Sustainable Oceans, Sustainable Economies Challenges and Opportunities

Wed, 30 November 2016 | Blue Economy

Keynote address by President James Michel, ISAS International Workshop, Maritime Governance in South Asia: The Potential for Trade, Security and Sustainable Development Singapore, 29-30 Nov 2016 


Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is hard to think of a more fitting location for this important dialogue.  Singapore, in terms of size, is a small state but at the same time an economic powerhouse much admired for its achievements by the rest of the world.  And, in a forum where we will address the challenges and opportunities of the Blue Economy, where better than to do this than at the confluence of two great oceans – the Pacific to the east and the Indian Ocean to the west?  No less of interest, we are at the hub of a medley of nations, large and small, at different stages of development.  The hosts of this conference have, indeed, provided us with a setting that is second to none for a lively exchange of ideas and experience.  

As the recent President and citizen of a small island state, the Republic of Seychelles, I will show in my address that coming from a small state is not a disadvantage when it comes to talking about the sea.  On the contrary, it can be argued that living within daily sight and sound of the waves sharpens the senses, constantly reminding one of the immensity of the oceans and of their importance for the very future of the inhabitants of this planet.  What happens at sea matters to us all; its use is an issue for humanity, an issue that knows no boundaries, an issue where all voices need to be heard. 

It is all too easy to forget that ours is a Blue Planet, where little more than a quarter of the surface area is comprised of land.  How, therefore, can we afford to ignore what the oceans have to offer?  How can we change our thinking so that we recognise its primacy, not simply in terms of its expanse but also for its resources?  And how can we succeed in our relationship with the sea, compared with the mistakes we have made on land?  It is to find answers to these pressing questions that I have over the last few years explored the potential of what is now widely known as the Blue Economy. 

Blue is the New Green

The Green Economy preceded the Blue.  During the last quarter of the twentieth century, the world finally woke up to the fact that the wanton use of our environment could not be allowed to continue.  Quite apart from ethical considerations, there were compelling economic reasons to take urgent action – we were burning our precious forests at an alarming rate, consuming finite mineral resources without regard for what we would do when these ran out, polluting our supplies of fresh water in the face of rising demands.  If we carried on like this it was clear that our very future would be in jeopardy.  Time was running out and only belatedly did nations start to acknowledge the urgency of the situation.  The concept of sustainability was brought onto the environmental agenda, leading, in turn, to the over-arching idea of the Green Economy.  Progress since then has by no means been without setbacks but at least there is now hope.  A way forward has opened up.

Yet, while the spotlight was first turned to the 28% of the planet that is land, the sea remained in the shadows.  At last that, too, has started to change and it is no coincidence that important initiatives originated in small island states.  In such locations, people were only too aware of what was already happening: fisheries that were yielding less with the passing of each year, coupled with the growing threat of climate change.  Extreme weather conditions had become more prevalent, while along the beaches the evidence of rising sea levels was all too apparent.  Livelihoods were threatened, if not the very survival of low-lying islands.  So it was time to speak up, to let the rest of the world know what was happening.  Small though they are in themselves, the collective voice of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) was increasingly to be heard in the international corridors of power. 

If one is to point to a critical step in the emergence of the Blue Economy as a force to be reckoned with, then surely it must be the United Nations Rio+20 Conference in June 2012.  This important event was held to enable the world community to continue discussions about the institutional framework for sustainable development in general, and to explore more fully the potential of the Green Economy in particular.  While supporting these main themes, representatives of island nations also saw this as an opportunity to bring the still-evolving concept of the Blue Economy into the same world arena.  Arguments were marshalled in a pre-conference report, ‘Green Economy in a Blue World’, and three basic principles were proposed:

o       the oceans great resources should be used sustainably;

o       economic benefits should be distributed fairly; and

o       the carbon footprint of the maritime states should be reduced.

In other words, even before the Rio +20 Conference, the idea of the Blue Economy was taking shape and winning support not only amongst small island developing states but in a larger forum too.  As one of the architects of SIDS, and as a pioneer of the idea of the Blue Economy, I was able to play a crucial role in shaping the idea and in encouraging wider international attention and support.  Looking back now, I cannot believe that it is only four years since this important breakthrough.  So much has happened since then: resolutions passed, policies developed, reports and learned papers published, students writing dissertations.

It is not long since people would ask me what the Blue Economy is and what is different compared with past uses of the oceans.  Within this short period it is my belief – especially in an informed gathering like this – that we now share an understanding of the concept and that lengthy definitions are no longer necessary.  Suffice to say that the Blue Economy embraces not one set of activities but many.  It is also not confined to any one part of the world. There is something of interest to all nations, large and small, north and south, landlocked as well as maritime. Certainly, not all nations will approach it in the same way, but different aspects will appeal more in different circumstances. There is a common core of ideas but also the potential for numerous variations.

