Celebrating our progress towards transformative change in 2022

By Elisa Morgera

As 2022 draws to a close, we are reflecting on our achievements towards transforming ocean governance by changing the way ocean knowledge is generated and shared. To fulfil our vision of a healthy ocean where people and the planet can flourish, we have focused on transforming decision-making by co-developing evidence through dialogue and shared reflection among different knowledge systems. This has allowed us to co-develop our responses to the highly interconnected, multiple threats that the ocean faces, by moving away from ways that are provided in siloes, characterised by disconnects across scales and sectors, or artificial distinctions between ‘land’ and ‘ocean’ issues. Crucially, we have focused on better understanding how these disconnects are mirrored in the process of evidence generation, which is constrained by disciplinary boundaries and – crucially – has long left out the voices, experiences and knowledge of those who have the closest connections to the ocean.

Protecting Small-scale Fishers’ human rights for everyone’s benefits from a healthy ocean

The Hub has particularly advanced in bringing the voices of Small-Scale Fishers (SSFs) into national and international policy processes. For the International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture (IYAFA 2022), we co-developed a programme of work with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) based on our research on small-scale fishers’ human rights. This work attracted commitment from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment (with indications of future engagement from the UN Special Rapporteurs on Cultural Rights and the Right to Food), as well as new collaborations with other development partners and NGOs. This has built on our earlier work in 2021 towards supporting international recognition of the role of small-scale fishers as environmental human rights defenders.

Our arts- and human rights-based research has proven essential in connecting with communities who are deeply knowledgeable about and care profoundly for the ocean, and yet have long been marginalised in the processes of generating evidence and taking decisions about the ocean. For instance, in Ghana, we held the first of four planned regional workshops to create a platform where SSF women can express their views directly to decision-makers and benefitted from a pop-up legal clinic to explore how their human rights can be better protected. Building on this work, we produced the short-film Ocean & Women, showing the challenges faced by Ghanaian women living in coastal communities and celebrating their role as change-makers, which was screened at the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon (June-July 2022).

Our research has also been included in the 2022 report of the UN Special Rapporteurs on Cultural Rights, who underscored that ocean economy/blue economy projects can marginalise indigenous peoples and small-scale fishers because of the “low regard for knowledge pluralism, including of small-scale fishers, and the historical stereotyping of indigenous peoples hindered their potential contribution to sustainable economic development, in particular their potential contribution through a holistic and integrated environmental ethos” (see more detailed discussion here.)

We have captured our advancements in knowledge on how to significantly improve the protection of small-scale fishers’ human rights and, through that, support the achievement of multiple SDGs on 10 December, International Human Rights Day, as a joint policy brief together with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and the UN Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights. And we are now working intensely towards capturing all the learning from across scales and exchange experiences with other SSF organisations in March 2023, around the high-level closing of the International Year of Artisanal Fisheries in Rome, Italy, at FAO headquarters. We look forward to co-identifying a series of concrete follow-up activities with WWF, the Danish Institute for Human Rights and other partners, and to explore whether we can replicate the One Ocean Hub’s innovative approaches to protect the human rights of small-scale fishers.

Protecting Children’s human rights that are dependent on a healthy ocean

Following a year of feverish research and international engagements with children rights experts, the Hub has been successful in ensuring that “biodiversity” and the “ocean” were included in the new draft UN General Comment on Children’s Rights to a Healthy Environment. Notably, the Hub had been invited by the comment drafters to lead an expert workshop on biodiversity in August 2022, and has also contributed to various thematic consultations throughout 2022 (see here, here, and here). Our rapid-assessment blog post on the draft can be found here; a new research paper on its relevance for climate change can be found here; and our new webpage on our impact on children’s rights can be visited here.

In Namibia, we are collaborating with youth from the Topnaar people, who were the original inhabitants of Namibia’s coastline, but have since been displaced and excluded from access to marine resources and decision-making on the ocean. Prior to our support, they had never had the opportunity to become involved in consultations about the blue economy, despite their cultural and economic connections to the ocean. We are thus supporting inter-generational story-telling techniques to convey the ocean-related cultural heritage, knowledge systems and the human rights of the Topnaar, to ensure that their voices are heard in relevant decisions.

Advancing action at the ocean-climate nexus

We have consolidated our contributions to the international climate agenda, as the ocean has gained increasing prominence at the UK-hosted 26 UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow (Oct-Nov 2021), allowing us to share our findings and methods on transdisciplinarity and human rights at the ocean-climate nexus internationally, as discussed in our previous newsletter on COP27. In the lead up to COP27, our findings have contributed to the UN Special Rapporteur on Climate Change and Human Rights calling for “international legal measures to address the permanent loss of …ocean territories and their associated ecosystems, livelihoods, culture and heritage.”

In addition, in Namibia, we are advancing the understanding of the economic value of marine ecosystem services, notably in the “blue carbon” sector, to raise awareness about the vegetated marine ecosystems recognised for their ability to capture and store large amount of carbon but which are being degraded at alarming rates. Through collaboration with civil society, we are supporting a more participatory approach to the valuation of blue carbon than is usually employed in other ecosystem services evaluations, by including cultural values and implications for the protection of human rights.

