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Amelia Faotusia says Pacific blue economy success relies on local leadership & resources

Thursday, 2 September 2021

Tongan Women´s Leadership Initiative (WLI) participant Amelia Faotusia believes the success of the Blue Economy in the Pacific Islands, like any development gain, relies on the capacity and local ownership of Pasifika actors to drive solutions.  

During a WLI Learning & Networking event held on World Oceans Day 2021, the ANU Master of Environmental Management and Development student and former economist for the Tongan Government took part in a discussion alongside Pip Louey, a PhD candidate researching the evolution of the blue economy in the Pacific Islands.  

From challenges to opportunities, this article features perspectives and insights from Amelia and Pip which were shared during the event titled Blue Economy: Promise or Potential, moderated by the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society´s environmental scientist, Rachel England.  

Rachel England, Pip Louie, Amelia Faotusia

(Pictured: Rachel England, Pip Louey, and Amelia Faotusia)

What is the Blue Economy? 

In its broadest terms, Pip explains that “the Blue Economy is promoted as an agenda for sustainable ocean development”. 

“It tries to commit to promises towards environmental sustainability, economic growth, and in the social aspect, the terminology varies but ranges from livelihoods through to employment, inclusion and participation,” she says. 

And while definitions can vary and are often encountered alongside other terms such as “sustainable ocean economy”, and “Blue Pacific”, generally speaking, the Blue Economy refers to “attempts to maximise the potential of oceans through economic improvement of livelihoods, and a commitment to ocean conservation and protection”.  

The ambiguity of the term and its many interpretations, however, is something that many struggle with.   

“There are so many questions that are raised from just that basic definition … around what economic growth looks like, and to who? Is it commercial economic growth? Is it for states or is it for communities on the ground? What do we mean by socioeconomic growth? Does development growth look the same as commercial growth? And then within environmental sustainability, are we looking at actively restoring ocean health, which we know is in a really dismal position at the moment, or are we talking about minimising the impact on oceans?” 

According to Amelia, while the significance of the term does vary from region to region depending on local priorities, it also broadly encompasses the sectors directly and indirectly related to the ocean, including tourism and fisheries.  

What the Blue Economy means to the Pacific  

For the Pacific Islands, for example, the term refers to “an intersection of economy, livelihoods and culture” heavily focused on identity and recognition of a deep connection to the ocean, and driven by a sense of “sovereignty over profits”. 

The Pacifics “version” of the Blue Economy places great emphasis on maritime boundaries (given the threats of climate change and sea-level rising), ocean recovery, and building back economies hit hard by COVID-19, “particularly on the marine tourism front”.  

In this vein, the region has been deeply committed to the protection of marine economic zones (known as marine protected areas or MPAs), with many nations progressing towards protecting 30 per cent of their exclusive economic zones, compared with a 10 per cent global standard.  

On World Oceans Day 2021, Tonga announced that the nation had reached this 30 per cent MPA milestone.  

Interestingly, Pip says explicit reference to the Blue Economy in the Pacific seems to have “dropped off” or potentially been subsumed or replaced by the broader “Blue Pacific” term.    

She reflects on how the Blue Pacific has emerged as an agenda to keep and redistribute the benefits that arise from the ocean (fisheries being a good example), rather than directing them overseas, which she says is an interesting dynamic to watch that is “overlooked very frequently in global discussions”. 

While there may be differences between the Blue Pacific and Blue Economy narratives, Amelia says fundamentally, they share “the notion that the ocean needs to be conserved for future generations, and that ocean conservation and economic growth should be compatible practices and not exclusive”. 

Who is driving the Blue Economy agenda?  

At the global level, Pip believes that while the “dominant drivers” of the Blue Economy “would probably be the United Nations and their different agencies”, The World Bank, and The European Union, the Pacific Islands have always been “at the forefront of bringing the Blue Economy to the global stage”.  

The PSIDS and SIDS have been active in driving the Blue Economy agenda since bringing the concept to Rio+20 under the conference´s 2012 ´green economy´ theme.  

And while local ocean conservation efforts have long been a priority driven by many coastal communities, the broader Pacific region has been “potentially less active in terms of actually implementing” the Blue Economy to scale. 