But there is one characteristic that is common to all.  The Blue Economy is not simply about making greater use of the sea but about making better use of it too.  And the way this will be done is by recognising the importance of sustainability.  That is why I think that everyone engaged in work on the Blue Economy should have a framed copy of Sustainable Development Goal 14 above their desk:

Goal 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources

Without the inclusion of this key concept the Blue Economy would be incomplete; with it the future is bright, an approach that has the potential to benefit future generations as well as our own.


New Economic Frontiers

Very quickly, the word has spread.  I have already explained that small island states had a particular incentive to pioneer the idea of the Blue Economy.  Some large nations, such as Australia, were also fast off the mark.  Soon, others in the region, such as Indonesia, followed, along with the great powers of India and China – all with their own evolving policies and priorities.

Little wonder there is so much interest.  The potential economic rewards are too great any longer to be ignored:

-        the diminishing yields of the main fisheries can be reversed if catches are carefully managed to allow for new stock to flourish;

-        mariculture faces a number of technical problems but new techniques will establish it as a staple source of proteins for the world’s food industry;

-        coastal and marine tourism will continue to grow but, again, will only prosper if the standards of popular venues and the surrounding environment can be maintained if not improved;

-        there are reserves of oil and natural gas beneath our continental shelves, which will pose a threat to the fragile environment of the sea unless the greatest care is taken in extracting these valuable commodities;

-        one has only to stand on the shore to feel the power of the waves and to sense the hidden currents, all of which will surely one day be converted to an inexhaustible supply of renewable energy for use on land; and

-        beneath the surface of the sea is a diversity of plant life and living organisms that are already being harvested for use in pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and health foods.

And so we can go on – creating new opportunities, opening new vistas, exploring the hidden depths of the mighty oceans.  The future is, indeed, Blue.  But to achieve what is possible we have to be prepared to do things differently.  This an influential forum and it is individuals like yourselves who will make the difference.  Let me in the second half of my paper point to three areas where this will occur – the whole area of geopolitics, the need for invention, and entrepreneurship.  In doing this, I will look especially at the contribution of small island states and, not least of all, Seychelles, my own country.

Geopolitics and the Oceans

Let us start with geopolitics and the oceans.  In the past, most efforts to provide order in international relations have been restricted to the land – by designating boundaries, applying the rule of law, brokering agreements between nations, and trying to keep the peace.  In contrast, the sea has remained largely unregulated.

Attempts to create clear jurisdictions at sea have to date been limited.  Exceptions are the 12-mile territorial waters extending from the shorelines of nations, and beyond these a 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone.  Within these areas the littoral nation in question has a major say in what goes on offshore.

In my own country, because Seychelles is an archipelago, our Exclusive Economic Zone extends far from the main island of Mahé.  This means that, whereas the total land area of our 115 islands covers no more than 455 square kilometres, the sea within our jurisdiction extends over an area of almost 1.4 million square kilometres (the second largest EEZ in Africa).  With by far the greater part of our territory in the form of ocean – and given, as well, that more than half of our land is protected from further development – it is hardly surprising that we look, increasingly, to the sea for our economic future. And for us it is need the new frontier.

Moreover, to the already large expanse of ocean within our own jurisdiction, we have added a further area through the joint management of the continental shelf, the Mascarene Plateau, which connects us to our southern neighbour, Mauritius.  Seychelles and Mauritius were the first countries in the world to make this kind of agreement.

But beyond these designated areas, as in all nations, the ‘high seas’– covering no less than 50% of the surface of the planet – defy the normal rules of governance. This is not to suggest that these areas are totally beyond the law, as bodies like the International Maritime Authority impose strict rules on the conduct of international shipping, but in most practical respects they are beyond reach.  That is why it is encouraging to follow the progress of the United Nations in bringing forward a new treaty designed to protect the biodiversity of the high seas.  It is also encouraging to see the tangible progress that is being made by the champions of Marine Reserves – led by campaigners like Sylvia Earle – who describe these often vast areas as Hope Spots.

These are all important measures – from the designation of territorial waters to attempts to regulate the high seas – but will these alone be enough?  In the end, geopolitics takes to the stage and small nations like my own will look to great powers not simply to conform to international codes but actually to promote them.  There can be no guarantee that powerful nations will do so but we must all work tirelessly to show that cooperation will be in the best long-term interests of all.  I have been fortunate in my time as President to have enjoyed a constructive dialogue with several of them, and my hope is that this cooperative approach will continue. 

The Need for Invention

A second way in which we can make a difference is by being more inventive.  We should look not simply at the way the sea has been used in the past and replicate that.  Of course, we must listen to fishermen and boat-builders, divers and ship’s captains, who have a deep understanding of the sea and what it can offer.  But we must also invite some of the world’s best minds to turn their attention to the oceans, breaking new frontiers of knowledge and application.

