How can you protect the ocean?

By Menka Vansant
The importance of public participation, meaningful consultation, and the cultural and spiritual heritage of the ocean to South Africa’s small-scale fishers and coastal communities.

In 2021, the High Court in Makhanda ruled that Shell and Impact Africa’s exploration right for a seismic survey along the Wild Coast was unlawful due to the lack of meaningful consultation with affected communities, in particular coastal communities and small-scale fishers from Cwebe and Hobeni, Port St Johns and the Kei Mouth, South Africa who brought the case against Shell and the government with several NGOs. A few months later, the High Court in the Western Cape also ruled in favour of the fishing communities against Searcher, an Australian company, who sought to conduct a seismic survey along the West Coast.

Picture of the Shell logo on a shipwreck to protest the seismic survey along the Wild Coast, Eastern Cape. Photo: Menka Vansant

The court ruling sided with small-scale fishers’ stance for an interdict against the seismic survey on the grounds that they were not adequately consulted. Both cases were significant achievements and highlighted the power of cultural rights and the importance of food security and spiritual heritage for small-scale fishers and coastal communities. The plaintiffs argued that they had not been properly consulted by these companies or the government regarding the seismic surveys, a legal requirement to obtain prospecting rights.

The West Coast judgement in Adams & Others v Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy & Others illustrated that small-scale fishers and communities have a unique relationship to the ocean, as they are taught to be the “guardians of the marine resources,” where “the sea is not only important for their food security and livelihood… they believe it to have healing powers and it is also a spiritual place for them.” The applicants indicated in the court case that a truly meaningful consultation would address their spiritual heritage and their livelihoods.

While the court cases highlighted the insufficiencies within the consultation process, there needs to be further discussion about the disconnect and contradicting nature of the government’s decisions to develop offshore oil and gas. This is particularly important due to climate change goals and international commitments to which South Africa is a signatory, such as the Paris Agreement and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Consultation and decision-making processes on ocean governance in South Africa tend to be top-down in nature without much consideration of what communities want or need.

After the court cases have unfolded and more consultation efforts are underway, the main concern now is how will the coastal communities’ and small-scale fishers’ voices be addressed in the development plans and environmental impact assessment (EIA) reports while the government continues to push for offshore oil and gas development as a key priority in the ocean economy agenda. The court may have temporarily mitigated unlawful seismic surveys, but the concerns of the fishers on the impact on the ocean and their livelihoods remain unchanged.

While public participation is just one piece of broader decision-making processes concerning and offshore oil and gas exploration/extraction, I have observed many consultation meetings and workshops around oil and gas exploration in South Africa.

What remains is the inadequate inclusion of local people who truly value the ocean for what it is: a living being that allows us to breathe, to thrive, and to eat. Consultation processes usually consist of long, technical documents that require scientific expertise and interrogation, with a short window of 30 days to review the documents and make any comments. Meetings tend to comprise PowerPoint presentations that describe the proposed activity, and comments from those who attended are recorded in a publicly available document with a response from the consultant, marking the tick-box complete, with no process or accountability to ensure the demands of the participating communities are adhered to.

Rather than continuing with this top-down approach, there is a pressing need to make the processes such as EIAs more accessible and equitable, in a manner that prioritises knowledge exchange, and where the concerns of fishers and coastal communities do not only end up in a report. Furthermore, coastal communities are battling consultation fatigue due to numerous development meetings taking place simultaneously, such as multiple offshore oil and gas applications, as well as diamond mining and mineral sands and green hydrogen proposals. Communities have expressed frustration about how issues such as climate change, energy access, a just energy transition, and local economic development opportunities are not being fully addressed in consultations and development plans.

In consultation meetings, oil and gas extraction has been described as a necessary activity to enable a “transition” from fossil fuels to renewable energy, but it remains unclear how this aligns with South Africa’s just energy transition plan (JETP) and climate change goals. There is a need to assess the cumulative impacts of these multiple developments in the ocean space, rather than in a piecemeal process, to fully understand the true environmental and social costs.

For traditional coastal communities, the ocean is a place where their ancestors lie in the depths, where family members have drowned or were lost at sea, and where they utilise its natural resources with the utmost care and compassion. I have not witnessed this connection and knowledge in consultations and workshops on oil and gas. By contrast, I have seen the diminishment of the knowledge of fishers and coastal communities. The government and the private sector have made claims regarding fishers and local communities’ lack of education and insufficient knowledge about oil and gas to make an informed decision. This is highly problematic because fishers and members of coastal communities are extremely knowledgeable about their environment and have an in-depth understanding about the impacts of the fossil fuel industry to the environment, their livelihood, and well-being.

The fishers I work with in the Northern Cape, for example, have witnessed the destruction caused by coffer dam mining, and conducted their own EIA to address environmental issues in an effort to stop the destructive mining method. Coffer dam mining for diamonds is problematic in this instance due to the violation of provisions under the Integrated Coastal Management Act by Alexkor, a state-owned diamond mining enterprise, such as not conducting a baseline study of the marine and coastal habitat before mining operations commenced and dumping foreign materials into the ocean.

As such, it is difficult to understand the full extent of environmental impacts, especially when rocks that are not native to the marine habitat were used to build the coffer dams and could lead to irreparable damage to the coastline. For these reasons, fishers are incredibly skeptical of offshore oil and gas and other mining developments as they continue to witness the lack of accountability from the government. Fishers also find that the value of their livelihoods and the environment is not respected despite legal provisions that require this.

There is a deep lack of understanding from the government and offshore oil and gas developers of the perceptions and views of coastal communities and how they value and protect the ocean. Pushing for fossil fuels indicates the deficiency of climate-friendly development opportunities that are actually needed in coastal communities along the West and Wild Coasts of South Africa, as well as inland fisheries. There is a requisite for continued public participation and community-based involvement to determine how we utilise our ocean spaces and protect those who depend on its resources. The existing law can only protect the ocean to an extent; it is our responsibility as citizens to decide what kind of future we want and how the immense resources it holds should, or should not, be utilised.

I encourage those in South Africa to learn more about the importance of the small-scale fishing communities, as well as oil and gas and other coastal mining activities and to attend public participation meetings regarding these developments. Here are some organisations and websites that could provide further information:

Thank you to the fellow contributors of this article, including Liz McDaid from The Green Connection, and Miles Masterson and Patrick Forbes from Protect the West Coast.

About the author:

Menka Vansant is a PhD Candidate at the University of Cape Town (South Africa) and conducts research on conflicts between small-scale fishers and offshore oil and gas in the Northern Cape through the One Ocean Hub. She received her Master’s in Science & Technology Policy and Bachelor’s in Economics and is passionate about protecting the ocean and those who depend on it.