Thursday, June 5, 2014

Where is the management plan for Isla Holbox, Mexico? An ecological reserve in the midst of social and political controversy

At the northeastern corner of the Yucatán Peninsula, the small island of Holbox (43km long and 2km wide) is separated from the Mexican mainland by a shallow saltwater lagoon. The 6th of June 2014 marks the 20th anniversary of the Yum Balam ecological reserve, of which Holbox forms part. I arrived on this island a week ago in the early hours of the morning of Thursday 29th May. The quiet sandy streets gave no hint of the social unrest that was to erupt a few days later.

At about 4pm on Sunday 1 June, as I was sitting in a café on Holbox plaza, chatting to a local, the church bell started to ring insistently. After taking a call on his mobile, the local said that a meeting of Holbox landowners earlier that day in Kantunilikin (a small town on the mainland) had not gone well and that the bell was calling local people to the plaza to protest. As people gathered in front of the steps of the town hall, someone speaking into a megaphone called for the old mayor to step down and for a new one to be appointed. A police car, appropriated by the locals (the police had left the island earlier that day) was parked in front of the town hall and the sound of its siren mingled intermittently with the pealing of the church bell. 

The megaphone speaker apologised to tourists for the disturbance. I moved over to a doorway where three old women were gathered, watching the drama unfold. I asked them what was going on. One woman lifted a handful of sand from the street and, letting the grains trickle through her fingers, explained that it was all about the land, land that had been stolen by rich people from locals who never read the small print on the contracts they signed. An hour later, as I wandered back through the plaza, I noticed that graffiti adorned the sign in the centre of the plaza which up to then had been celebrating the ‘DIA DE LA MARINA’ on 1 June. It now read ‘NUEVO MUNICIPIO HOLBOX. 1 DE JUNIO 2014. DIA DE USOS Y COSTUMBRES’ – the 'day of the mariners' had become the 'day of traditions and customs', under a proclaimed new (self-elected) town council. Local people occupied the plaza for the rest of that day, through the night, and the following day too. As I left the island in the early hours of the morning on the 3rd of June, I noticed that the plaza was strangely empty. But the graffiti remained.

For the sake of clarity, this article separates the conflict on Holbox into 3 separate issues:
1.     The intentional sale of waterfront plots of land in La Ensenada (an undeveloped part of Holbox uninhabited by humans) by 70 Holbox ejidatarios and the unwitting sale of these ejidatarios’ rights to the ejidales of Holbox (italicised terms explained below)
2.     The major touristic development planned by the development company Peninsula Maya Developments in La Ensenada
3.     The (shelved) management plan for the Yum Balam ecological reserve (of which Holbox forms a part)

1. The sale of plots of land in La Ensenada

On Thursday 29 May (the day I arrived on Holbox), a petition appeared on Avaaz, asking signatories to “Save Holbox Island! …if you care about the environment, life and the people living on Holbox island, which is part of the Yum Balam Biosphere Reserve.” The petition (which is quite lengthy, and in Spanish) stated that:

On Sunday 1 June 2014, an assembly of ejidatarios will vote to approve the sale of land on Holbox to the company Peninsula Maya Developments who wish to build 875 villas and condominiums, three hotels, a shopping complex, access channels and a harbour.”

The gist of the petition was that these new ejidatarios had illegally obtained their ejidales rights and that these rights must be restored to their original owners in order to stop a major tourist development, by non-local developers, going ahead on Holbox against the wishes of the Holbox community (approximately 2000 people).

In Mexico, ejidatarios are owners of common land (ejidales) and agrarian rights of distribution related to that land. The areas of common land (ejidales) remain commonly owned by the ejidatarios unless and until the ejido (a body which administers the ejidales from a headquarters where it carries out transactions and holds assemblies) decides to divide up all or part of the commonly owned land into plots which are then individually owned by each ejidatario. Together, the commonly owned ejidales make up one ejido, which, as well as being an administrative body, also refers to the entirety of the common land. So, for example, the ejido (the entirety of the common land) might be divided into different parcels (ejidales) of commonly held land, distinguished by name and geographical location. Originally, when the Mexican government granted this common land to qualifying Holboceños (Holbox natives), none of the land could be sold (either individually allocated plots of land or the land held in common) – it could only be inherited by the descendants of the ejidatarios. The law was modified during the nineties allowing the individually owned plots to be sold to Mexican nationals and to national or non-national companies. It is one thing for an ejidatario to sell his/her individual plots of land. It is quite another to sell his/her rights to the commonly owned ejido/ejidales. The difference is that even if a plot of land is sold by an ejidatario, he/she is still entitled to receive distributions akin to dividends from the ejido (for example property taxes are paid to the ejido on the sale of any plots of land and these taxes (less administration fees) are eventually distributed equally as dividends between all of the ejidatarios belonging to that ejido. In addition, if the ejido decides to divide up more of the land into individual plots, the ejidatario stands to gain more land which he/she then owns individually and can sell on). These rights are valuable – they represent a potential income stream and also the right to a defined asset at some point in the future (allocated plots of land). Those who possess these rights are legally obliged to be living in the same state as the relevant ejido (in the case of Holbox, the state is Quintana Roo) or to maintain a presence there with periodic visits to the ejido or to already own property in the ejido.

