Troubled waters of ocean governance under scrutiny

14 April 2014
Article

TNI's Agrarian Justice team reiterates the hazardous consequences of current ocean governance and policy frameworks, which have been repeatedly raised by social movements representing fisher people at the Global Oceans Action Summit.

The Hague is hosting the high-profile Global Oceans Action Summit, co-organized by the World Bank and Dutch government. The Agrarian Justice team, along with colleagues from the South African organization Masifundise (www.masifundise.org.za) and the Denmark-based Africa Contact (www.afrika.dk), will attend and reiterate the hazardous consequences of current ocean governance and policy frameworks, which have been repeatedly raised by social movements representing fisher people.

The summit, set with a clear pro-business agenda, is expected to help finalize the framework of and secure funds for the emerging Global Partnership for Oceans (GPO). Initiated by the World-Bank, the GPO is increasingly pushed as the new global blueprint for dealing with the governance of the world's oceans and fisheries. Premised upon solutions favouring the privatization of aquatic resources, the GPO fundamentally rests on reshaping access rights regimes towards individual and private property rights, dismissing the legal pluralism of customary, commonly-owned, indigenous etc. fisheries rights upon which small-scale fishers depend for their livelihoods and food sovereignty.

GPO is increasingly pushed as the new global blueprint

The World Forum of Fisher People (WFFP) first raised the alarm about the GPO back in March 2013 and called upon governments around the world to stop the initiative, providing evidence it “leads to de facto exclusion of small-scale fishers and the concentration of fishing rights with an elite minority.” It further explained that GPO “is incompatible with small-scale fishing, and is likely to result in the loss of traditional fishing management practices.”

WFFP’s call against GPO come amidst a broader context of marine privatization and enclosures, whereby small-scale fisheries from every continents are confronted by processes and dynamics affecting and threatening their very existence. Today, alongside the global land grab, a wave of capturing of control of ocean-based aquatic resources is menacing to destroy the lives and livelihoods of millions of people worldwide, many of which already suffer from political marginalization and ecological vulnerability. Policies, laws and practices defining, allocating and managing access, use and control over marine, coastal and inland fisheries resources are taken over in many part of the world by powerful players with little concern for social and environmental consequences. A trend increasingly called “ocean grabbing”.

Half a billion people across the globe – small-scale or artisanal fishers, fish farmers, harvesters, communities and indigenous people in coastal areas, etc. – depend to varying degrees and in various ways on fishing resources and activities. Fish is a key part of many people’s diets, including many poor people in Asian, African, Central and South American countries. Meanwhile, oceans are also a major player in some of the most basic ecological cycles on which all life on Earth depends (e.g., oxygen and carbon cycles), and is a source of much of the biodiversity of the planet. Reckless treatment of the world’s oceans and fisheries – marine, coastal and inland – under the various forms of ocean grabbing is undermining sound and democratic management of vital resources. It unfolds through context as diverse as fisheries and trade governance, environmental conservation, tourism and energy policies, operations of the global food industry, speculation of financial markets, etc. The stakes are all the more critical that these resources already undergo growing depletion and degradation, challenging their very existence as well as the livelihoods of people and communities depending on fisheries. This threat is entering a dramatically new and heightened phase with the emergence of the GPO.

The control over natural resources is increasingly captured and concentrated in the hands of a few major players

As Olivier de Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food explained “’Ocean-grabbing’ – in the shape of shady access agreements that harm small-scale fishers, unreported catch, incursions into protected waters, and the diversion of resources away from local populations – can be as serious a threat as ‘land-grabbing’.”

WFFP mandated Masifundise, together with TNI and Africa Contact, to produce a primer on Ocean Grabbing for their next General Assembly, in September 2014. Drawing upon grassroots experiences and stories, the primer aims to contribute to efforts to make more visible the struggles of small-scale fishers and raise public awareness within the small-scale fishers social movements themselves and beyond, about the threat of ocean grabbing in its various forms, including the GPO.

In many ways, rural working people – whether they depend on farming, fishing, or a combination of the two– face the same pressures and dynamics of deeply transformative dispossession and enclosures, even if these are unfolding through different mechanisms. The control over natural resources is increasingly captured and concentrated in the hands of a few major players who determine how natural local resources will be used, by whom, and for what purposes. In many cases this leads to the appropriation of resources for the benefit of large-scale capital at the expense of local users. As such, fishers’ struggles to ensure that their resource access issues are treated, first and foremost, not as a business matter, but rather as a matter of human rights, is closely connected with and deeply embedded in the food sovereignty framework.

photo from Masifundise