Climate change and the Ocean- are Marine Protected Areas a just solution to the climate crisis for fishing communities?
Coastal fishing communities are among the most vulnerable groups globally, bearing the brunt of the climate crisis and changing climate conditions which alter the ocean and marine resources. However, in the decision-making processes and discussions on impacts and solutions for the oceans, the voices and experiences of small-scale fishers and their communities are largely absent, with little regard for the possibility of any pre-existing system of customary law or customary fishing rights to govern, manage, and conserve the resources.
The COP26 negotiations of November 2021 illustrated the lack of inclusion of the voices of marginal communities. The same false solutions to the climate crisis that have been punted in the past in order to help countries meet their Nationally Determined Contributions and achieve a 1.5°C future were adopted. One such solution is that of the push for carbon markets as a technical and financial solution to achieve net-zero emissions. Although COP26 has attempted to close some of the loopholes of the carbon market, such as double counting emissions, through the development of a rulebook, the voluntary market is still uncontrolled and resembles greenwashing, with no real results and rather shifting CO2 credits from one side of the world to the other. The offsetting of carbon credits through the carbon market is a simplistic solution to a complex issue, allowing developed nations and the big polluters to continue emitting carbon, and further impacting vulnerable communities, without any benefit for the environment.
In the ocean space, the financing and expansion of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) is considered a form of carbon offsetting and gaining carbon credits (“Blue Carbons”). Environmental NGOs and large industries and corporations are pushing this narrative as a solution to the climate impacts on the oceans. However, MPAs lead to ocean grabbing and the marginalization of fishing communities, as small-scale fishers are excluded and denied access from traditional fishing grounds and criminalized for undertaking customary and traditional livelihood activities for the sake of conservation and biodiversity protection. The democratic participation of small-scale fishers in decision-making processes relating to marine protection should be promoted in line with the principles Food Sovereignty as well as the concept of Other Effective area-based conservation measures’ (OECMs), including preferential areas of access for small-scale fishers. OECMs are a conservation designation for areas that are achieving the effective in-situ conservation of biodiversity outside of protected areas.
A just and real solution to the climate crisis in the marine environment must involve and prioritize the voice of small-scale fishing communities in decision-making processes in working towards achieving both social development and environmental protection. Fishing communities need to actively take part in the governance, management, and conservation of coastal and marine resources. This inclusion could result in the improved resilience to climate change-related risks for vulnerable coastal communities, improved governance, management, and protection of MPAs and OECMs, as well as improved livelihood conditions and food sovereignty.
Masifundise and its work with small-scale fishing communities
Masifundise works with small-scale fishing communities in South Africa, which are amongst the poorest and most marginalised groups in the country. These communities are extremely vulnerable to climate change despite the fact that the sector’s contribution to carbon emissions is insignificant (in comparison with tourism, industrial fishing, etc.). The country’s complex history of colonial and racially-based spatial planning and conservation has shaped current conservation efforts, resulting in conflict between traditional communities and conservation authorities, as well as the undermining of human rights, customary livelihood practices, and access rights. In the protection of marine and coastal biodiversity, the prioritization and support of indigenous fishing communities is almost non-existent, as the emphasis is on conservation rather than human rights. Of 231 coastal fishing communities, 60 are located within or adjacent to MPAs. South Africa’s Small-scale Fisheries Policy (2012), which was developed hand-in-hand with small-scale fishers, has the primary goal of introducing “fundamental shifts in Government’s approach to the small-scale fisheries sectors” with an emphasis on “community-based co-management” and a “community-based system of [fishing] rights allocation”. However, in areas within and adjacent to MPAs, the policy implementation is not in line with its objectives and principles, co-management is ignored, and community-based fishing rights are yet to be recognised by conservation authorities. Small-scale fishers in the Dwesa Nature Reserve, Eastern Cape, have expressed that they “do not have access to fish and collect wood and reeds to secure livelihoods”, despite ongoing attempts to engage directly with the Reserve authorities as well as other stakeholders to find solutions. Since 2010, four recognised small-scale fishers have been shot and killed within MPAs, and in November 2021 alone, park rangers in the Isimangaliso World Heritage site, KwaZulu Natal, shot at four fishers. The South African case highlights the lack of inclusion of the voice and experiences of coastal communities in the journey towards the protection of marine resources.