Back to the situation in Holbox. In 2004, 70 out of the 117 ejidatarios on Holbox accepted an offer from the company Peninsula Maya Developments of 5 million pesos (approx. GBP£250,000) for each waterfront plot of land (which they each owned individually as this land had been allocated by the ejido). They received payment for the sale in 2008. The other 47 ejidatarios refused to sell their plots in that area (which is known as La Ensenada). According to a local source, this has led to a huge conflict within the ejidatario community, with those refusing to sell being henceforth referred to as Los Talibanes (the Taliban). A local protest group, YDH (Yo Defiendo a Holbox – I Defend Holbox), made up of ejidatarios, claim that the waterfront plots of land were actually worth 99 million pesos (approx. GBP£5 million) each and that since they did not realise that at the time, they were cheated by the buyer Peninsula Maya Developments.

What the 70 ejidatarios more recently realised is that they appear to have sold not only their waterfront plots of land in La Ensenada to Peninsula Maya Developments, but also their related common rights to all the common land/ejidales/ejido on Holbox. Talking to locals, the consensus seems to be that the ejidatarios had been hoodwinked by rich people and hadn’t read the small print in the contracts which they signed when selling their land. In the meantime, a local rumour is that the 47 ejidatarios who previously refused to sell, have been in closed negotiations with Peninsula Maya Developments and have been offered 15 million pesos for each of their waterfront plots of land in La Ensenada. It is unclear how many of these 47 ejidatarios are simply waiting for a better price to sell their land and how many are not interested in selling at all.

The Avaaz petition presents the 70 ejidatarios calling for a restitution of their common rights to the ejidales in order to stop the major tourist development planned by Peninsula Maya Developments. The group YDH points out that that the new ejidatarios are businessmen/women from the state of Yucatan, who do not live in the state of Quintana Roo. However, the petition conflates 2 separate issues. The ejidatarios want their rights to the common land of Holbox returned to them, because, understandably, they feel that they have been swindled, having never intended to sell these rights. However, when they sold their plots of land, they must have understood that these lands would be subject to development as they were selling them to a development company – Peninsula Maya Developments.

2. Peninsula Maya Developments

Heading up Peninsula Maya Developments is Fernando Ponce García and his son-in-law Ermilo Castilla Roche. Ponce García owns Bepensa which is the company used by Coca Cola to bottle its product for the Yucatan Peninsula. The Ponce family (generally referred to as los Ponces) are well known as a wealthy, powerful and well-connected Mexican family. YDH contend that 11 or 12 years ago, Ponce, the head of Peninsula Maya Developments suggested that the ejido of Holbox should form a company in order to ‘help’ Holbox with a major tourist development. Subsequently, Peninsula Maya Developments was formed by businessmen Ponce and Castilo together with the property developer Ara and the ejido for Holbox.

I checked the website of Peninsula Maya Developments to see what kind of development they are planning for La Ensenada on Holbox. The front page of the website presents an ecologically friendly image – it states that the company will only develop 10% of La Ensenada and will ensure that the rest of this pristine habitat is protected. They will employ experts in their field to design the tourist complex and the concentration of the land in the hands of one owner (Peninsula Maya Developments) rather than a multitude of ejidatarios will protect it from badly planned future ad hoc development.

“The PMD Project promotes preservation through sustainable, nature-based tourism. This concept utilizes a fraction of the land (10%) as the base for travelers and investors who want to visit Isla Holbox because of its intrinsic natural environment. This can only be accomplished applying appropriate planning and development guidelines on most or the entire island. One owner with a single vision can plan this. A sub-divided island with multiple owners who have different interests cannot.
In order to help insure that PMD property is appropriately planned to help protect all of Holbox, PMD will infuse into the Master Plan many protective measures…”

The website provides a link to a presentation with more detail on the project – I had to register with my name and email address to gain access.

