Minerals from the sea: Problem closure, neoliberalism and ocean grabbing in the Indian EEZ and beyond

jadhav-oceanminerals-india-cover

For much of the past 18 months, I have worked part-time on a large review of ocean mineral extraction in Indian national waters as well as by India in the high seas. The present is oil but the future are a host of other minerals that often fall under the rubric of “seabed mining.”

In this mini-book, I propose that by framing development questions as an urgent race for resources (minerals, in this case) the government problem closes and narrows simply to the “next frontier” of mineral extraction: the ocean. This problem closure (i.e. narrowing the definition of the problem that also narrows the solution set) is problematic on its own, but it is further compounded by a penchant for neoliberal policy and ideology that has essentially set off another kind of ocean grab.

The subject matter is at times arcane, dense and, well, boring. But the way ocean mineral extraction fits into India’s larger development-at-all-costs narrative raises serious questions about the undemocratic nature of minerals governance.

So enjoy (if possible).

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Want to save sharks? Let’s talk about more than shark fishing

Last week the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute released its National Plan of Action for protection of sharks. This is ostensibly one of India’s contributions to its obligations as an FAO member country. Other moves to develop an NPOA for sharks are also ongoing within the Bay of Bengal Programme, for example.

The plan mostly calls for a lot of research, data sharing, better coordination of regulators and stakeholders and, finally, the review and development of new conservation measures. The plan stops short of suggesting for very specific regulations.

While this might seem to make the report toothless — hint, it probably is — this lack of hard measures could actually be a wise move; inclusive and well-thought fisheries policy will come best from a broad, transparent and participatory process, not from top-down, command-and-control, high science advisors.

As a caveat: I’ve been following a lot of this in the background; I marginally volunteer with the Association of Deep Sea Going Artisanal Fishermen, based in far south India’s Kanyakumari region. This association of fishers concentrated around the village of Thoothoor is one of the key actors in India’s “indigenous” shark fishery. And to be clear about my own interests, I’m a diver, I do personally have great appreciation for sharks, I do not eat fish, I work in community conservation and, in general, I research fisheries.

All of that informs the following argument: This plan (and the response from, for example, my scuba diving networks) is too narrowly focused on fishers and consigns the conversation too much to debates about fisheries management. This is an example of problem closure: The problem is framed as one of unconscionable fishing habits (i.e. shark finning, killing majestic fish and so on), so the solutions target fishers.

Emblematic was the response of one mainland India scuba shop in a Facebook post:

India has the largest population of fishermen in the world. But, India does not eat sharks. So, why is it that India is the largest killer of sharks in the world?
It is the greed of a few middlemen selling shark fins to China that is causing this mindless killing of the “Tigers of the Sea”. Come, join us in saving these magnificient [sic] beasts of the ocean from extinction. ‪#‎SaveOurSharks‬ ‪#‎ProjectAware‬ ‪#‎Sharks‬ ‪#‎Fisheries‬ ‪#‎ScubaDiving‬ ‪#‎Environment‬

Yes, middlemen do contribute to unsustainable trade, but, for the record, there has also been an “indigenous” shark fishery in India for at least a few decades. The Thoothoor area fishers in Kanyakumari use longlines and medium-scale boats (under 20 meters) across the EEZ (and beyond) to catch various pelagics — sharks as well as tunas and billfishes. This is their livelihood, not simply a commodity racket; they are not just a bunch of shark finners (though that may also occur).

Also, contrary to the oft-repeated myth, people in southern India (particularly in Kanyakumari) do actually eat shark. Sharks are landed whole and consumed. Furthermore, as the background research to CMFRI’s NPOA makes clear, sharks fishing is not constrained to a small group; a variety of fishing communities across India, including the concentration at Thoothoor, participate in the fishery.

I’m not in denial, nor am I an apologist. Certainly, unsustainable shark fishing occurs in Indian waters — by Indian fishers as well as foreign IUU (or ridiculous LoP) boats. Shark catches are down substantially — as much as 40 percent by my own math over the last ten or so years (depending on what data you use).

But it’s not at all clear which fishers or middlemen are the ones involved in fin trade or which fishers contribute to rampant bycatch or which fishers are simply taking too much shark (along with skate and ray) from the water.

Looking at the pictures of sharks, skates and rays landed is difficult for those who foremost wish to protect marine biodiversity; it turns even my stomach, and gives the sense that majestic and ecologically important creatures are being slaughtered. But this is also a tradition and livelihood that should not be so quickly castigated. Fishing as a practice may also generate its own conservation politics. And, from a ecological perspective, some shark fishing may yet be sustainable, if the external political and economic incentives are more properly aligned and other marine threats are attenuated.

That’s why it’s difficult to get onboard with any knee-jerk agenda that falls back on platitudes that blame one group of people (fishers, for example). The NPOA is reserved in its language, but even it focuses on shark conservation through better management and restriction of fishers.