Small-scale fishers rising with the ocean
Two years of the pandemic have pushed fishing communities further to the fringes of society: Fishers are struggling to make ends meet, while all the ‘usual’ problems remain or have worsened. We are witnessing the culmination of political marginalisation of fisher movements, evident from the countless plans and policies being rolled out at national to international levels without any meaningful participation of fisher peoples and their allies. The new catch of the day is “multistakeholder” initiatives (MSIs) used by powerful elites such as transnational corporations and many environmental conservation organisations to work hand-in-hand with our governments. The High Ambition Coalition is one such MSI set up to eliminate human activity within 30% of the planet’s surface, and hence, accelerate the problems mentioned in the article on Box 1.
Another example of a multistakeholder process is the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit, orchestrated by the UN together with the World Economic Forum and a wide range of corporations and organisations. Aquaculture, in a new ‘Blue Food’ disguise, was presented as a solution to the multiple crises. The High Level Panel on a Sustainable Ocean Economy, launched by the conservative Norwegian prime minister in 2017, is yet another multistakeholder space. This panel also promotes aquaculture as the solution to food insecurity and argues that the ocean economy is a triple win (good for nature, for the economy and people). These spaces and processes, amongst others, all contribute to the shaping of the agenda of the UN Ocean Conference that will be held in Lisbon in June 2022. Fisher movements, on the other hand, have not had a chance to influence the agenda.
In response to the deepening crisis affecting all small-scale food producers and other working people, several fisher movements and allies are embarking on a different strategy. Following the path-breaking peoples’ tribunals on the ocean economy held in five Asian countries in 2020/2021, movements from around the world are stepping up in collecting testimonies and conducting more peoples’ tribunals on ocean and fisheries issues to highlight the plight of fishers and hold responsible actors accountable. The IYAFA can serve as the key moment.
Ocean grabbing: a political narrative for small-scale fishers
In 2012, the World Forum of Fisher Peoples (WFFP) and allies embarked on a path-breaking attempt to discuss ocean grabbing, raise consciousness, and build global resistance against the ever-increasing expropriation of fisher communities and destruction of nature. The outcome produced in a report also predicted the rise and the threat of the blue economy paradigm. Since then, this ‘emerging mantra’ has captured almost all spaces and institutions that address the ocean: countless ‘blue’ conferences, and numerous governments, NGOs, and academic institutions are actively facilitating the growth of the ‘blue’ paradigms. The pandemic also provided an opportunity for these actors and the corporate world to ‘seize the moment’ and entrench the blue narrative through new legislations with no democratic process. The global blue spaces such as the UN Ocean Conference in 2022 have also been ‘captured’, while the recognition and the representation of small-scale fishers and fisher workers remain largely ignored, or outright excluded.
According to Naseegh Jaffer, former WFFP General Secretary, “the conversations on the ocean have been co-opted by others. Governments and corporates are using a blue ‘ocean’ language that is now dominating. Many spaces where the fisher movements managed to articulate their interpretations have been taken over by others. FAO is inviting entities who are less struggle-oriented and more theoretical and academic to be the voice of the movements, while the representation of the movements is becoming suppressed”. Nadine Nembhard, WFFP General Secretary, encouraged that “this is the moment for us to revitalise ocean grabbing as a narrative. We are in IYAFA and also in the year leading up to our next general assembly. That is a good moment to bring conversations on ocean grabbing to life”.
In India, ocean grabbing is the narrative used by fisher movements in their resistance and in demanding redress for human rights violations and restoration of nature and territories. As Jones Spartagus, the National Fishworkers Forum (NFF) puts, “Ocean grabbing should be placed at the centre of the Peoples Tribunals. Through People’s Tribunals we can bring back our language to assert our fisher people’s sovereignty”.