In South Africa, the Coastal Justice Network (CJN), which is a growing knowledge-action network of SSFs, environmental justice organisations and researchers that has emerged from Empatheatre research (Lalela) has supported small-scale fishers as climate-ocean human rights defenders. The CJN and other partners supported SSF communities in successfully contesting offshore oil and gas exploration rights permits, which are negatively affecting marine life and the livelihoods and culture of coastal fishing communities on the Wild Coast, on the grounds of inadequate consultation with communities. A ground-breaking judgement of September 2022 was widely reported in international media and has historical importance as it recognises 1) the crucial role of coastal communities as ocean custodians, including at the ocean-climate nexus, 2) the sacred nature of this relationship in terms of cultural human rights; and 3) the need to protect the participatory rights of these communities in environmental impact assessments and decision-making on the ocean. The transferability and scalability of our findings and methods has already been explored at the Climate COP27, while we deepen our partnerships with small-scale fishers’ cooperative and civil society in South Africa.

Advancing transdisciplinary ocean research

The One Ocean Hub has been conceived as a working prototype of transformative ocean science for sustainable development, based on the notion that, in order to transform ocean governance, we need to transform the way in which evidence is generated, presented, and shared. Iterative reflection on our transdisciplinarity practices, and in particular the challenges inherent in transdisciplinarity in ocean research, has been a key focus for our Early Career Researchers’ group, and have also led to an invitation by the UNESCO International Oceanographic Commission for the One Ocean Hub to become an Implementing Partner for the UN Decade, leading on transdisciplinary ocean research from 2023 onwards.

This is particularly (but not only) the case of our arts-based transformative research approach to deeply understand and powerfully convey the cultural and spiritual meaning of and connections to the ocean, to contribute to human rights protection and knowledge co-production. The Deep Emotional Engagement Programme (DEEP) fund was established to commission artistic responses which elevate marginalised voices in national and global debates about ocean governance, amplifying the views of underrepresented groups often overlooked in conventional approaches to marine science and management. An innovative funding approach was developed: the call publicised among artistic communities who may not normally have access to such opportunities. Beyond the requirement for projects to be related to the ocean, themes were left intentionally open allowing artists to respond to issues which mattered most to their communities. Selection was primarily based on potential for creative processes to explore emotional connections to the ocean.

Empowering change-makers for ocean action

We continued, in 2022, to co-develop with our partners a suite of knowledge exchange resources, designed to support more integrated and inclusive ocean action. Our Advisory Board lauded the resulting “e-legacy”, as these materials are being integrated in capacity-building programmes by other international partners. Among our proudest outputs in 2022 are:

  • in collaboration with FAO, a new course on SSFs for the FAO E-learning Academy on small-scale fishers’ human rights and the governance of sustainable small-scale fishers, and a global Policy and Legal Diagnostic Tool for Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries with insights from SSF representatives and researchers from Ghana, Namibia and South Africa, to identify national-level regulatory barriers to the implementation of the FAO SSF Guidelines and the protection of human rights;
  • in collaboration with UNEP, new courses on SDG 14 and ocean plastics including a human rights perspective (a new course on gender will be published in 2023);
  • in collaboration with CERI, the NGO “Articolo 12”, Terre des Hommes and UNEP an online training course on children’s human rights and the environment, titled ‘Our Rights, Our Planet – stand up for the environment’.

Furthermore, we officially lunched at the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon in June 2022 the Knowledge Translation Platform ‘One Ocean Learn. Hosted by UNITAR, the platform is unique in that it brings together ocean change-makers across the globe, helping them to navigate with purpose the existing universe of online sources of ocean knowledge. It aims to connect different sources of knowledge making them more accessible, providing targeted learning journeys for activists, government officers, international negotiators, and educators. It shines a light on local ocean knowledge production and innovation, while seeking to grow understanding, creativity and respect for diverse experiences through a learning journey that demonstrates a more inclusive and collective approach to ocean governance.

From 2017 to 2022 – taking from, and bringing inspiration into the UN Ocean Conferences

The very initial idea for the One Ocean Hub arose during the first UN Ocean Conference held in New York in 2017. The Hub was conceived as a direct and systematic response to the 2017 Call for Action on SDG 14 for “knowledge hubs” to share scientific data, best practices and know-how to enhance understanding, cooperation and policy coherence at all levels on the ocean’s role in realising sustainable development. By the time the second UN Ocean Conference was convened, in 2022, the One Ocean Hub was invited to sit on the podium of the Interactive Dialogue on Sustainable Fisheries to share our interim findings on how inclusive ocean knowledge co-production is a necessary precondition for the development of fair and sustainable blue economies, effective ocean-based solutions to climate change, and the implementation of multiple Sustainable Development Goals. In our experience, this requires a combination of:

  • developing and nurturing fair partnerships between researchers, civil society, communities, local/national authorities and international actors,
  • advancing understanding of deep-sea ecosystems and their benefits to humanity (notably for climate change responses and to protect human health),
  • connecting with ocean cultures, history and the arts to create a space for transformative dialogue that supports learning from experiences of injustice and marginalised voices, and
  • a human rights-based approach, to integrate the evidence base and clarify minimum standards of conduct of States, business and others).

We look forward to advancing our learning and approaches, and connect them in innovative ways with other’s efforts, to support transformative change in ocean research and governance.

Main photo: Eric Nathan