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Blue Economy comes of age

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Blue Economy comes of age

The world’s oceans and seas contain untold wealth that is ripe for sustainable exploitation. This was the message of the Sustainable Blue Economy Conference, held in November in Nairobi. Surrounded by some of the richest waters in the world, Africa was very much in the spotlight during this vital forum. Wanjohi Kabukuru attended.

For three days, the Sustainable Blue Economy Conference (SBEC) lifted Africa out of the periphery into the centre of the emerging Blue Economy paradigm. “It is in Africa that we have managed to add the word ‘sustainable’ into the harnessing of our oceans and water bodies for economic progress,” said Peter Thomson, a diplomat from Fiji and the UN Special Envoy for the Ocean. “From now on,” he added, “Africa will not be missing in the global discussions on oceans.”

Various speakers at this globally vital conference emphasised Africa’s ‘island’ aspect, as it is surrounded by three oceans and two seas: the Indian Ocean to the east, the Red Sea to the north east, the Mediterranean Sea to the north, the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the Antarctic Ocean to the south. The fact that despite this great geographical advantage Africa has never managed to fully capitalise on its maritime assets formed the nucleus of considerable discussion during the event, held at a packed Kenyatta International Convention Centre in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital.

In attendance were 8,000 delegates from 134 countries, including seven heads of state and government and 84 ministers, as well as senior representatives from academia, the private sector and international conservation agencies. By the time the conference closed, pledges totalling $172bn formed the core part of the Nairobi Statement of Intent on Advancing the Global Sustainable Blue Economy. These pledges cover areas such as marine protection, plastic waste management, maritime security, fisheries development, biodiversity, climate change adaptation, coastal infrastructure, and the establishment of blue bonds.

Among other areas of focus, the conference brought together business sector leaders, marine park managers, scientists, coastal communities and government figures with the aim of distilling policy to drive the new approaches that seek to leverage on the bounty offered by the Blue Economy. “Maybe a good start is to rethink the concept of the blue economy as a virtuous circle where the oceans provide services and resources, and economic actors in turn invest in marine observation, exploration and research,” said Dr Vladimir Ryabinin, Executive Secretary of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO.

That the Nairobi summit charted a new course and set in motion a global agenda on the blue economy is not in doubt. According to Thomson, the Nairobi conference will be followed by a second SBEC meeting, scheduled for June 2020 in Lisbon, Portugal. Global shift From the Nairobi meeting it is clear that there is a global shift in thinking and a determination to consider oceans as economic lynchpins. “Kenya and Africa need to plan radically differently in order to maximise returns by embracing the Blue Economy,” said Kenya’s Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary, Macharia Kamau.

The concept of the Blue Economy started to gain traction in around 2012. There was some dispute over whether to call the concept ‘Ocean Economy’ or ‘Marine Economy’ but eventually, the term Blue Economy – largely propounded by the former Seychelles President, James Michel – carried the day. In his 2016 book Rethinking the Oceans: Towards the Blue Economy, President Michel writes: “The meaning of the Blue Economy will become clearer the more that it is used, but for me a working definition is that it is about sustainable use of the sea to meet human needs. To be successful the concept must embrace environmental as well as economic interests.

“The sea has not so much been used as misused; it has too often been plundered for quick gain and treated as a dumping ground for landgenerated waste. The big difference now is that it must be used with sustainability always in mind.”

Michel goes on to break down the concept: “My belief is that the true potential of the Blue Economy will only be realised when its various sectors are separately examined. “Thus the likes of shipping, fishing and aquaculture, tourism, sea floor mining, renewable energy, biodiversity and biotechnology, waste management and measures to tackle climate change will all come under the microscope. “If we think of the Blue Economy as a whole it all looks rather daunting, but if we separate it into its various parts, it becomes more manageable. This I believe is the way forward.”

Just as Michel had outlined two years earlier, the Nairobi conference was organised incorporating plenary panel discussions and a wealth of side events, including discussions on fisheries, shipping lanes, coastal infrastructure, tourism, healthy aquatic ecosystems, the conservation of aquatic resources and sustainable usage of oceans. According to the report, Reviving the Ocean Economy: The Case for Action, published by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in association with the Boston Consulting Group, and the University of Queensland’s Global Change Institute, as at 2015, the global ocean’s wealth was valued at $24trn. If compared to the world’s top 10 leading economies, the ocean would rank 7th with an annual value of goods and services of $2.5trn.

