Africa’s Blue Economy – win-win or false promise?

An overhead view of a ship, a deep-sea mining robot and a batch of caught fish.

Can harnessing the economic potential of the oceans offer Africa a way to grow sustainably, or is it just business as usual with few real benefits for the environment or the poor?

This question is raised in a special issue of the Journal of Political Ecology, edited by two Lancaster University researchers.

“The Blue Economy is an enticing concept which, like the Green Economy, promises to save the environment, boost economies and do it in socially just ways,” says Professor Christina Hicks. Christina is co-editor of the section on the Blue Economy whose current research focuses on small scale fisheries.

“Governments are jumping on board the idea, especially in Africa, but there is very little written about it in the academic literature. We wanted to explore how it is working in theory and practice.” Co-editor, Dr John Childs, from the Lancaster Environment Centre, came up with the idea for the Blue Economy issue. John sees the oceans, which cover 75% of the Earth’s surface, as a new resource frontier where the battle for control of mineral and other wealth is being fought out.

Dr Childs defines the blue economy as a set of practices, policies and discourses. These aim to reposition the global oceans as pulling off two distinct functions - to generate economic growth while moving towards increased sustainability.

“In this edition, we ask whether these two functions are compatible bedfellows,” says John, whose current research focuses on natural resource extraction particularly deep-sea mining.

Lancaster University is home to the largest group of political ecologists in Europe: political ecology looks at the relationships between culture, politics and nature.

“One of the things we wanted to tease apart in the special issue is who and what has the power in the blue economy,” says John. “We often view the ocean as an apolitical, flat, inert space. In reality, it is an enormous volume full of marine life, performing functions for climate and earth systems. That is not to mention the many different ways people are culturally invested in oceans.

“There are lots of ways human power plays out in the oceans, including relations between governments, indigenous peoples and corporations. One of the papers looks at a situation where there is a big clash going on between different industries in Namibia, the emerging phosphate mining lobby on the one hand versus very powerful, existing, large-scale industrial fishing.”

John and Christina argue that governments and corporations are increasingly trying to secure access to the economic potential of the oceans through military or technological dominance, excluding weaker and poorer players from the benefits.

“You have to have a secure marine space if you are going to make money out of it,” said John. “It is also important to relate what is happening now to the legacies of European development in Africa - colonialism, rampant dispossession and the transatlantic slave trade. The ocean had a large part to play in that.”

Researchers at different stages of their careers have written the seven papers. These include two PhD researchers from Lancaster, one of whom, Rosanna Carver, has already won an award for her paper. They cover a wide range of issues, exploring how the Blue Economy is developing in different contexts, who wins and who loses, and the inherent tensions between its multiple aims.

“The papers in the special issue suggests that the Blue Economy is not a benign concept offering a win-win for the economy and the environment. They suggest it is another capitalist fix in which global capital is seeking to reproduce itself, to keep making money and create surplus. This is happening as we get to the point where much of planet’s landmass had been appropriated,” says John.

“The Blue Economy has yet to build on the lessons of our experience of ideas around the Green Economy. The Green Economy emerged in the 1970s as a solution to all our environmental problems,” said Christina. “We need to do things differently this time, to critique the concept while recognising the potential benefits. Getting papers like these to policymakers and managers in the region will help that dialogue.”

The Journal of Political Ecology is an open-access journal. The special issue includes the following papers:

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