One Ocean Hub highlights role and needs of small-scale fishers at UN consultations on Environmental Human Rights Defenders

By Senia Febrica

In May One Ocean Hub contributed to a global consultation organized by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) on the protection of environmental human rights defenders (EHRDs). The event sought to identify good practices to support environmental human rights defenders and their local communities. In addition, One Ocean Hub researchers contributed to the African regional consultation on this issue on 7th May 2021.

These meetings brought together experts from across the world with the purpose of discussing and sharing practices such as defense activities, livelihood projects as well as prevention of and protection against attacks. They aimed to identify gaps in existing UN guidance with a view to putting forward practical recommendations to relevant bodies and mechanisms of the UN. The outcomes will inform a compilation of good practices and recommendations, that will be made available through a report and an online interactive tool, accessible via

Global consultation

The global consultation was attended by the former and current UN Special Rapporteurs on Human rights and the Environment, and the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, as well as several representatives of UN agencies.

In the first session of the global consultation, titled “Towards a common understanding of the ‘support to EHRDs’ concept’, Dr Philile Mbatha and Aphiwe Moshani, from Cape Town University, South Africa, shared their research findings on the role of small-scale fishing communities as EHRDs, bringing in perspectives also on traditional knowledge and customary rights, including in the context of the creation of marine protected areas.  Dr Mbatha and Moshani began their presentation by providing an overview of the expansion of blue economy interventions of the coast, and how their implementation tends to focus on neoliberal objectives at the expense of social ones.  The displacement and disempowerment of many traditional fishers on the northern parts of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), Dube and Mkhwanazi, due to the continuation of a mining lease in the Zulti South Mining Lease Area in 2019, was used as an example. The mining lease covers the coastal area between the south of Richards Bay and the uMhlathuze river and the north of Port Dunford extending 20km of this coast and has destroyed small-scale fishing grounds, displaced 645 people and 79 households, and further displaced additional 586 households. They also drew attention to the harassment and killing of environmental rights defenders who are activists and fisheries resource has been a growing concern. According to Dr Mbatha and Moshani traditional small-scale fishers have been victims of this criminalization since the 1950s when conservation interventions escalated in northern KwaZulu-Natal. Forced removals, dispossession, insecure rights and loss of traditional livelihoods have been the result and are still ongoing issues faced by small-scale fishing communities. They stressed that the key barriers to an inclusive blue economy that has led to small-scale fishers displacement and criminalization include:

  • Insecure land and resource tenure
  • Food and livelihood insecurity
  • Multiple, uncoordinated institutions
  • Lack of accountability and transparency
  • Flawed governance systems
  • Lack of political will for implementing change
  • Historical injustices perpetuated
  • Marginalization
  • Power issues
  • Militarized conservation
  • Absence of clear policy and legal framework for benefit sharing
  • Lack of access to the coast and its resources
  • Criminalization of bona fide resources users
  • Women and children are the most vulnerable
  • Green and blue grabbing

Dr Mbatha and Moshani concluded that more actions can be done to protect small-scale fishers as environmental human rights defenders including by

  • Having balanced economic, social, and ecological goals
  • Promoting food and livelihood security
  • Having contextualized effort
  • Holding governments and private sector accountable
  • Investing in local capacity and empowerment
  • Enhancing access to information
  • Providing access to redress
  • Promoting equitable access and benefit sharing approaches
  • Providing local legal support
  • Acknowledging traditional knowledge systems
  • Promoting bottom-up decision making
  • Improving participation and transparency in decision making
  • Providing more support for women and children
  • Advancing inclusive decision-making/downward accountability

Prof Morgera contributed the following ideas during the session on “how to secure a UN System response to the support (prevention, protection and promotion) needs of EHRDs?”:

  • Ensuring the inclusion of ocean defenders (including children, small-scale fishing communities, indigenous peoples) in UN System’s work on EHRDs, which tends to be focused on terrestrial issues;
  • Mapping the respective mandates and initiatives of different UN agencies with a view to understanding their respective areas of contribution to the protection of EHRDs (from addressing entrenched discrimination in natural resource laws, and supporting an enabling environment for EHRDs, to supporting access to justice), to:
    • Making more accessible a complete set of information on initiatives to support EHRDs within the UN System and by donors;
    • Ensure strategic synergies across the work of different UN agencies;
    • And identify any gaps.

