While Washington Talks, Africa’s Oceans Remain in Danger

President Barack Obama signs 2016 Our Ocean Conference items, next to Secretary of State John Kerry's signature, following his remarks at the State Department in Washington, D.C., Sept. 15, 2016.President Obama signs 2016 Our Ocean Conference items, next to Secretary of State John Kerry’s signature, following his remarks at the State Department in Washington, DC, September 15, 2016. (Photo: Pete Souza / White House)

From September 15-16, John Kerry and the US State Department hosted this year’s “Our Ocean” conference in Washington, DC, where participants (including, of course, the ever-present Leonardo DiCaprio) put forward 136 new initiatives that they claim will contribute $5.24 billion toward protecting the world’s oceans. Among the developments at the conference was a vow from the US and 12 other countries to negotiate an agreement on fishing subsidies that contribute to excessive and illegal fishing. New commitments were also made to establish marine protection of areas encompassing more than 1.5 million square miles.

Those numbers sound great — until you delve a little deeper and look at how all the feel-good talk of the Global North does precious little for the Global South, where most of these endangered areas actually are.

Indeed, while the Global North has the resources and capacity to declare marine wildlife preserves and enforce those new rules with forces like the US Coast Guard, the Global South is left grasping for straws. In what appears to be a pretty transparent legacy-making move, Obama’s administration expanded the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawai’i, which now totals 582,578 square miles of land and sea and is the biggest environmental protection zone in the world. Most commercial fishing and mining activities have been banned to preserve the area’s thriving ecosystem.

Moves like expanding Papahānaumokuākea sound great, until you realize that the nations of the Global South (sub-Saharan Africa chief among them) can barely scrape together the resources to fish or develop their own waters, let alone protect them or set them apart as nature preserves. These countries are instead at the mercy of destructive illegal overfishing, piracy and environmental devastation until rich countries decide to step in. If they were hoping for the Our Ocean conference to give them a hand, they are likely sorely disappointed: The US will be putting together a grand total of $1.25 million in grants to “build capacity to create, effectively manage, and enforce marine protected areas” in East Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands. The EU, for its part, will be putting up €1 million euros to set up protected areas in Europe, Africa and the Americas.

The sums being advertised in the wake of the conference will do little to disprove the accusations that aid from the world’s wealthy countries is inadequate and ineffective. Instead of investing in sustainable local economies that can take care of themselves, funds offered by Washington and the European capitals undercut local food production and prop up dictatorial regimes that happen to serve their strategic interests. Instead of helping developing countries feed themselves, Washington prefers to arm them to the teeth. For the sake of comparison, the US provided nearly $18 million in military aid to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2012 alone. The Congolese security forces, of course, are currently in the news for gunning down opposition supporters in the streets of Kinshasa.

With the pittance being offered to them, impoverished communities in Africa can hardly be expected to stand up to the outside forces preying on their resources. Perhaps the greatest threat coastal communities on the continent face is the large number of foreign fishing vessels illegally trawling through their waters. Faced with depleted fish stocks at home, fleets from China have instead turned to fishing in the African waters, where most governments lack the hardware to stop them. Many of these are bottom trawlers, which indiscriminately destroy all manner of marine life and cause immense damage to fragile ecosystems. As foreign fleets pillage massive amounts of fish from poor countries and send them back home, local fishermen are increasingly finding there are no more fish left to meet local needs. The crisis has left tens of thousands of fishing industry workers without jobs, sucked billions of dollars out of Africa, and fatally undermined food security and nutrition.

Those poor fishermen displaced by illegal fishing can and will seek other means to support themselves, even if that means piracy. There has already been a surge in pirate raids in the Gulf of Guinea, and Nigeria alone is losing an estimated $1.5 billion a month to piracy, armed maritime robbery, smuggling and fuel supply fraud. In just the first quarter of this year, Nigeria saw 32 attacks off its coast, compared to 54 attacks in the Gulf of Guinea in 2015. The human cost has grown worse, with 23 killed and dozens of others kidnapped or injured. Worsening the situation is the lack of accountability.

In spite of their constraints, some African government bodies (like the Nigerian Navy and Mozambique‘s state-owned tuna-fishing company) have invested in patrol boats and other technology to police their waters and safeguard their potential national wealth. Considering that global market trends and voracious overseas demand is driving the damage being done to their coastlines, these cash-strapped countries can hardly be expected to tackle the problem alone.

Fortunately, some partners outside the West have taken a more productive approach to helping everyday Africans. India, motivated by the fact that it shares an ocean with them, has offered to help East Africa’s littoral countries strengthen their marine economies.

The initiatives announced at the Our Oceans conference make for great sound bites, but it is going to take much more than an annual two-day meeting to protect African waters. The international community bears a share of the responsibility for piracy in East Africa and in the Gulf of Guinea, and helping local communities build sustainable sea-based economies would go a long way toward making Africa a more prosperous, less violent place.