Blue Economy implementation in the Pacific lacks resources  

According to Amelia, some reasons for the delays to Blue Economy implementation in the Pacific region include limited sector research, ambiguity around industry ocean governance requirements, and a need for more concrete implementation strategies and resources 

“While at the regional level there are a lot of policies and strategies in support of ocean conservation, particularly within regional organisations such as the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat´s Office of the Pacific Ocean Commissioner, there is now focus on what the Blue Economy means for ocean governance.” 

Amelia stresses that understanding what this means for sectors that are vital to Pacific Island economies, such as tourism and fisheries, is needed. 

“Innovation in terms of science, data, and information, which island economies particularly struggle with, require investment in order to determine what the concrete policy instruments and institutions are that these governments require in order to roll out the Blue Economy,” Amelia says.  

Whether they include ongoing marine spatial planning processes or ocean financing instruments that support implementation of conservation initiatives, Amelia believes clear strategies that guide ocean conservation at national and regional levels must precede Blue Economy progression in the Pacific. 

And when it comes to small island developing states with even less resources, Amelia highlights a “disconnection” that is occurring when international-level priorities and information transition down to the government departments and civil society organisations implementing them on the ground. 

“It's a prominent concern for small island states with limited capacities … and in terms of numbers, these missions usually have three or four people ... they can't cover all the [Blue Economy related] events that go on at the international level ... and looking at how that impacts or funnels down, if it does,” Amelia says. 

Pip Louey, Rachel England, Amelia Faotusia

Promising examples of the Blue Economy at play across the Pacific   

While implementation challenges clearly exist, Amelia believes many ocean-related processes and strategies are already in place, “forming the foundation for a transition or to improve business practices in support of sustaining and conserving the ocean”.  

In Tonga, for example, the ongoing Marine Spatial Planning process works to ensure inter-Ministry coordination of ocean use for current and future generations.  

Amelia says the process “ultimately determines how these Pacific Island countries will use the space within the marine territories they have, which is quite extensive and involves a lot of stakeholder engagement to determine what the priorities are, where you want to implement them, at what time, and how much space you allocate ... you deplete the ocean´s resources by using too much space, or too many uses in one space.” 

There are also talks of applying this type of spatial planning process to 100 per cent of the Pacific ocean´s exclusive economic zones, and even expanding this planning to the high seas, despite the challenges of mapping such a “fluid” environment. 

Sector-led examples of the Blue Economy at play can also be seen across fishery, shipping, biodiversity, and eco-tourism industries in the Pacific.  

The Blue Pacific Shipping Partnership sees five nations coming together with the aim of decarbonising the shipping sector, including Pacific fleets and ports, by 40 per cent before 2030 and 100 per cent by 2050.  

And the Vessel Day Schemewhere vessel owners can purchase and trade days fishing at sea in places subject to the Parties to the Nauru Agreement, promotes sustainable fishing while maximising the profits Pacific Island nations are able to gain from tuna fisheries. It was launched prior to the Blue Economy´s conceptualisation 

“I think [the Vessel Day Scheme] has increased almost 10-fold over the last decade and the reasons for that success ... Dr Transform Aqorau has written a really amazing book Fishing for Success … highlighting that by having regions and decision makers who are really interested in where the profits go, and having interested groups that were aligned, rather than trying to pull together all these disparate parties with different interests, were really key,” says Pip. 

A lot of work is also being done around marine protected areas (such as the Phoenix Islands Protected Area in Kiribati) which are being “driven in partnership by government and charitable trusts, including Conservation International”.  

Amelia believes there are also promising global examples of Blue Economy implementation and future-planning that the Pacific could learn from, particularly from similar smaller island state developing regions like the Carribbeans 

“Seychelles is a very active player in promoting the Blue Economy, and they have specific institutions dedicated to implementing it at a national level,” Amelia explains.  

The region´s Blue Economy communication is also regarded for its acknowledgement of oceans as established, living eco-systems with their own active services taking place.  

Financing the Blue Economy in the Pacific  

There is growing focus on the role of financing in the transition and implementation of the Blue Economy, and how the private sector can support it in the Pacific.  

Eco tourism in Tonga is seen as a potential for ocean financing, where businesses such as seaside resorts or the services they provide (such as sea snorkelling or traditional sea navigation initiatives) could potentially generate revenue in support of ocean conservation initiatives (such as mangrove planting). 

