Including cultural rights and creative capacities in blue economies to achieve the SDGs

By Senia Febrica & Elisa Morgera

On 27th April 2022 the Hub submitted written evidence to the UN Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights to provide ‘inputs to a report on cultural rights and sustainable development.’ The submission was co-authored by Hub early-career researchers Dr Senia Febrica (University of Strathclyde, UK), Mia Strand (Nelson Mandela University, South Africa) and Dr Holly Niner (University of Plymouth, UK) together with Dr Dylan McGarry (Rhodes University, South Africa), Prof Elisa Morgera and Dr Bernadette Snow (University of Strathclyde, UK), building on research carried out also by other colleagues in Ghana, Namibia and South Africa. 

This blogpost summarises the Hub’s evidence related to:

  • Missing connections between cultural heritage and blue economies;
  • Barriers to the integration of cultural rights in blue economies;
  • The role of arts in supporting the protection of ocean-related cultural rights
  • Lessons learnt in piloting innovative approaches to the recognition and protection of ocean culture and cultural heritage

Missing connections between cultural heritage and blue economies

The Hub’s submission underscored that development increasingly focuses on ocean spaces and resources, but is not responsiveto the needs of ocean-dependent indigenous peoples and small-scale fishers. It provided evidence demonstrating that national policies and developments on the blue economy do not pay enough attention to cultural rights, cultural heritage and the spiritual dimensions of communities’ relationship with the ocean.

Our research has found that:

  • Across the globe, ambiguous policy aims in national blue economy policies allow extractive interpretations to proliferate, and poor understanding of how sustainability creates value within society arises from historic arrangements that exclude certain sectors of society (Niner at al, 2022);
  • In South Africa and Namibia, decision-making processes on the blue economy tend to exclude indigenous peoples, such as the Khoisan people (Boswell and Thornton, 2021) and the Topnaar people (Sirkka Tshiningayamwe, 2022);
  • In Ghana, cultural heritage represented by canoe inscriptions among coastal people in Ghana is generally disregarded in fisheries policy (Oduro and Ansah, 2021; One Ocean Hub, 31 August 2021), as are the traditional practices of women in small-scale fishing communities (One Ocean Hub, 29 January 2022).

Barriers to the inclusion of cultural rights into blue economies

The submission also shared a number of common barriers to the inclusion of cultural rights in blue economies, based on Hub research and engagement in Ghana, Namibia and South Africa.

These barriers include:

  • absence of or limited recognition of local communities’ and indigenous peoples’ cultural rights, customary norms and cultural heritage, in the coastal and marine areas,
  • lack of culturally appropriate consultation processes (due to the lack of use of local languages for instance, or inaccessible documentation);
  • creation of marine protected areas without consideration of resulting restrictions to access to marine areas for culturally significant and sustainable livelihood practices
  • limited consideration of cultural heritage in environmental impact assessments, which often only recognise shipwrecks and pay little attention to other tangible or intangible cultural heritage, such as oral histories, traditions, cultural practices and ceremonies, places of spiritual significance, and indigenous cultural heritage;
  • lack of consideration in climate policies of cultural dimensions of the ocean-climate nexus and of the impacts of climate change on ocean culture;
  • lack of assessments of cumulative impacts on ocean culture from multiple blue economy developments, due to the lack of strategic environmental assessments.

The role of arts in supporting the protection of ocean-related cultural rights

The submission provided an opportunity for the One Ocean Hub to reflect on the various methods that Hub researchers are piloting to enhance the participation of cultural rights holders, reliance on cultural experts and artists, and the consideration of cultural heritage in decisions on the blue economy, such as:

  • arts-based approaches to engage in generative dialogue on different knowledge systems and cultural heritage related to the ocean (Empatheatre, 2020; Erwin, 22 March 2022);
  • the integration of cultural values into ocean mapping and modelling tools: in Algoa Bay, South Africa, the Hub and partner researchers are exploring photographic storytelling, to start discussions with decision makers on the inclusion of culture (particularly intangible cultural heritage) in marine spatial planning, (Strand et al, 2022, forthcoming; One Ocean Hub, 29 March 2022);
  • documentation of indigenous knowledge and its alignment with other sciences in an original animated film, Indlela yokuphila (isiZulu for “the soul’s journey”), which brought together artists, traditional healers, marine sociologists and deep-sea marine ecologists;
  • an ‘embodied mapping’ process in which small-scale fishers’ leaders made more understandable draft maps and consultation documentation, using their bodies as reference points for land-marks and noticeable boundaries; and then relied on these alternative, community-led maps to engage public authorities in discussing past inequalities and exclusions from ocean-related decision making (Pereira, Francis and McGarry, 2021);
  •  arts-based approaches can contribute to the protection of environmental human rights defenders (UNEP Winter/Summer School event on defenders 2021);
  • new approaches for transdisciplinary ocean research and inclusive ocean governance that put emphasis on the importance of cultural rights (Strand et al., 2022 forthcoming);
  • ocean literacy (particularly in primary schools) to advance understanding and protection of cultural heritage in the Solomon Islands and South Africa (One Ocean Hub, 13 December 2021).

Lesson learned from the inclusion of cultural resources and creative capacities

Drawing from One Ocean Hub research, we found that cultural resources and creative capacities are powerful instruments to help achieve the SDGs by:

  • Raising awareness and providing a generative space for dialogue on ocean cultural heritage and different knowledge systems;
  • Supporting the building of solidarity networks and partnerships to protect cultural rights;
  • Providing evidence of cultural rights that can be used in courts of law.

This has been exemplified in the use of  participatory theatre research method “Empatheatre” in  South Africa (“Lalela uLwandle” -Listen to the sea – play), which sparked a regional conversation on the intersection of tangible and intangible heritage and economic development. In turn, the momentum gathered through the Empatheatre performances led to the development of the Coastal Justice Network, which, among other areas of support to small-scale fishers, has contributed to the first court decision in South Africarecognizing the intangible spiritual and cultural beliefs of the small-scale fishing communities pertaining to the sacredness of the ocean as the home of their ancestors in 2022.


The consideration of cultural heritage, cultural and spiritual connections to the ocean, as well as customary laws and customary sustainable uses of ocean spaces and resources can support sustainable development and blue economies approaches that are context-specific and responsive to human rights-holders’ needs, knowledge systems, and resilience (rather than based on assumptions around poverty and vulnerability) with a view to supporting flourishing relationships in harmony with a healthy environment and ocean.

On the other hand, the disregard for the role of cultural heritage in livelihoods practices prevents blue economies from taking into account locally grounded and culturally significant opportunities for sustainable fisheries and tourism, which can also contribute to gender equality (a gap identified in various blue economy policies: Niner at al, 2022).

In addition, as demonstrated by the art-based research methodologies under the Hub, the arts, cultural expertise and creative capabilities can shape new approaches for transdisciplinary ocean research and inclusive ocean governance. Hub researchers are now capture learning from these experiences with a view to supporting other ocean researchers and influencing ocean research funders in the framework of the UN Decade for Ocean Science.

Finally, Hub research will focus on better understanding how the recognition, inclusion and protection of cultural rights in blue economies and ocean conservation  can contribute not only to ensuring basic human rights (such as the right to livelihoods of indigenous peoples, small-scale fishers, women and children), but also supporting the full realization of everyone’s human right to a healthy environment and healthy ocean.