This post is a briefing I wrote for the Maritime Security Research Team regular briefing series. I thought I share this with potential contacts on this platform.
Twenty-three years ago, Richard Auty used the concept of the ‘resource curse’ to describe how countries rich in mineral resources – especially low and middle-income countries – are unable to use their mineral wealth to enhance their economic growth. Since then, many other studies have shown that there is a strong correlation between natural resource abundance and poor economic growth due to bad governance, and many African countries are brands of this resource curse thesis. The case of the Democratic Republic of Congo – which although endowed with abundant mineral resources has for many decades been embroiled in war, poverty and underdevelopment – is an example that today this pejorative tag persists.
That notwithstanding, Africa’s natural resources are still the best hope to lift the continent out of over six decades of a cycle of poverty, wars and underdevelopment. Arguably, nowhere is this optimism so powerful than the case with the resources and potential found in the African Maritime Domain (AMD) – its blue economy. Somehow fittingly, the African Union (AU) considers it as the ‘new frontier of African renaissance’. According to the AU, if the blue economy is fully exploited and well governed, it will constitute a major source of wealth creation for many coastal countries and propel their fortunes, potentially making them comparable only to that of Norway and Sweden.
Consequently, since the launched of the African Union’s 2050 African Integrated Maritime Strategy (2050 AIM Strategy), there has been a concerted continental effort to accelerate the implementation of this strategy. In April, 2016, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) launched Africa’s Blue Economy Policy Handbook. The handbook provides a step-by-step guide to help African countries and regional institutions realise the potential of the blue economy. From providing guidance on existing legal frameworks at international and regional levels, to sharing comparative experiences for policy formulation in emerging sectors, it has been hailed as a timely contribution, pivotal for the continent’s blue economy renaissance.
One of the emerging sectors highlighted in the handbook is deep sea mining.
Drawing on the experience of Nauru – the first country to adopt national legislation with regards to seabed mining in its maritime domain – the handbook implicitly encourages African States to follow Nauru’s example. But there is a problem. Mining the deep sea is an ‘Alice-in-Wonderland world of extremes’ especially for Africa. Some literature suggests that Africa’s deep seabed is endowed with a world of wonder in minerals such as phosphates, manganese nodules, cobalt crust and ‘black smokers’ (deep sea chimneys formed from deposits of iron sulphide) and an extraordinary breadth of biodiversity. Yet we still know very little about these ecosystems and the impact deep sea mining may have on other marine resources like fisheries. This kind of climate of uncertainty caused the Namibian government in 2013 to place a moratorium on phosphate mining in the country’s maritime waters until there is clear evidence that phosphate mining will not destroy the fishing industry. The government is yet to lift the moratorium.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that, after the release of ‘The African Blue Economy Handbook’ on 3rd April 2016, the World Bank released a report on 28th April 2016, recommending Pacific Island countries like Nauru, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu to proceed with a ‘high degree of caution and transparency’ underpinned by ‘strong governance arrangements’ as they embark on deep sea mining exploration and exploitation.
African countries need to draw lessons first from ‘home’ (perhaps Namibia), and from the blue economy itself. In sectors such as marine captured fisheries, of which we have a much better understanding in comparison to deep sea mining, overexploitation as a result of bad governance has resulted in unprecedented rise in Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing in the continent with devastating socio-economic impacts. The continent’s Western States loses over USD $1.3 billion per year as a result of IUU fishing and the livelihood of over 200 million Africans is at stake. Hence, despite the continent hosting some of the richest fishing grounds in the world, many coastal communities are embroiled in ‘fish wars’ and continue to strive in abject poverty and neglect. It is safe to say, Africa’s marine fisheries sector is currently experiencing its own ‘resource curse’.
Hence, giving the continent’s poor understanding of her deep sea environment, some countries’ poor governance record, growing industrial interest and the pressures of an African blue economy revolution, the risk of even more catastrophic damages on marine ecosystems is edging closer. The potential impact on marine fisheries for example, will inevitably result to more scarcity, competition and over-exploitation, less fish on the plate for poor coastal communities and even more devastating fish wars. Deep sea mining will inevitably be the next frontier of the continent’s insecure maritime environment.