I am an admirer of the former Dutch student, Boyan Slat, who in 2012 demonstrated that the vast quantities of plastics floating in the ocean could be collected, not in a direct way by using numerous ships but through making use of the natural currents.  Let nature bring the waste to collection points, was his argument, and once there he offered a technical solution to show how it could then be retrieved from the sea.  Using social media to communicate his ideas and to raise funds, Slat went on to found the Ocean Cleanup Foundation, a non-profit organisation which is responsible for the development of his proposed technologies.

I am also impressed by the example of Iceland, where, year on year, a greater percentage of each and every fish that is caught is put to good use.  Instead of wasting a large part of a catch, as was traditionally the case, the aim now is to use it all.  With the right techniques to carefully extract the various parts that were previously discarded, prices received for these can be as high as for the main fillet.  In this way, without bringing ashore more fish the value and use of each catch can be increased dramatically.  This is something we should all be looking at.

Those two examples come from the Netherlands and Iceland, but in my own country, I can point to three innovative measures designed to make best use of our surrounding seas.

Firstly, we are active in seeking ways to convert some of our capital debt into funds to support Blue Economy initiatives.  We have already settled almost $30 million of our national debt through an innovative financial mechanism, the Debt-to-Adaptation Swap.  

Secondly, in the wake of the success of Green Bonds to fund sustainable development on land, we will introduce our own issue of Blue Bonds to support innovative projects at sea.  We see this as a model that other small island states and coastal countries can adopt, with the inclusion of private sector funding through public-private partnerships.  Our first scheme is designed to fund improvements to the management and sustainable yield of fisheries in the Mahé Plateau. 

Finally, we have a well-advanced programme in hand to zone our EEZ to allow for different uses to be located in a rational way.  Seychelles was active in designating a marine protected area as early as 1973 but the present project to zone the whole of the EEZ is on an altogether larger scale.  In particular, it will make provision of a wide variety of uses and will include a ‘no-go’ area to provide maximum protection for the marine environment. 

Enter the Entrepreneurs

We are not short of ideas.  Nor of policies.  But now is the time for action.  Too often there is a missing link, in the form of entrepreneurship to turn good ideas into business opportunities.  The success of the Blue Economy will depend on unleashing a new generation of entrepreneurs who can match the impact of the likes of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs in the legendary Silicon Valley.  Can we anticipate individuals who can do the same for the Blue Economy, creating a global transformation in our use of the sea?

We can learn much from the example of the Information Age pioneers.  Their success is not a result of top-down planning.  Instead, young people found their way to a particular locality, attracted by an absence of inhibiting rules and regulations, by the inspiration of being with other like-minded individuals, and by the proximity of the world-class Stanford University.  They made good sense of vacant garages and front-rooms, dressed casually and played loud music.  Their genius was not only to come up with ground-breaking ideas but to turn these into business opportunities.  It was a heady mix but surely we could imagine comparable clusters of bright young people at different points around our oceans.  It is possible we can make it happen.

Under the auspices of the Indian Ocean Rim Association a dialogue meeting was held recently in New Delhi, hosted by the Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS).  It was attended by postgraduate students as well as established academics and policy-makers.  The students were there to learn but their enthusiasm for the Blue Economy was infectious.  Who would listen to us if we could come up with some business ideas, they asked?  The answer is not only that we should all listen but let us, too, encourage the conditions where these aspiring individuals can flourish.  I have for long put my trust in the youth of my country and now it is time to bring together young people from different nations – Bangladesh and Malaysia, Seychelles and, of course, Singapore.  Give them free rein and let us see what emerges.  Who knows if there is not another Bill Gates or Steve Jobs –directed this time to the Blue Economy – among them?

Let us also encourage entrepreneurs who have already started businesses to make the most of their talents.  There is a future for economic free zones, where taxes and regulations are kept to a minimum, and where governments facilitate rather than control.  We should be more like gardeners, preparing the ground and allowing the plants to grow.

Everyone knows that the Blue Economy can yield great wealth that can boost if not transform all of our economies.  But we have first to make it happen, to release the enormous potential of talent and energy that is all around us.  If we get it right, the various income streams will then flow and we will all benefit. 

Looking Ahead

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Blue Economy beckons.  We know what it is and we can only marvel at the enormity of what is at stake.  It is like discovering a new planet, but without leaving Mother Earth. 

Surely, now, we have done enough talking.  It is time to turn our thoughts into action.  Let us work in unison – small states like my own as well as large – to develop practical projects.  Let us learn from the mistakes that were made on land and welcome a new era of cooperation.  Let us find hope in this new venture. 

Let us together create the Blue Economy.




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