By Paula Satizábal, University of Melbourne, and Simon P J Batterbury, Lancaster University.
Oceans are framed by policy makers and governments as being empty of people and full of resources available for capital accumulation (Bridge 2001). They are portrayed as containers of open access public goods (e.g. the Exclusive Economic Zones prescribed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea). These images are used to facilitate the privatisation of fishing grounds and other productive areas, as well as to justify the overexploitation of marine resources, which are generally under very limited state control. People who live near coasts are often excluded from conversations about how marine territory is negotiated.
People living at the intersection of land and sea have not been passive observers of these processes of accumulation by dispossession. Despite an absence of institutional instruments that recognise peoples’ marine territorial rights, several groups and communities have relied on marine conservation enclosures as the only legal tool available to legitimise their authority over the sea. However, for many, this is not a long-term solution; once a marine protected area has been established coastal peoples are often excluded from decision-making arenas.
Previous research has highlighted the key role played by state and non-state actors in negotiating land-based territorialisation. However, the role played by socio-cultural dynamics on guiding and informing marine territorialisation processes has been largely overlooked. Our recent publication in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, entitled ‘Fluid geographies: marine territorialisation and the scaling up of local aquatic epistemologies on the Pacific Coast of Colombia’ (Satizábal & Batterbury 2017), addresses this gap. We examine the participatory process undertaken by coastal Afro-descendant communities along the Gulf of Tribugá on the northern Pacific coast of Colombia, which enabled them to take part in the state production of territory at sea through the creation of a marine protected area.
Local aquatic epistemologies
Ulrich Oslender (2016) coined the concept of ‘local aquatic epistemologies’ to denote the ways of knowing that result from the entanglements of humans in aquatic environments. We argue that coastal dwellers in the Gulf of Tribugá hold ‘local aquatic epistemologies’, which is where knowledge has been produced through the individual and collective experiences of people entangled in the fluid dynamics of rain, rivers, and sea, as well as through their interactions with indigenous and expert knowledge.
Coastal people along the Gulf generally conceived the sea as a lived space, where territory is constructed through everyday practices, moving beyond marine/riverine/coastal divides. However, the collective territorial rights granted to Afro-descendant communities in Colombia since 1993 only recognised their rights over the land, reproducing the spatial logics of the colonial period. Conflicts between coastal communities and the deep-water shrimp and tuna industrial fisheries have escalated since the 1990s due to the impacts of overfishing and excessive bycatch. These conflicts cannot be reduced to threats to coastal food security or access to fishing resources; they are an important part of coastal dwellers’ efforts to defend their marine social spaces and authority over the sea.
The marine protected area
With the support from conservation NGOs, and informed by their local aquatic epistemologies, these communities are navigating the state institutional apparatus. They have used formal institutional mechanisms to claim their marine rights through the creation of a marine protected area. The process has been centred on the conservation of fishing resources, relegating the socio-cultural dimensions of their marine claims to the background.
The creation of the marine protected area on the Gulf of Tribugá involved the scaling up of local aquatic epistemologies. This has enabled Afro-descendant territorial struggles to reach national negotiation arenas, transforming relations of authority at sea. The marine protected area emerges as a space of resistance that subverts the lack of legal mechanisms to assert the marine territorial rights of coastal people. These spaces are, however, still dominated by the interests of the fishing industry.
Although this process contests marine empty-yet-full imaginaries, the creation of marine protected areas remains centred on access and control over fishing resources. We emphasise the importance of developing legal instruments that overcome marine coastal divides and recognise the relevance of marine social spaces as part of indigenous and afro-descendant peoples’ territorial rights.
About the authors: Paula Satizábal is a PhD Candidate at the School of Geography, University of Melbourne, and Simon P J Batterbury is Professor of Political Ecology at the Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University.
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