Viewpoint by Dr Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake
The writer is an anthropologist affiliated with the International Center for Ethnic Studies in Colombo. Read also A Hybrid Cold War Unfolding in The Indo-Pacific Beneath the Covid-19 Mask.
COLOMBO (IDN) – Like the Chagossians who were forcibly displaced to Mauritius and Seychelles, Sri Lankan and other Indian Ocean Rim coastal communities tend to experience high rates of poverty, debt and socioeconomic hardship.
Fisheries are one of the most significant renewable resources that Indian Ocean countries possess to secure food supplies, maintain livelihoods and assist economic growth, in addition to non-living resources that include hydrocarbon, liquefied natural gas and valuable minerals.
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling that Britain should vacate the Chagos Islands may shine a light on and facilitate a long-overdue process of decolonisation of the Indian Ocean, and enable education, knowledge, and technology transfer to ensure policy and legal frameworks that enable its countries and their often impoverished and debt-trapped, coastal communities to benefit from their rich marine resources, both living and non-living.
Indian Ocean fisheries, which are worth over three billion dollars according to the World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF), produce around one-third of the world‘s tuna and include the valuable southern bluefin tuna. Yet much of this is fished by distant water fleets from France, Spain, the EU, as well as industrialised Asian states such as Japan, Korea and Taiwan, which sit on the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC).
That body has received complaints that fishing quotas benefit distant water states, while Indian Ocean littoral states have been primarily engaged in near water and artisanal fishing due to lack of technology, information and knowledge transfer, as well as poor governance structures in the fisheries sector for up-scaling and industrialising fisheries or competing with distant water fishing states that currently trawl the Indian Ocean’s deep seas where they have sometimes acquired the fishery quotas of small island states.
Although as an island nation Sri Lanka has extensive Indian Ocean marine and fisheries resources, the country’s fisheries sector accounts for only about 1.8 percent of the national GDP. Sri Lanka has exclusive fishing and economic rights for an ocean area of 500,000 square kilometres and a coastal line of 1700 km in addition to inland water bodies, which makes fishery one of the promising industries in the country. Fishery provides direct or indirect employment for about 540 000 people (seven percent of the labour force). The annual production of the sector is about 550 000 tonnes of fish and 85 percent of this comes from marine fisheries of which 60 percent is landed in fishing ports.
For decades, succeeding fisheries ministers and the Fisheries Ministry of the Government of Sri Lanka have found it easier to sign over Sri Lanka’s fishing rights, ironically to “aid” donors to the sector. The country continues to spend valuable foreign exchange on importing fish.
Despite the existence of rich bluefin tuna fisheries grounds in the Indian Ocean where Sri Lanka enjoys a prime location, the island has been unable to industrialise and up-scale the fisheries sector and develop it as a leading export and foreign exchange generating industry; this despite – and arguably because of – decades of international development “aid” projects to the fisheries sector and the Ministry of Fisheries from the very same distant ocean countries whose fleets harvest in and off Sri Lanka’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). It would appear that reliance on foreign aid and experts has contributed to the under-development of Sri Lanka’s fisheries and marine resources.
Zone of Peace? Ocean Grabbing and Distant Water Fishing Nations
The Chagos Islands case may be seen as the tip of an iceberg in a long overdue process of decolonisation of the Indian Ocean so that local communities may benefit from their rich ocean resources. The growing global demand for natural resources has triggered a “race” for their exploitation and possession, especially in developing countries. Most desired are water, land, forests, raw materials (oil, gas, mineral and precious stones), fisheries and genetic resources. Emerging economies, Western states, multinational corporations and international financial institutions have become the biggest “buyers” in a race that on one hand strengthens economies and creates investment opportunities and on the other threatens local communities and environmental protection.
Marine resources in particular present opportunities and risks associated with their potential exploitation given asymmetries in knowledge and information, and lack of technology transfer to developing countries whose people may know relatively little about the resources found in their or the world’s oceans. Their exploration and production pose immense technical challenges on the one hand, while there is insufficient public awareness and debate about these resources and their utilisation on the other. Oil, gas, minerals and methane hydrates lie in the dark depths of the oceans, and their extraction is hidden from sight. Even the products manufactured from them are not always obvious or tangible in our daily lives.
The term “ocean grabbing” has been used to describe actions, policies or initiatives that deprive small-scale fishers of resources, dispossess vulnerable populations of coastal lands, and/or undermine historical access to areas of the sea. Rights and access to marine resources and spaces are frequently reallocated through government including inter-governmental or private sector initiatives to achieve conservation, management or development objectives with a variety of outcomes for different sectors of society.
Sri Lanka, along with other Indian Ocean rim states is richly endowed with abundant marine resources, fisheries and aquaculture resources, as well as yet to be exploited liquefied natural gas (LNG), possibly with oil in the Mannar Basin while being mineral rich in the Bay of Bengal, including the valuable Pullmodai mineral sands deposit.