Unpacking wealth of the oceans

During well-attended sessions at the Nairobi conference, the Blue Economy ideal was unpacked to provide easy understanding of the ocean’s vast wealth and numerous business opportunities. According to statistics provided by Professor Manuel Barange, the Food and Agriculture Organization’s director of Fisheries and Aquaculture, some 59.6m people are engaged in the primary sector of capture fisheries and aquaculture currently – with 19.3m people engaged in aquaculture and 40.3m people engaged in fisheries.

Of this number, 5.9m fishers and fish farmers are African. A number of other statistics highlight the scale of this work. Barange noted that global fish production peaked at about 171m tonnes in 2016. In 2017, the value of global fish exports fetched high prices due to strengthened demand, reaching $152bn. The Food and Agricultural Organization’s report, The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2018, details that as at 2016, the total number of fishing vessels in the world was 4.6m. Asia’s fleet, consisting of 3.5m vessels, remains the largest and accounts for 75% of the global fleet. The world’s second-largest economy, China still remains the leading fish producer and exporter, a position it has held since 2002.

Some of the other leading producers globally include Norway, Vietnam, the EU, US and Japan. The extractives sector was also a key theme at the conference, which covered oil and gas drilling, together with the new mining ‘El Dorado’ concerning the riches to be found in the deep sea. Given the precarious nature of ocean mining, most companies interested in deep sea mining are investing heavily in clean technologies that will guarantee environmental and occupational safeguards.

Neptune Minerals, a US corporation, Nautilus Minerals, which is listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange, and Diamond Fields International (DFI) of Canada are the three key pioneers in deep sea mining, with leases in the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of New Zealand, Red Sea, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Namibia, Fiji, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands respectively. In 2010, DFI announced that its joint venture partner, Manafa International Trade Company, had been granted a 30-year exclusive mining licence for the Atlantis II Deep in the Red Sea, in conjunction with an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Sudan.

DFI is engaged in offshore diamond mining off the coast of Namibia in south-west Africa. Nautilus Minerals has already been allocated the Solwara 1 mine in Papua New Guinea’s waters. The world’s new frontier for extractive industries is being framed from Royal Port Street in downtown Kingston, Jamaica. The International Seabed Authority (ISA), the autonomous UN agency tasked with organising and regulating all mineral-related activities on the international seabed, has its headquarters here. Records from the ISA, which was created under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), indicate that from 2002 to date, slightly more than a dozen deep sea exploration contracts covering the major seas have been issued.

Three of these licences involve the Indian Ocean. The China Ocean Mineral Resources Research and Development Association (COMRA), which is a Chinese state agency, and the governments of India, Germany and South Korea have secured Indian Ocean deep sea exploration rights. These four have already been awarded 15-year exploration contracts which give them exclusive rights to investigate areas of up to 75,000 square kilometres for nodules and another 10,000 square kilometres for sulfides.

COMRA’s block is in the southwest Indian ridge in the Madagascar Plateau, while South Korea’s block is in the mid-Indian ridge between the Mascarene plateau and the contentious Chagos plateau. India has been granted a polymetallic nodule exploration licence near Chagos. World sea-borne trade At the same time, statistics provided by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) show that world seaborne trade reached 10.3bn tons in 2016, with Asia the largest trading region. In 2016, 4.1bn tons of goods were loaded and 6.3bn tons of goods were unloaded in Asian seaports. China was the world’s largest exporting economy, with the US and Germany in 2nd and 3rd positions respectively.

Seychelles recently raised the world’s first sovereign blue bond, which helped the island nation to generate some $15m. This innovative financing mechanism, designed to support sustainable marine conservation and fisheries growth, was also discussed at the conference. Jean Paul Adams, Seychelles’ current Minister for Finance, Trade & the Blue Economy, has previously argued that: “The sea is not a space for exploitation, it is [a] space for development… The blue economy is about trade routes, connectivity, environmental protection, tourism, natural resources, fisheries and the entire ocean view.”

Arica is surrounded on all sides by some of the world’s richest waters yet so far, the continent as a whole has hardly exploited this massive natural bounty beyond fisheries and hydrocarbons. Now is the time for the continent’s thinkers and planners, especially in coastal countries, to get up to speed with the rest of the world and seize the enormous opportunities the oceans and seas around us provide. It will require deep knowledge and out-of-the-box thinking, as well as the ability to convene effective partners to exploit the continent’s waters to the full. Can the continent’s planners meet this challenge?  

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