Certainly fisheries can be better managed. Full stop. And additional restraint is likely necessary. Full stop. But if we resort to the “greedy fisher” or “ignorant fisher” or “race for fish” rhetoric, we are less likely to serve the cause of sustainability or ecological protection. Too many marine conservation campaigns draw battle lines between fishers and non-fishers and see conservation outcomes as an us-vs-them / zero sum scenario. Furthermore, when we direct our attention too sharply at fishers, we lose sight of the incredible amounts degradation that non-ocean communities perpetrate on marine biodiversity. Again, we become complicit in problem closure by framing conservation needs as the need to restrain fishing.

I can’t say enough that shark fin soup is abhorrent. But consider that it’s also an easy target. How many people complain as loudly or as quickly about any of the myriad other threats to ocean sustainability overall:

  • offshore oil drilling
  • coastal SEZs
  • microbeads in toothpaste
  • plastic effing everywhere
  • a culture of complacency in waste management and personal disposal of litter
  • ridiculous levels of fertilizer and pesticide application
  • shipping wastes galore
  • industrial fishing that specifically generates feed for chickens for urban consumers but slaughters sharks in the process
  • eco-tourism that capture biodiversity spaces / places only for those who can afford it
  • unchecked urban carbon dioxide pollution from power plants, factories and cars, etc cause acidification/warming, etc.
  • neoliberal policies that privilege some ocean uses/users over others

The list could go on and on and on and on and on. Unsustainable fishing is but one and there already are voices within the fishing community for sustainable practices and conservation.

Rather than limit our discussion to controlling a bunch of wild, ignorant, backwards, pick-your-pejorative fishers, let’s talk about a holistic, concerted effort to:

  • Embed sustainability into lifestyles and livelihoods (among fishers, sure, but also among other classes and bodies that affect the ocean, such everyone who drives a car in Bangalore, Mumbai, Delhi and everywhere between).
  • Generate and sustain conservation attitudes/knowledge/cooperation for protection of the entire community of ocean dependent life (fisher, non-fisher, non-human). We divers can help with this by sharing our passions through education, training and experiences with people other than the rich tourists who can afford dive holidays.
  • Remove perverse and pernicious incentives for degradation (much of which is rooted in runaway urban consumption patterns). Know where your food comes from; was your chicken fed on fishmeal?
  • Halt coastal developments that threaten crucial ecosystems, habitats and the like. This and this.
  • Question current and future offshore minerals prospecting thatsupport an urban, high capital economy.

Let’s do that all of that, instead of only falling back on a “target-fishers-first” rhetoric and appeals to protect charismatic megafauna.

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LEGO needs to stop essentially shilling for Shell

Birdday!

Birdday!

LEGO building blocks remain my all-time favorite toy. Even more favorite than bourbon or my dive kit.

As a child, I spent hours hidden away in my room, imagination running wild, building, deconstructing and rebuilding parts of the LEGO city pictured in the fuzzy image below. I could never get enough and they were a prominent part of every birthday, Christmas or other gift-receiving occasion.

I vividly remember my giant airport, my train set, my pirate’s island and more. As an 11-year-old, I spent my savings on spare LEGO building blocks so I could build mass housing for my city from scratch.

This is a version when I was 8. By age 12 it was more than double this size.

This is a version when I was 8. By age 12 it was more than double this size.

And I even had a Shell-branded gas station. Today, I shiver at the thought.

Of course, it was a different time. Few openly resisted such things as surreptitious marketing or product placement in child’s toys. Hell, I didn’t really think about this particular horror until a few years ago.

But given the state of our world, our politics and our understanding of climate science, it’s time that LEGO cut ties with a corporation whose business model depends on destroying the environment. Every day that LEGO continues to shill for Royal Dutch Shell, it otherwise lends the company a false, friendly and benign air.

I hear some folks: “Come, on, it’s just a little bit of product placement and branding.” They’re two Dutch companies, after all. And how many kids at some point have toys — think model cars and trucks covered in ExxonMobil stickers — labeled with the name of this or that company?

This is more than just banal advertising. Through LEGO sets in the hands of children, Shell markets a subtle-but-dangerous message that it’s institutional, that it belongs, that it’s noncontroversial, that it’s fundamental and that it should be accepted. That the Big Oil economy — which includes Shell’s continued attempts to drill in the arctic — is as “harmless” as apple pie (or maybe stroopwafels).

If LEGO started making new sets called Oil Rig Spill Disaster or Warming, Rising Seas, then I wouldn’t complain. That’d be honesty in advertising.

Want a visual appeal that will punch much harder? Watch this brilliant Greenpeace video and sign.

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Dear State Department: #NOKXL

There are only a few more days to submit comments to the State Department regarding its draft environmental impact statement on the latest version of the Keystone XL nightmare pipeline. Following the closure of the comment period, the state department may make revisions to its currently flawed assessment of the pipeline, which will ultimately be used to make a recommendation to the president.

[For those folks who are not deeply mired/versed in this debate already, this article, this archive and this video are some places to start. Bonus: If you pause the video at 2:29, you can see me in my white linen protest suit and Panama hat getting arrested in front of the White House.]

The pipeline is a focal point for environmental protest because its construction would be devastating to any attempt to stave off extreme climate change. As NASA climatologist James Hansen has said, the pipeline would essentially be “game over.” I won’t belabor the well established point that tar sands oil is particularly noxious. Suffice to say: We need to stop the pipeline.