The first half of the 41-slide presentation (in English) was not hugely interesting or informative in terms of the kind of development planned. It was only on reaching slide 16, that the language started to reveal the intentions of the developers, and, in particular, the exclusive tone of the planned development.

At Peninsula Maya Developments, real estate becomes a part of the attraction of the resort. By clustering three different 50-75 room boutique hotels around a single, large ‘outdoor living room’, the three become a pivotal chapter in the story of this magical island. Each appeals to the guest seeking a specific experience – oceanic adventure, culinary arts, and wellness/life extension.”

Ironically, most of the existing hotels on Holbox (owned by locals) have between 10 and 29 rooms, with one 'large' hotel which has 68 rooms. So, ‘boutique’ hotels already exist on Holbox (in the inhabited part of the island), and many of them are pretty upmarket (see for example the eco-friendly Casa Las Tortugas). 875 private villas and condominiums are also planned as part of the PMD development which would bring an estimated 6,000 people to this currently uninhabited part of the island.

The PMD presentation goes on to describe its three boutique hotels as follows:

The three share the spectacular deck, which is organized so it serves as a dramatic entry, a signature restaurant, a pool area and a collection of quaint shops for each hotel…. They draw strength from one another and from the uniqueness of the living-room-as-a-small-village concept.”

Many small local shops, owned and run by people who live on Holbox, and selling their own goods, already exist on Holbox – in the inhabited part of the island.

The PMD hyperbole continues:

The outdoor living room is the social hub of the resort where guests and residents alike gather in a near-theatrical setting that reflects their cultural interests and casts them as players in a performance that unfolds each day and night. With the two and three storey high porticos of the three hotels as backdrops and palms and tropical shrubs and flowers as set pieces, this splendid stage provides a strong emotional connection to both the land and the sea. The 25,000 square foot living room…is its own destination within a destination.”

At this point, have a look at the video ‘130 seconds of Isla Holbox, Mexico’ which provides a good sense of what real life on Holbox is like - and how far removed the vision of PMD is from the local culture and community. The slightly longer video, Sin Holbox no hay Paraiso (Without Holbox there is no Paradise) was made by locals on Holbox about 18 months ago, seeking international help to protect their island. Locals are currently working on another video which will be released soon.

Coming back to the PMD development: according to the presentation, it will provide an ‘attractive destination for celebrity musicians’ because, amongst other things, the planned development includes a state of the art recording studio and an outdoor amphitheatre. Yet, the presentation insists, “the resort engages the Holboceños as partners in the future of the island. They are among the resorts’ decision makers.” This quietly ignores the question of whether the local people want the resort in the first place. Some may welcome it (in the hope of gaining employment and more tourist trade) but, from the conversations I had over the last few days, it seems that most locals do not want this development to go ahead. The exclusive tone of the language describing the planned development in the PMD presentation suggests that it will be anything but inclusive of the local community. The presentation’s reference (towards the end) to “community input and participation” in the development is highly dubious. What is more revealing is PMD’s description in the presentation of the project phasing:

Development will follow market demand.

Future permitted phases will remain natural environments until or unless there is demand.”

The Peninsula Maya Developments website and presentation claim that Holbox needs to be protected from unplanned and unmanaged development, and that they are best placed to do this, having an array of outside experts at their fingertips. Nowhere does the presentation (dated 2014) refer to a shelved, community-driven management plan whereby the locals of Holbox wish to regulate, on their terms, the development, and protection, of their island.

3. The management plan for the Yum Balam ecological reserve (which includes Isla Holbox)

More recently, another petition has appeared calling for the Mexican government to ‘draw up’ a management plan for the Yum Balam ecological reserve. Once again, the wording of this petition is misleading in that it suggests that a management plan does not exist. From my conversations with locals on Holbox over the last few days, I learnt that during the summer of 2011, several workshops were held on Holbox with various stakeholders (fishermen, service providers (eg hotels and tour operators), local business owners) who reached agreement (described by one local as a ‘compromise’) with the government bodies CONANP and SEMERNAT on what the Yum Balam management plan should contain in relation to Holbox. Crucially, I was told that all parties agreed that the area known as La Ensenada should be untouched – ie protected from development in the future. CONANP (Comision Nacional de Areas Naturales Protegidas) is the Mexican Commission for Protected Areas and SEMERNAT (Secretaria de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales) is the Mexican Secretariat for the Environment and Natural Resources. A local who attended the workshops told me that CONANP and SEMERNAT promised that the Yum Balam management plan would be circulated by November 2011 at the latest. There is still no sign of the management plan. When stakeholders have called to find out where it is, they have received various responses: it has been drafted, finalised, printed, it is just about ready to send out…but still no management plan has appeared.