“One of the outer islands in Tonga sets aside a portion of their profits for helping things like boats for surveillance [in marine protected areas] and it’ s those sort of mechanisms that follow up and support the objectives of the Blue Economy and conserving the ocean that have potential for Tonga and many Pacific Islands,” says Amelia.  

It is important to note, however, that many of the large marine protected areas, like Kiribati´s Phoenix Islands Protected Area, are considered for-profit and raise revenue through offsets, permits and tourism.  

“Some of that goes back to the nation, to able to keep running these MPAs, but that also then goes back to whatever the partner organisation is … so as much as MPAs are sold along a conservation line, it is important to also recognise that there is an economic element, particularly to the large ones ... it’s not all altruistic,” Pip adds.  

Blue Economy critics fear ocean industrialisation and exploitation 

While the Blue Economy gains momentum in the international forum, critics question what it actually means to “increase ocean activity”, and whether it is simply a form of ocean industrialisation disguised by “smoke and mirrors”.  

Pip says that because the Blue Economy refers to both attempts to expand and optimise traditional economies like fisheries and ports, and dedication to emerging industries such as marine biodiversity and even seabed mining and pharmaceuticals, critics including PANG and DAWN are sceptical that sustainability efforts would be promised but not delivered.  

As more industries “jump on the blue economy bandwagon”, concern is also growing that “economic exploitation” of the ocean is being encouraged, resulting in enriching a few powerful actors at the expense of impoverishing communities and the environment. 

Pip says recent research looking at the world's top 100 ocean-based companies may support theories of this worrying trend, exposing that 60 per cent of the profits coming out of ocean industries go to these top 100 companies.  

The Pacific has experienced a devastating example of this, with PNG´s failed Nautlius Seabed Mining Project collapsing due to financing, environmental and legal reasons, leaving the PNG government 375 million Kina (AUD$157 million) in debt without any economic or environmental gain.  

“The Blue Economy may encourage these types of industries … but where do the profits run, and who are they going to?” questions Pip.  

How the blue and customary economies intersect in the Pacific  

There are also concerns that Blue Economy discussions which frame the oceans as “frontiers” of “untapped wealth” erase both acknowledgement of oceans as established, living ecosystems, as well as the coastal communities and livelihoods historically and presently connected to and reliant on them.   

“That's a discussion that's often brought into things like seabed mining, but it's not exclusive to seabed mining by any means… DAWN and PANG have done quite a lot of work in scrutinising large marine protected areas and the interactions they have, particularly with local coastal fisheries because of the impacts they can have on local economies as well as subsistence,” Pip says.  

Amelia says one way to mitigate this potential negative impact is to collaborate with and build the capacity of local coastal communities to manage marine protected areas themselves, as demonstrated in Tonga.  

“They´ve sort of handed it over to the communities themselves to implement those marine protected areas according to what will work for themselves and have set up community development committees who formulate development plans for those areas and the key priorities to them, including culture, traditional practices and livelihoods,” Amelia explains.  

This process is also about giving back and recognising “the responsibility and governance that coastal communities have had for decades, thousands of years, over these aquatic resources, and by patchworking these together you end up with a large marine area as well … there's a lot of work in trying to see how these networks can relate to one another,” Pip adds.  

But ultimately, Amelia stresses that the success of locally managed MPAs relies on the engagement and willingness of local communities.  

Blue Economy: promise or potential? 

In terms of whether the Blue Economy can be effectively and sustainably delivered in the Pacific and globally, Pip is sceptical 

“The Pacific has really great examples of sustainable ocean developments that happened long before the Blue Economy… Do we need this buzzword? And is it actually helping to accelerate proper sustainable ocean development, or is it this strange potentially exploitative agenda being pushed?” Pip asks.  

For Amelia, progress in the Pacific, whether through development, or the Blue Economy, is and always has been about building local capacity to drive and take ownership of solutions.  

“The Blue Pacific, with all its bright ideas and objectives in support of the interests of the region, still needs more dialogue in terms of what it really means for specific countries, including Tonga,” Amelia adds, The Pacific receives a lot of assistance from developed nations in support of their agendas, but capacity still remains an issue that needs to be improved in supporting whatever it is we want. 

More about this event  

This WLI Learning & Networking event was co-hosted by the Australian National University’s Department of Pacific Affairs.

WLI Learning & Networking events are open to all Australia Awards scholars, male and female, from the Pacific.