Marine Protected Areas in South Africa - ocean grabbing by another name

24 November 2014

On World Fisheries Day, fisher peoples and their allies are taking to the streets and beaches to fight against ocean grabbing in all its forms - including Marine Protected Areas imposed without consultation that rob and criminalise local communities and benefit only privileged outsiders.

"This marine area is protected for your benefit", reads a signpost on the beach of a once thriving small-scale fishing community in Langebaan, Western Cape in South Africa.

It is now known as Langebaan Lagoon Marine Protected Area (MPA). Whose benefit, one might ask? Where there used to be a bustling market filled with the pungent smells of fresh daily catches reeled in by local fisherfolk, the beaches are now lined with unoccupied holiday homes and exclusive restaurants.

The closest you can get to buying a fish is a cellophane-wrapped one in the aisles of the chain supermarket in town.

As part of the World Forum of Fisher Peoples' General Assembly in September 2014, fisherfolk from around the world visited the Langebaan Lagoon MPA.

Enraged and yet with some sad familiarity, they listened to the disheartening tale of one former fisherman who explained how the MPA and the following ban on fishing had dispossessed his community.

It had not only destroyed his livelihood, but the very cultural DNA of his community that had fished for generations on this coast.

Prior informed consent? In your dreams ...

The MPA in Langebaan is just one of the many controversial MPAs in South Africa that have been enforced by the government in cooperation with international environmental NGOs without any prior consultation with local communities.

Or rather as the chair of the South African fisher peoples' movement calls it, "consultation at gun point" - referring to the several fishers that have been shot, one fatally, by MPA guards mandated to keep local people out of the marine sanctuaries.

Marine parks, along coastal sanctuaries and reserves that establish 'no-take' zones - commonly referred to as Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) have become the dominant approach, not just in South Africa but worldwide, for dealing with overfishing, pollution and habitat destruction.

One of the main advocates of MPAs is the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), who held their World Parks Congress in Sydney in mid-November 2014. They advocate the target of conserving 30% of the world's coastal and marine areas by 2020, going further than the 10% set by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.

Naseegh Jaffer, the Secretary General of the World Forum of Fisher People was one of the few delegates at the IUCN congress who represents small-scale fishers. Jaffer warned:

"The term 'conservation' carries a negative connotation for millions of local fisher folks across the world, as it means that we have to give up on most of our livelihoods and income from fishing while we draw no benefit from conservation efforts."

The Congress officially pronounced "a decade of conservation success". But as Jaffer asks: "a success for whom?"

Depriving small-scale fishers of their livelihoods

While the idea of protecting marine resources at a time of chronic environmental destruction may seem commendable, documented experiences from South Africa, Tanzania, India, Thailand, the Philippines, India, Mexico and elsewhere, have shown that MPAs end up excluding small-scale fishers and depriving them of their livelihoods.

In fact MPAs, along with the spread of market-based policies that favour industrial-scale fisheries, is one of the major contributors to a wave of ocean grabbing that may even surpass the scale of the more oft-reported global land grab.


Moreover, even judged by narrow conservation objectives, there are questions about the success of MPAs. In the preface to their recent anthology on MPAs, marine biologists Johnson and Sandell argue that there is a

" ... lack of science underpinning the development of MPAs, a lack of clear objectives or indicators monitoring performance", and a "lack of ongoing study or biological monitoring in the areas after they have been established on paper."

This should not be a cause for surprise, because biodiversity conservation is rarely an end in itself. Rather, Marine Parks are usually established as part of wider schemes and strategies by powerful state and corporate actors keen to obscure more damaging activities with a little bluewash gloss.

Political cover for intensive resource exploitation

Langebaan is an all-too typical example of a fishing community dispossessed of its coastline, which is subsequently developed for foreign-owned tourism.

In some cases, MPAs provide governments the political cover for extracting more natural resources elsewhere.

Kiribati Islands' Phoenix Islands Protected Area in Central Pacific waters, showcased at the IUCN Congress, for example, was created after the government secured US$5 million from a foundation and, more importantly, a large concession for deep-sea mining in the Pacific Ocean's Clarion-Clipperton seabed zone.

The MPAs of Kiribati and Langebaan sadly show the increasingly muddied waters of conservation today - one in which governments, big business and a few large environmental NGOs, including WWF and Conservation International, point the finger at the beautiful signs portraying a new marine reserve - hoping we won't notice either the fisherfolk that previously lived there or the destruction of our oceans by industrial fisheries and deep-sea mining elsewhere.

That is why today, on World Fisheries Day, fisher peoples and their allies are taking to the streets and beaches to fight for their human rights and against ocean grabbing, calling on our support for a truly sustainable environment, one which supports people and marine life.

Among them are the women of Kwa-Zulu Natal who released this powerful statement today - declaring not their opposition to MPAs as such, but their rights to be consulted, to regulate their own resources, to benefit from tourism, and not to be treated as criminals by those who stole their lands and waters.

South African fisher women's statement on ocean grabbing

"We, the women of Kwa-Zulu Natal need access to mussels to feed our families and make some money. We need business skills and access to markets. If there is a Marine Protected Area on our coastline, we want to benefit.

"We women want to regulate our own resources. We the women of Kwa-Zulu Natal face a double oppression: oppression from ocean grabbing and oppression from patriarchy.We need this to change. We need platforms to be heard.

"We the women of Eastern Cape want control over our resources. Our traditional healers need access and control over resources. We want co-management with authorities. Profits from tourism should be made by us.

"We the women of the Western Cape and Northern say NO to Marine Protected Areas without consultation processes. Ocean grabbing breaks down our families. Our men have to travel far to the coast keeping them apart from their children and their wives. We women reject mining on our coastal lands.

"We do not want weapon testing in our waters. Ocean grabbing projects us as criminals in our own ocean and along our own coastline. We need to be informed about the policies that govern our seas. We need to be equipped to deal with ocean grabbing.



photo: Marylyn Jeans/Flickr