In the spotlight

Oceans, small-scale fishers and the right to food: resisting ocean grabbing

Since the 2007/8 financial crises, academics, NGOs, and social movements have argued that a new wave of land-grabbing has been taking place [1]. Responding to what has been called the ‘convergence of crises’ (finance, food, climate and energy) capital accumulation strategies have increasingly focused on gaining control of the use and benefits of natural resourcesn [McMichael, P. 2012. The land grab and corporate food regime restructuing. The Journal of Peasant Studies. 39 (3-4), 681-701]. In the process, everything from “businesses and NGOs, conservationists and mining industries, or ecotourism companies and the military”[Fairhead et al. 2012. Green Grabbing: a new appropriation of nature? The Journal of Peasant Studies. 39 (2), 237-261, quote from p. 239] have in different ways become implicated in this resource grab. While there has been much focus on and inspiring resistance against how these issues have impacted on peasants and small-scale farmers, the struggles of small-scale fisher movements have until recently been overlooked in the primarily ‘land-centric’ global campaigns.

In order to rectify this, in September 2014 a report titled ‘The Global Ocean Grab’ was launched by fisher movements and allies. According to the publication, ocean grabbing “means the capturing of control by powerful economic actors of crucial decision-making … including the power to decide how and for what purposes marine resources are used, conserved and managed.” (p. 3) Since then, ocean grabbing has been a key term to frame the threats facing fisher peoples globally. The two global fisher movements, World Forum of Fish Harvesters and Fish Workers (WFF) and the World Forum of Fisher Peoples (WFFP) have drawn on it in statements denouncing pushes for privatization of fisheries, false solutions arising from climate change negotiations and, most recently, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) [here]. The initial ocean grabbing report furthermore covered a wide range of issues that dispossess and/or displace fisher peoples and their communities across the world today, from conservation initiatives, to tourism, to large-scale aquaculture and other extractive industries. Additionally, in appreciation of the huge amounts of fishers that rely on inland water bodies for their way of life, the processes that ‘ocean grabbing’ aims to put focus on includes: “inland waters, rivers and lakes, deltas and wetlands, mangroves and coral reefs.” (p.4) ‘Ocean grabbing’, as it has been used by the two global fishers movements, therefore aims to put focus on “the exclusion of small-scale fishers from access to fisheries and other natural resources” (p.6) in the many diverse ways that this takes place.

Blue growth

“When the global fisher movements were founded, the political fight was very much about the small-scale fisheries sector versus the large-scale industry. To date the grounds for contestation have expanded as small-scale fishers are losing access to fishing grounds because of corporate grabbing of land and water. The leaders of the world want to address climate change by putting in place mechanisms that ultimately takes away our access to fishing grounds and give the rights to land and water to the corporate world.”
– Margaret Nakato, WFF, Paris COP21[Full report of the meeting here]

For years, the fisher movements and allies had focused their energies at global level towards struggling for the adoption of the SSF-guidelines (Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries). Parallel to this work of defining alternative visions based on the Human-Rights Based Approach, it became clear that other forces were trying to take questions of what to do with fisheries and ocean resources in a very different direction [For more on how this has impacted on the implementation of the SSF-guidelines, here]. As the quote by Margaret Nakato of the WFF suggests, fisher peoples movements with ocean grabbing want to highlight the multifaceted struggle they are waging. It is no longer just about the more ‘narrow’ struggles against the industrial fishing fleet [Though see Sinha 2012 for a discussion of how fishers struggles have never ‘just’ been about fisheries, Sinha, S. 2012. Transnationality and the Indian Fishworkers’ Movement, 1960s-2000. Journal of Agrarian Change. 12 (2-3), 364-389].

In the context of climate change, a contradictory vision of ‘blue growth’ has been steadily emerging since the Rio +20 meeting. Similar to what its ‘green’ counterpart envisions on land [See Nyeleni Newsletter no 10 ], blue growth wants to turn climate change and the increasing destruction of the ocean environment into new opportunities for capital accumulation. Instead of actually addressing the reason behind the current crises, the only ‘solutions’ being put forward through blue growth are market solutions where the prerequisite is to not conflict with corporate interests and corporate power — instead the solutions will actually strengthen them, by giving them more control over natural resources, supposedly to save them. The reasoning goes that if we want to solve climate change we have to give corporate interests a bigger say in how to govern nature.

As a result, a coalition of actors — similar to those already implicated in land, water and green grabbing — spanning states, international financial institutions, coalitions of transnational corporations, philanthropic foundations and transnational (though mainly US-based) Environmental NGOs, have become proponents of ‘blue growth’. They have been gathering at exclusive international meetings, notably The Economist’s bi-annual World Ocean Summit’s [For more on this ‘corporate capture’, see article in last year’s Right to Food and Nutrition Watch], to discuss how to move forward with their vision. Aside from proposing neoliberal solutions that lead to grabbing of resources, these events should also be seen as an attempt to sideline any form of real solutions that target the root cause of the ‘convergence of crises’, namely: “capitalism’s war on earth” [See book by John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York].

UN ocean conference — Ocean grabbing under the cloak of ‘sustainability’

One of the recent key venues, where the vision of blue growth was pushed, was at the UN’s Ocean Conference in June 2017. Here blatantly unsustainable practices and/or false solutions that have been criticized by fisher peoples movements as a form of ocean grabbing, such as blue carbon [For more on Blue Carbon, see Nyeleni Newsletter no 7 and report from TNI and the Indonesian Fisherfolk Union (KNTI)], a range of large-scale extractive activities (oil, gas), Marine Protected Areas and even China’s massively destructive One Belt One Road Initiative was cloaked in the language of sustainability. All of these were seen as tools to secure the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14, which should otherwise be about how to ‘conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development’. In response to this attempt at re-dressing practices that would impact negatively on small-scale fisher peoples across the world as ‘sustainable’, WFF and WFFP came out with a powerful statement denouncing SDGs and the UN Ocean Conference. As they point out, the SDGs at their core: “prioritize the profit-interests of an elite-minority while marginalizing the voices of people on the ground that we represent”, in this way, “they uphold and entrench the existing inequalities and injustices of the world order”. Furthermore, they basically overlook the struggle for human rights and re-cast the responsibilities of states: “looking through the SDGs, a clear commitment to human rights is missing and human rights such as the right to food, the right to water and sanitation, and women’s rights are notable absent. In this new setting, the states’ role is above all to facilitate private sector actions and at most daring entice ‘voluntary commitments’ on the road to elusive ‘sustainable development.'”[Full statement here.]

Fishers for food sovereignty

It is in response to this increasingly broad array of issues that the fishers’ movements are using the ‘grabbing’ frame. In opposition to these elite-solutions that insist on further privatizing and marketising fisheries and ocean resources, fishers’ movements are engaged in building counter-power with other mass-based movements in the pursuit of climate justice and food sovereignty [See report on how this ‘convergence’ progressed at the COP21 in Paris]. The goal of this ‘convergence’ of disparate movements is to link up the struggles resisting against land, water, ocean and green grabbing — all of which indeed intersect. To confront this plethora of grabs effectively, the food sovereignty movement must first understand them and then mobilise, organize and act against them together [For more on the model of production advocated by small-scale fishers and how this can be seen as ‘agroecology in action’, see Box 1 in Nyeleni Newsletter no 27].