Empty or livelihood space? Changing narratives about the ocean space and ocean defenders in the roll out of Blue Economy plans

by Andrea Longo

What can we learn from governments’ implementation of Blue Economy policies in relation to coastal communities? To what extent are they recognising ocean defenders as environmental human rights defenders?  

As a follow up to the Hub’s engagement with the Winter/Summer School on Human Rights and the Environment in 2021 and 2022 and at World Oceans Week in 2022, on 14 March 2023, Hub researchers and small-scale fishers from South Africa participated in the “Water Defenders Workshop”, organised by the Global Network for Human Rights and the Environment (GNHRE) in partnership with the United Nations Environment Programme.  

Hub early-career researchers Taryn Pereira (Rhodes University) and Aphiwe Moshani (University of Cape Town) from the Coastal Justice Network together with Sinegugu Zukulu (Sustaining the Wild Coast), Melisa Pullen (The Collective), Ntsindiso Nongcavu (Coastal Links Eastern Cape) and Jerry Mngomezulu (Kosi Bay Affected Communities) contributed to the session of the workshop titled “Defending the ocean at the kelp roots: Stories from Small scale fisher ocean defenders in South Africa”. 

The different interpretations of Blue Economy  

The panel presented a number of stories of ocean defenders’ resistance and to extractive, enclosing and inequitable impacts of the Blue Economy in South Africa. Drawing from current studies, Aphiwe Moshani identified four different but inter-connected governmental interpretations of the ocean within the Blue Economy national plans, all aiming to sustainably use ocean resources for economic growth and job creation, yet failing to take into account local communities and traditional knowledge: 

  • ocean as natural capital, according to which the sea is an entity that can be quantified based on economic values. Accordingly, once the value of the ocean is established, objectives protection and restoration are pursued through different policies and mechanisms grounded conservation and enclosure such as the ecosystem-based management approach and Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). 
  • ocean as livelihood, according to which governments interpret it as an important part of food security and job creation and look at it as a tool to bridge between the Blue Economy and SDG 14, with a view to supporting traditional livelihoods and local communities; 
  • ocean as a good for business, according to which the Blue Economy is conceived as a subsector of the Oceans Economy, which includes a variety of ocean-based economic activities, although not all such activities actually constitute as Blue Economy activities for they are not all environmentally sustainable. In this sense, the Blue Economy is rather understood as an aggregation of several different sectors, such as deep-sea mining, renewable energy and marine technologies; 
  • ocean as a driver of innovation: research and developments are fundamental parts of the Blue Economy and evidence studies are used to provide support for smaller scale business, incubators and more local and provincial scale. 

Within this theoretical framework, it appears evident that there is fluidity in the manner in which the Blue Economy is interpreted and implemented based on the decision-maker’s objectives, capacity and even geographic location. This conception of the term is often in conflict with traditional practices and livelihood strategies of small scale fishers and rural coastal communities’ living and reciprocal relationships with marine and coastal spaces. 

The South African context 

South Africa is amongst the three leading countries in the African continent – together with Mauritius and the Seychelles – in the implementation of a Blue Economy national framework. At this stage the implementation of the South African Blue Economy strategy, Oceans Economy Master Plan or Operation Phakisa, has been problematic for many reasons including measuring development in the ocean and coastal space using only a neoliberal lens and a lack in acknowledging the power dynamics amongst relevant actors. This sparks huge concern for actors at the grassroots level such as fisherfolk and other coastal communities. 

Ocean defenders and representatives of local communities among the panellists lamented the lack of inclusive mechanisms adopted by the South African government when implementing Blue Economy policies or even their active exclusion from decision-making processes. For instance, the Shell Wild Coast case hinged on the lack of adequate consultations and of considerations of cultural spiritual and livelihood values of the ocean (see our comment here). Taryn Pereira underscored that there seems to be a complete disconnection between, on the one hand, the government and energy companies’ treatment of the ocean as an un-peopled empty space, a new ‘frontier’ for economic development, and, on the other, the local communities of fishers and coastal dwellers that in fact, have a complex and intimate relationship with the ocean, conceived as a site of spirituality, cultural identity and food sovereignty. Most strikingly, the ocean defenders who are resisting extractive ocean developments, and the coastal communities who are asserting their customary rights to live in close relationship with the ocean and ocean resources, are criminalised, threatened and even physically harmed in the course of their work as ocean defenders.  

In this regard, she underscored the importance of solidarity strategies, and in particular: 

  1. the need to bridge the gap between local coastal communities with the broader environmental justice movements, in order to reduce isolation and invisibility of these issues and the risks that ocean defenders face; and 
  1. the relevance of art as a tool for resistance and imagining alternatives, and its potential to acknowledge and build broader public appreciation of local communities’ cultural identity, their traditional values and knowledge (see the Hub art-based initiatives here and here). 

Three lessons to retain 

Dina Lupin (GNHRE) closed the event underscoring three key cross-cutting elements that emerged throughout the entire workshop, from both the Philippines and the South African experiences: 

  • the use of violence and the militarisation of Indigenous spaces is one of the main tactics for governments to isolate and stigmatise ocean defenders and local communities, labelling them as the reason for their failure to achieve their agendas. 
  • the failure or even lack of consultations and participation mechanism is a further common element in governments’ tactics. In particular, the latter have started turning to artificial participation and consultation mechanisms: rather than being a powerful tool of Indigenous management and governance of their own spaces, participation became a tool for silencing these communities, creating the appearance of rights and inclusion. 
  • arts and culture are commonly employed as effective resistance tool. They create bonds amongst communities and between these and the broader climate justice movements. Also, they are powerful vehicles to raise awareness about a specific water conflict, thus also fighting the risk of isolation. 


Taryn Pereira is contributing a case study and comparative reflections on The Ocean Defenders project with IUCN.