Blue Economy | Africa’s new frontier?

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Hailed by the African Union (AU) as the ‘new frontier of African renaissance’, the idea of the blue economy is gaining prominence across the continent.

In 2014, the Seychelles, an early advocate of the blue economy, championed the agenda as ‘a vital part of Africa’s future development’. Meanwhile, states, including Kenya and South Africa, have begun formalising policy and legal frameworks to ‘unlock the ocean economy’, as a 2014 government report put it.

An elusive definition?

The AU’s African Integrated Maritime Strategy (2050 AIM Strategy) and its Agenda 2063 sets out the continent’s socio-economic targets for decades to come, identify the concept as a significant accelerator for the continent’s development.

Yet despite these national and pan-continental endorsements, a universal definition of the blue economy remains elusive. As with the green economy, which aims at reducing environmental harm from human activities, the lack of consensus on a definition for the blue economy has led to a variety of versions, which occur in competing discourses.

By assigning nature an economic value, the governance of earth’s seas is framed as a technical challenge rather than one that encompasses the diverse perspectives and aims of a multitude of state and non-state actors that must be reconciled, as Jennifer J Silver and colleagues put it in a 2015 article. This has left the concept open to diverse interpretations and vulnerable to conflict between actors operating within the marine sphere.

Vast and diverse potential

With 38 littoral states and approximately 13 million square kilometres of maritime space under jurisdiction, Africa’s maritime domain is considered to offer a wealth of underexploited opportunities, says the UN’s Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), which proponents of the blue economy propose to bring to economic fruition.

Potential opportunities range from the traditional—shipping, tourism and fishing—to the emerging, with increasing interest in biotechnology and aquaculture projects.

These emerging frontiers are also characterised by abundant, un(der)exploited natural resources and as demand for these minerals grows, the economic viability of deep-sea mining increases, says a 2010 report by the World Trade Organization. The AU’s 2050 AIM Strategy has called upon states to ‘[step] up the search for undersea mineral reserves in the whole African maritime domain (AMD)’.

Namibian case study

Namibia is one of only a few countries in the world presently debating the potential of seabed mining, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea being the other notable examples. The Namibian approach offers a case study through which one can analyse articulations of the blue economy and some of the opportunities and limitations presented by this new ocean-based economic frontier.

Formalised in Namibia’s National Development Plan 5: 2017-2022, the blue economy agenda has been touted as a mechanism through which Namibia can achieve sustainable and equitable growth, and seabed mining has been central to these discussions. The unique upwellings of the Benguela current ecosystem have led to the accumulation of marine phosphate in the seabed of Namibia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and technological advances mean that the exploitation of these deposits is now economically viable.

However, Namibia’s controversial phosphate mining project has been met with outcry from civil society, industry and ministerial representatives. Concerns that the project could damage sensitive breeding grounds for fish have been raised by the fishing industry.

These tensions and conflicts over the marine domain have created a situation whereby, Namibian fishing industry associations, supported by a local company, Omualu Fishing, have become embroiled in a court case related to environmental concerns.

This court case, against Namibia Marine Phosphate Ltd (known as NMP), challenges the mining company’s licence to operate, as well as its environmental clearance certificate. The idea of the blue economy is intended to achieve harmonisation between overlapping interests, but the Namibian case highlights how emerging operations and the desire of different sectors to exert influence over the marine domain can result in conflict. This is more pronounced where certain industries have historically dominated the marine environment.

Complexity

The marine environment is often viewed as…


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