some areas of Gwadar lack access to clean war and electricity, and more attention must be given to improving basic infrastructure. Only proactive efforts by the government to improve the lives of local residents will bring an end to current calls to "give Gwadar its rights."