During the negotiations leading up to adoption of UNCLOS, Sri Lanka established the limits of the basic maritime areas over which it would have the right to make laws and regulations, and to enforce them: the Territorial Sea (12 miles from the “baseline”, (essentially the coast) over which it would have rights similar to those exercised over its land territory; the Contiguous Zone, 12 miles beyond the Territorial Sea in which it would have certain rights to prevent breach of its customs, fiscal, immigration and sanitary laws); the Exclusive Economic Zone, 200 miles from the baseline, in which it would have sovereign rights and jurisdiction for the purpose of exploring and exploiting natural resources both living (fish, seaweeds) and non-living (minerals, energy), while allowing other states to exercise the freedoms given by the Convention to use the area; and the Continental Shelf comprising the sea-bed and sub-soil of the submarine areas that extend beyond the territorial sea throughout the natural prolongation of the land territory up to the outer edge of the continental margin, subject to constraints provided for in the Convention, up to a maximum distance of 350 miles from the baseline.
Today we are witnessing a major process of enclosure of the world’s oceans and fisheries resources, including marine, coastal and inland fisheries. Ocean grabbing is occurring mainly through policies, laws and practices that are (re)defining and (re)allocating access, use and control of fisheries resources away from small-scale fishers and their communities, and often with little concern for the adverse environmental consequences. Existing customary and communal fisheries’ tenure rights systems and use and management practices are being ignored and ultimately lost in the process.
Ocean grabbing thus means the capturing of control by powerful economic actors of crucial decision-making around fisheries, including the power to decide how and for what purposes marine resources are used, conserved and managed now and in the future. As a result, these powerful actors, whose main concern is making profit, are steadily gaining control of both the fisheries’ resources and the benefits of their use.
As Mads Barbesgaard notes, “increasingly, under the rubric of ‘Blue Growth’, global policy processes that purportedly align the needs of the poor with profit interests and environmental concerns are being pushed forward by burgeoning alliances of environmental NGOs, the private sector and international institutions. These blue growth policy proposals, drawing on market-based mechanisms, effectively open up for widespread commodification, yet are being advocated as the only ‘sustainable’ response to the increasingly dire straits of the ocean’s ‘health’. Coupled with this broader process of ‘selling nature to save it’, valuation efforts that also take the carbon storage and capture abilities of coastal ecosystems into account are increasingly being pushed as a crucial tool to fight the climate crisis. While proponents guarantee sustainable outcomes, similar market-based conservation efforts on land have had huge socio-ecological consequences for communities on the ground. Will blue growth projects have similar consequences for coastal communities?”
Blue Growth: Conservation sans local communities and Southern voices?
Increasingly environmental discourses, including inter-governmental negotiations on marine resources that lack consultation with Southern fisheries communities, are also used to deny local communities’ access to marine resources. Again, the Chagos Islands case is instructive. In April 2010, the British Foreign Office said that 640,000 square kilometres of the archipelago would now be a ‘marine reserve’, which should remain uninhabited.
The British government told the US government – in a secret cable – that the “former inhabitants would find it difficult, if not impossible, to pursue their claim for resettlement on the islands if the entire Chagos were a marine reserve”. This was environmental conservation for military purposes. No statement was made to remove the US base from Diego Garcia, which would be at the heart of the marine reserve. In 2015, Mauritius went to the court of arbitration at The Hague, where it won a ruling that the British declaration of the marine reserve was illegal. The UK had not consulted either Mauritius or the Chagossians. Britain eventually said that the Chagossians would not be able to exercise their right to return because of the objections of the US military.
There is a need for Southern voices, particularly South Asian and African voices from Indian Ocean rim states to inform debates on frameworks for evaluating whether marine conservation, management or development may amount to ocean grabbing and proposes an agenda for future research and action.
Environmental discourses are also being used increasingly to limit local Indian Ocean communities access to marine resources, including some aspects of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), given lack of awareness and technical expertise and strong institutions among Indian Ocean rim States in the negotiation process.
A recent report entitled ‘The Global Ocean Grab‘ published by the Transnational Institute, Masifundise and Afrika Kontakt shows how the rise of market-based fishing policies that favour large-scale aqua-industries is systematically dispossessing fishers of the means to livelihood. The report cites examples of luxury beach-resorts in Sri Lanka where fishermen can no longer get to the coast, the destruction of mangrove areas in Ecuador to promote export-oriented shrimp aquaculture that has destroyed fishing habitats, and the dramatic rise of Rights-Based Fishery (RBF) policies that have handed over large tracts of ocean to industrial fishing companies in Europe, Canada and elsewhere.
The common denominator in all these cases is the exclusion of small-scale fishers from access to fisheries. In nearly every case, the grabs are technically ‘legal’, hidden inside policy documents, trade agreements, conservation mandates and fishing policies. What is left out of these documents is the impact of these decisions on our natural heritage and the livelihoods and food sovereignty of over half a billion people around the world who depend on small-scale fishing. The World Bank’s Global Partnership for Oceans (GPO) is the one-such legal framework for ‘grabbing’. Bringing together a set of powerful actors – from USAID to the Walton Family Foundation (the family behind Walmart) to big environmental NGOs such as the World Wildlife Fund and the Environmental Defense Fund – GPO’s goal is to spread private property rights over the ocean’s fish resources.
Its premise is that the lack of economic and environmental ‘sustainability’ in fisheries around the world is due to a lack of property rights, rather than an issue of equity or justice. The effect of this one-size-fits-all solution is that it strengthens powerful political actors at the expense of the majority and leads to a market for the new owners to trade away these rights as they please. [IDN-InDepthNews – 01 November 2020]
Image Source: Deccan Herald
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