Anyone concerned can submit comments on the impact statement to keystonecomments@state.gov. You can also send letters with suggested text via 350.org’s Stop KXL campaign or through other outlets, such as The Nation.

My own comment (which anyone can use):

I oppose Keystone XL because it serves neither our national interest nor the planet’s. The pipeline only returns profits to TransCanada (which has lied about facts and spun the story to suit its ends) while bolstering the incredibly destructive tar sands industry. This extraction is particularly bad for our planet (and hence our nation) and will only deepen our path dependency on an economic mode that cannot and will not survive in the long-run. If we are to transition to a post-carbon economy — which is the only option if we value the future and don’t simply discount all coming generations — we must take concrete steps to move beyond oil. Any economist worth her salt can explain that concept; adjust the discount rate, extend the time horizon a generation or two and there’s no way this pipeline is “in our national interest.”

More importantly, this is no longer just an economic calculus. The president’s “all of the above” energy strategy may be politically expedient and may (but still probably doesn’t) make sense in the very short-run. But expediency doesn’t equal morality, and this is not only an economic decicision. It is also a moral one. Some forms of energy — in this case, tar sands crude — are simply incompatible with a just and right future.

As such, blocking this pipeline is the only moral course of action.

— Adam Jadhav, April 14, 2013

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Now that BP is over, a new rush to drill in the ocean?

The NYT this week had a story noting that as the BP Gulf oil spill court case winds down, the Obama administration (cautiously) and the GOP presidential front-runners (with absolute abandon) want to open up U.S. coasts to more drilling.

Their flawed logic goes like this: More drilling = more oil = lower gas prices = happy voters = elected.

Hogwash and pandering. And unfortunately, it’s hogwash left unchecked by the NYT.

Here’s a bit of reality, that any reasonable natural resources economist could tell you: Any extra oil from drilling will come over decades, not months, and certainly not in time to save an election. And the amount of extra oil that does bubble up from the deep (at least that which isn’t spilled again) will only be a drop in the world barrel.

Yes, oil prices are a function of world supply and demand. Just because it comes from our EEZ instead of someone else’s doesn’t mean we get it on the cheap.

So if oil prices are controlled by the world market, then so are gas prices. Sure, some extra oil will result in some decrease. That’s likely going to be three or four cents, per government estimates. Consider that the Energy Information Administration in 2008 (under President George W. Bush, mind you) said that any impact from opening up a large new source (such as ANWR) will be almost nil.

And if the U.S. brings online more oil, OPEC could close down some production to keep the price higher.

Oh wait, and then there’s ever increasing demand from China, India, Brazil and the other big developing economies.

So yes, hogwash. Whatever marginal amounts are obtained in the future from expanded drilling will do very, very, very little to decrease pain at the pump.

Sadly, the NYT didn’t take the time — or even a couple grafs — to give this a bit of scrutiny. I’m sure their reporters and editors know it. But somehow that counter opinion was left out.

The answers instead can be found in alternatives, in a new economy and in new consumption patterns. For example: offshore wind, a green global public transportation network and using less energy.

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I’m writing to you, Senator #nokxl

Senator Durbin:

This is not a form letter. You and I have shaken hands plenty; for a while we were on a first-name basis when I was a political reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. How many times did I tour the Metro East with you? How many times was I there at town hall meetings in the Collinsville City Council chambers or Edwardsville or Granite City?

Today, I am in graduate school here in D.C. studying environmental policy. I’m an activist. I was arrested for protesting in front of the White House in September. I’m a scholar. I research natural resource policy, environmental degradation and sustainable development.

I’m asking you as a professional acquaintance, as someone who listened for a long time to the political concerns of southern Illinoisans, as a worried citizen and as a registered Illinois voter (my permanent address is in Champaign) to do all you can to stop GOP factions and Big Oil special interests from resurrecting the Keystone XL pipeline.

If you and your allies in the Senate take the time to talk straight to Americans (whatever the hell Fox News thinks), they will listen. If you take a moral stand, you’ll be doing the right thing (whatever the hell the Tea Party thinks).

And if you need help that I can provide, contact me.

There’s so much more we could be doing to invigorate our economy and protect this planet. Think about green jobs in a renewable energy economy. Think solar and offshore wind and green infrastructure. Think better quality of living and public health. Think natural splendor that warms heart and soul.

But if we instead take the cheap (actually more costly) and dirty (yes, really, really dirty) way of burning tar sands, we become that much more path dependent on oil. That’s game over for our planet.

I’ve heard you tell me directly about how Washington needs change, how it’s beholden to special interests, how our government needs bold action.

I say to you, lead the charge.

Adam Jadhav

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This is what Democracy looks like!

And then, they were arrested...


Photo by Josh Lopez

See anyone familiar? (Look just above the second eight).

I now have an arrest record. And after two weeks, more than 1,250 people built (or added to) one, too.

There’s more to the tale coming in subsequent posts. But in the meantime, you should read in to find out the serious trouble literally coming down the pipeline.

By the ways, “Show me what Democracy looks like! / This is what Democracy looks like!” is the best call-and-response protest chant out there.

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