If the Yum Balam management plan were released, assuming that it restricts any development of La Ensenada, this would of course pose a problem for the major tourist development planned by Peninsula Maya Developments. Draw your own conclusions.

The Yum Balam management plan is urgently needed on Holbox for other reasons too. While I was on the island, a police patrol boat carried out a night-raid on the lagoon separating Holbox from the Mexican mainland. They seized two fishing boats with 42 illegal nets between them. There may have been other illegal nets in the water which the patrol boat could not get to. Illegal fishing in the lagoon is causing huge problems for the local fishermen on Holbox (it is a fishing community) who have noticed their stocks dwindling as the illegal nets catch more and more juveniles.

Holbox is known for its whale shark tours from May to September when whale sharks congregate in the waters off its coast. There are about 10 whale shark tour operators on Holbox. When I asked one of the operators about a code of conduct, I was told that one existed between the operators but it was not written down. Despite this verbal understanding between tour operators, not all of them abide by the same rules. For example some boats will chase after just one whale shark in the hope of fulfilling their promise to the tourists on board of being able to snorkel with these magnificent creatures. Other operators don’t join this chase and prefer to wait longer and approach the whale sharks more calmly and sensitively. Some operators had posters of rules outside their shops – but even here there were discrepancies with some listing the required distance between a snorkeller and a whale shark as a minimum of 5metres, others as a minimum of 2 metres.

There seems to be general agreement though that the captains of the boats are extremely vigilant in stopping tourists trying to touch the whale sharks. A management plan could include a written code of conduct which regulates these activities – this would then help to counter the claims of outside developers such as PMD that the ecology of Holbox is not adequately protected.

What does the future hold for Isla Holbox?

In 2005 after Hurricane Wilma, foreign aid flowed into Holbox to help with the devastation. In 2008 the 70 ejidatarios (finally) received payment from Peninsula Maya Developments for the sale of their waterfront plots of land. Locals described to me how the island has changed a lot since these two injections of cash, pointing to the increase of golf cars on the island (some families own more than one car per family) and the construction of 2 storey concrete houses compared to the traditional one storey palapas (thatched with palm fronds). It is undeniable that local development on Holbox is happening and that the island is changing.

At the start of this article I described how locals had gathered in the main square of Holbox on 1 June to protest at the outcome of a meeting in the mainland town of Kantunilkin. This meeting was an assembly of the Holbox ejido with the new ejidatarios to approve the division of Holbox into four ejidos (Peninsula Holbox, Isla Holbox, Holbox and Punta Holbox). Outside the meeting, while the new division of Holbox was approved by 70 out of 117 ejidatarios, the police prevented the former (disenfranchised) ejidatarios from entering the assembly. The injury of an elderly ejidatario after the meeting (when the car of the director of public security for local government ran over the elderly gentleman’s foot and then continued without stopping) prompted the crowd to attack the vehicle with stones. The police responded by firing tear gas at the crowd. This was the prequel to the church bell ringing in the plaza of Holbox a few hours later and the locals' occupation of the town hall – in an attempt to force the government to talk to them about their grievances. On 2 June, a delegation of the former ejidatarios travelled to Cancun to talk to the Secretary for the government of the state of Quintana Roo. On the return of this delegation, later that evening, they surrendered the town hall and disbanded the occupiers, on the basis (and in the hope) that the 1 June assembly may be declared void.

This conflict raises difficult questions. For example, if the rights to the common land of Holbox were returned to the 70 old ejidatarios, would they still be calling for protection of Holbox against a major tourist development or would they sell these rights (which they now know are worth a lot of money) to the next bidder? They were prepared to sell their plots of land to a developer in 2004. Where was their concern for protecting the environment of Holbox, and their children’s heritage, then? Or have they realised that the money from the sale of their lands has not improved their quality of life as much as they imagined and has cost them a lot more in terms of loss of heritage, and perhaps even identity?

Can the community on Holbox come together despite the divisions which exist between the former ejidatarios and Los Talibanes, the ejidatarios who would not sell, and some or all of whom who may have now agreed to sell via closed discussions with PMD? Can the community, which consists of native Holboceños and incomers who have developed local businesses there (such as the beachfront hotels) and who mainly work in the tourist industry, agree on a vision for the island whereby the island’s culture and ecology is managed by the people who live there?

