President Adama Barrow on Thursday laid the foundation stone for a $50 million (D2.3 billion dalasis) conference center, which has been the crux of contention between conservationist and government officials.
It was the first bilateral agreement signed between the government of ex-President Yahya Jammeh and China when relations resumed between the nations.
Jammeh had severed ties with Taiwan and turned to China, which resumed diplomatic relations with Gambia in March 2016 as Taiwan was transitioning from a president who has deepened links with China to one who is far more cautious.
Environmental activists say the Bijilo Monkey Park was destroyed to give way to the Chinese-funded international conference center, which would be one of the biggest in Sub-Saharan Africa.
The Bijilo Monkey Park is home to different species of monkies and was gazetted in 1954 as part of the protected Bijilo Forest and Nature Trail. There are troops of green monkeys, Western red colobus, Campbell’s mona monkey and patas.
Over 133 bird species have been recorded in the Bijilo Forest Park including such interesting species as the black-necked weaver, red-billed hornbill, greater honeyguide, bearded barbet, oriole warbler, palm-nut vulture and long-tailed nightjar.
These and the many other species make the area attractive to the many European bird watchers who visit The Gambia. At least 23,000 tourists visit the park each year.
Activists have campaigned to stop the destruction of the park and held talks with Environment and Forestry Minister, Lamin Dibba, efforts which apparently have not yield positive results for them.
Gambian authorities are hoping that the construction of the mega conference center will create jobs for locals during the building. When finished, it is expected to attract international events to the Gambia.
These they believe will provide employment, give the Gambia international attention as it pulls itself out of years of international isolation and provides a source of revenue to country’s small economy.
But critics of the new government do not feel the same. They have asked for the government of Adama Barrow to renegotiate the grant and have it spent on meeting the healthcare and basic education needs of the country.
Government officials say grants could not be negotiated because they were designated for a purpose by the donor country and could not be diverted to address some other issues.
An aide to President Adama Barrow, Amie Bojang-Sisohore had said they do not have to miss out on having an international center and assured that the government is tirelessly working on addressing the country’s health crisis.
President Barrow on Wednesday met with Israeli investors who announced the building of a more than $230 million medical center in the country mainly for medical tourism within Africa.
Environmental activists have warned they will continue to protest the destruction of the Bijilo Monkey Park in hopes to have government relocate the construction site.
Conservationists have been battling with the Barrow administration in Gunjur, Bakoteh-Manjai and Kartong over pollution concerns, some of which have been blamed on a Chinese fishmeal company in Kombo South.