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Marine protected areas must promote and respect rights of small-scale fishers, not dispossess them


Sibongiseni Gwebani is the media and communications officer at the Masifundise Development Trust.

More than 56 recognised small-scale fishing communities live in or are adjacent to the 42 marine protected areas along South Africa’s coast. Few were consulted and the majority were dispossessed of their land and their access to marine resources was greatly restricted when the areas were established.

Marine Protected Area Day was observed in Africa for the first time on 1 August 2021. This day was declared by conservation strategist Judy Mann, giving us an opportunity to reflect on how the establishment and management of conservation areas often occur at the expense of the livelihoods and customary rights of rural fishing communities.

Marine protected areas are increasingly being used as a tool for the management of marine and coastal resources. These areas are established in response to the increasing threats posed by human activities, climate change and industrial development. Marine protected areas have been a policy instrument used to address several of the pressures on marine biodiversity, in particular overfishing and exploitation and habitat destruction.

However, in South Africa, marine protected areas have been planned and managed with minimal attention to human impact and with little consideration for local communities that depend on these natural resources for their livelihoods, cultural heritage, customary rights and local economic activities.

In 1994, at the advent of democracy, the country inherited a complex apartheid-based protected area and natural resource governance legacy. This was at odds with the new Constitution, which provides for the protection of biodiversity and environmental rights while restoring the dignity and human rights of its citizens and ensuring redress for past injustices.

The concept of protecting an identified fishing area, designating marine spatial territory and linking this to specific regulations has a long history in South Africa. These have been influenced by the apartheid spatial planning legislation introduced in the 1960s. Large proportions of coastal land were forcibly cleared for either forestry or marine conservation by using racial segregation laws. The histories of all of the major marine protected areas in South Africa are shaped by racially based removals through land and seascape during the 1970s and 1980s.

Maputaland, St Lucia, Pondoland, Hluleka, Dwesa-Cwebe, Addo, Tsitsikamma, De Hoop and Langebaan are all marine protected areas with dispossession legacies. In the case of Langebaan and Dwesa-Cwebe, the courts have asserted the customary rights of small-scale fishers to co-manage the marine protected areas in line with their livelihoods and traditions.

The establishment and management of marine protected areas and other conservation sites are embedded in apartheid history. Environmental practices are informed by apartheid spatial planning and racist segregation laws, seeking to protect biodiversity, often at the expense of rural and indigenous communities. In the context of the development initiative Operation Phakisa, which pushes for the so-called ocean economy to be capitalised on, marine protected areas are being promoted to mitigate the impact of offshore and coastal mining and oil and gas drilling.

However, none of these initiatives takes into account the livelihoods of thousands of fishing communities.

The Constitution recognises the need for redress and restoring dignity and human rights, but there is legislation with a large colonial hangover. Many practices and management of fisheries and the earmarking of marine protected areas continue to be influenced by apartheid-based governance systems and profit-making motives. These influences have not dissolved despite changes in legislation and the advent of democracy. Marine protected areas, marine resources and fisheries access continue to be entangled in ownership and use patterns linked to the past and to corporate interests, rather than the lives and livelihoods of coastal communities

There are more than 56 recognised small-scale fishing communities living in or adjacent to the 42 marine protected areas along the South African coast. The majority of these communities were dispossessed of their lands and their access to marine resources was greatly restricted when these marine protected areas were established. Very few of these communities were consulted when they were established. Many fishers continue to face harassment and criminalisation by compliance officers, as well as arrest for fishing illegally in these marine protected areas, despite having the assurances of customary fishing rights.

The coastline has become littered with marine protected areas, and in 2019 20 more were gazetted. The establishment of even more of these areas with little or no consultative and public participation processes will create contestation with communities around access. Small-scale fishing communities are likely to experience the loss of their customary practices and be stripped of ancestral land to make space for tourism.

To protect our oceans and their biodiversity, the knowledge, traditions, culture and practices of small-scale fishers are assets that cannot be ignored, and should be the basis of the management of protected areas. However, communities are continually bearing the brunt of decision-making processes that have systematically excluded them.

The voices of communities must be included in the establishment of marine protected areas – not doing so contributes to poverty and hunger and undermines indigenous knowledge. The government relies solely on scientific research, ignoring the wealth of indigenous knowledge that exists when choosing and establishing marine protected areas. This undercuts the customary rights and practices of rural communities.

The lack of co-management structures also ensures that small-scale fishing remains vulnerable and underdeveloped and really poses a risk to the biodiversity protection that marine protected areas are supposed to deliver. DM


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  • jcdville stormers says:

    Thankyou for this article,you are saying what somebody should’ve said long time ago!!!

  • Miles Japhet says:

    What exactly is the indigenous knowledge you refer to? Good points re involvement of locals in the management process. With population increase much of our marine resources are unsustainable and local populations do not have a track record of resource management in much of the third world. So what is the plan?

  • David Bristow says:

    Marine Protected Reserves are the equivalent of national parks on land – they are our last chance of protecting the biological base of these ecosystems. Suggesting fishing be allowed their is the equivalent of licensing of hunting in national parks. Local knowledge or no. At some point we have to make a stand, a line in the beach sand if you like, and say: protect this natural resource or we all go down together. To write in a respected medium that they have been conceived with “little thought or planning” is a highly disingenious kind of journalism. But hey, that’s your opinion, you are entitled.

    • Jane Crankshaw says:

      Thank you Mr Brisow – a voice of reason in the political insanity of South Africa today. There are very few Marine Protected Areas in SA won after many years of battles fiercely fought by environmentalists and those that care about our natural habitats.
      There are also many places where fishing can take place where no rules exist at all – the coastline of the tribal Trustlands for example, where anything goes!
      In my opinion….the only white member of CRs cabinet is the Minister of the Environment. I would hate to think that this is what the article is really about!

      • Jane Crankshaw says:

        All you have to do is look at a map of the South African coast showing the Marine Protected areas and you will see how small and fragile these tiny spots of protection are compared to the extensive coastal fishing areas that are open to the public and industry.

  • Stephen Stead says:

    Limited gov management resources make this concept a long-term liability to the greater good of ensuring regeneration of marine systems under threat. While this may start as small scale fishing, it will likely end with large scale operations using the small scale fishing as a front to plunder already depleted marine resources. Also very difficult to ring fence who the villages are, as opposed to general population. Why should urban based poor be discriminated against? Unfortunately, human extraction mindsets have resulted in a critical need to recognize and enact planetary boundaries thinking to ensure earth system stabilization. At a regional scale, we have hit this marine ‘boundary’, and as such, resource protection is required for the greater good. This of course, does not address the adjacent villages hunger. Wicked problem, possibly addressed by BIG, or the incorporation of some of the villages as protectors thereby offering some benefit to the local community from the resource?

  • Shirley Walters says:

    Thanks, Sibongiseni, for bringing attention to the plight of small scale fishing communities. Over the years effective development practices insist that local communities must be part of decisions that will affect them. The same as national parks have come to realise that if you don’t have the ‘buy-in’ of communities around the parks, poaching etc will continue. Drawing on the local knowledge of communities makes good sense.

  • Lee Richardson says:

    Exploitation and protection can’t actually co-exist

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