African consultation

Taryn Pereira from Rhodes University, South Africa, presented their team’s Empatheatre methodology and the Coastal Justice Network supported by the One Ocean Hub in South Africa at the third session of the regional consultation devoted to “Existing good practices to support EHRDs and their communities”. They explained how academic researchers built partnerships with small-scale fisheries and coastal indigenous communities, and the needs of these communities representatives that act as ocean defenders. Taryn Pereira elaborated

how through these partnerships researchers, small-scale fisher leaders, environmental justice organisations and researchers have been able to respond collaboratively to a range of injustices – social, environmental, economic- perpetrated on coastal communities and environments including:

  • human rights violations in marine protected areas, including killing of fishers (criminalisation of livelihoods)
  • offshore oil and gas expansion
  • lack of participation in marine governance
  • small-scale fisheries policy failures
  • water crises in coastal communities
  • COVID lockdown related oppressions
  • coastal mining expansion
  • blocking of small-scale fishers’ rights by industrial fishing associations, and others.

A number of key points raised by Dr Dylan McGarry and Taryn Pereira and during the session highlighted the following steps that the Coastal Justice Network is taking to support small-scale fishers:

  • building stronger partnership between different leadership structures at local level to protect those who increase the profile of environmental concerns and fishers’ rights issues, particularly with on-the-ground’ environmental human rights lawyers.
  • developing stronger partnerships with Pan-African and other global south environmental defender organisations
  • providing immediate legal and financial support for small-scale fishers and their families. For this purpose there is a pressing need to secure ongoing funding for the network, for a ‘legal fees for fishers’ facility, and for capacity building
  • advancing social learning for transformation of violently exclusionary conservation practices in marine protected areas

Prof Morgera contributed the following ideas during the session on “Contributing to the full enjoyment of human rights by EHRDs: the role of EHRDs’ stakeholders”:

  • Working with UN agencies that advice or provide capacity-building on national legislation on natural resource governance to mainstream requirements for the protection of EHRDs;
  • Including in UNEP’s programme of training for judges a component on the rights and needs of EHRDs;
  • Providing capacity building to national human rights bodies in the area of natural resource governance and mediation, to support EHRDs in their interactions with governments and private companies and identify “non-negotiable human rights issues” that may be at stake;
  • Organize regular consultations with national and local legal aid NGOs that support EHRDs;
  • Working with universities to support or recognize the value of legal clinics to support EHRDs and local NGOs that work with them, so as to build the capacity of law students (as future legal professionals) to contribute to the protection of EHRDs.

As a follow up to the One Ocean Hub’s engagement in UNEP’s Environmental Human Rights Defenders (EHRDs), the Hub is collaborating with UNEP and the Food and Agriculture Organization to organise an event for the World Ocean Week, “Small-scale fishers and ocean well-being : vital partners in enhancing biocultural diversity, human rights and sustainable livelihoods”, on 7th June 2021, 09.00-10.30 GMT.  Panellists of this event are Professor Elisa Morgera, the University of Strathclyde; Taryn Pereira Kaplan, Rhodes University; Dr Bolanle Erinosho, the University of Cape Coast; Professor Alex Kanyimba, the University of Namibia; Dr Tapiwa Warikandwa, the University of Namibia; Small-Scale Fishers Leaders; Ms Angela Kariuki, the United Nations Environment Programme; Ms Nicole Franz, the Food and Agriculture Organization. Register here