Perhaps the only thing that is clear from the tangled conflict on Holbox is that self-management via a government-supported and resourced management plan, by a local community who live on and know their island, is preferable to 'management' by outside property developers who claim to have the best interests of the island’s ecology, culture and its community of 2000 people at its corporate heart.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Crocodile-fish, manatees and 4 wooden clothespegs

It all started with a man with a map walking down the street in Palizada, Pueblo Magico (the magic town), with its terracotta-tiled roofs from Marseille. Samuel, the man with the map spotted some of our group on the street, a meeting was set up and the next day saw us poring over his 2 maps of the Usumacinta River ( a delta system) and its tributaries, one of which is the Palizada River.

Samuel told us about a small population of manatees who live in a freshwater lagoon - visible on the map but usually not accessible in the dry season (up to the beginning of June) to the fishermen who fish that territory. There is (as yet) no organised way for the general public to access the lagoon. The narrow and shallow waterways which lead to the lagoon are filled with water-lilies and their trailing root systems make it impossible for motor boats to pass through. But this year because of two unusual rains in late April, Samuel thought that these waterways might be passable in fishermen´s cayucos (traditional wooden kayaks). Two days later, 6 of us found ourselves in a field outside Palizada with an array of overturned cayucos and about a dozen fishermen tretrieving oars from the branches of the surrounding trees. We were a little puzzled as we couldn´t see any water anywhere near the cayucos, although the land was boggy underfoot. As the first cayuco was turned upright and dragged forward by a coiuple of the fishermen, we realised that what appeared as a mass of green vegetation on land was actually a dense carpet of aquatic plants in about 40 centimetres of water.

While the fishermen stood with perfect balance at either end of each cayuco, using long oars to push us forward, each expeditionary sat in the middle of their designated vessel, almost at a level with the water, watching the incredible bird and plant life unfold as we slowly edged our way through to the lagoon over the course of about an hour and a half. We never saw any manatees (according to the fishermen there is a population of 8 resident there at the moment) when we eventually reached the lagoon which measures about 8km by 300 metres. Nor did we see any of the 4 metre crocodiles who apparently inhabit it - they are shy and stay underwater...unless you fall in, in which case they eat you. But I learnt a lot about the practices of the freshwater fishing community of this particular fishing territory in Campeche, as I happened to be accompanied by a particularly chatty and obliging fisherman.

Fishermen´s groups exist in the different fishing territories of the state of Campeche (and, I understand, in the other coastal and freshwater Mexican states). As I am used to talking to Irish and Scottish fishermen, I was somewhat surprised when Juan, the chatty fishermen described a relationship free of antagonism between the local fishing community (77 freshwater fishermen in that territory) and local government. Applying for a fishing permit appears to be a straightforward and trouble-free process. It seems that 14 years ago the Mexican government decided to create specific fishing territories for fishermen as stock levels were dropping. Each territory has a fishing group composed of the fishermen in the area, with responsibility for taking care of that area and its fish stocks, and each cayuco in this case has a chip which tracks its location. If a fisherman breaches his territorial limit, he loses his fishing permit for good. The fishing is protected on two levels - by law via local government (who enforce the territorial limits as described above) and by agreements reached between the fishermen themselves which are not legally enforceable and depend on mutual respect between fishermen. According to Juan, it works. The fishermen agree how many days each month they will fish - they may limit their fishing to 3 specific days in the month, or more if stocks appear more abundant (they seem to fish in groups of 3 days at a time). The amount they fish prvoides them with enough fish to feed their families, to sell on the market and to allow stock levels to regenerate. As there are only 3 entrances to the lagoon, it is easy for the fishermen to self-monitor and see if any of the group is not respecting the agreement reached that month. I was unable to find out what happens if a fisherman does breach the agreement - in fact Juan seemed puzzled by the question (which I asked several times) and kept referring to respect between the fishermen. During the 3 months when the freshwater fishermen cannot acess the lagoon (until recently this was the case from end February to the beginning of June) the local governemnt agency in charge of the fishing territory pays each cayuco owner 1500 pesos (about 75 sterling), 500 pesos for each month, which he splits evenly with his crew member. However, he did note that relationships between the sea (alta mar) fishermen are more fraught, as illegal fishing there is more prevalent and there is less respect between the fishermen.

Juan has observed significant changes in the climate of the area over the last 8 years - more rain, and more and stronger hurricanes. Before this year they would never have been able to access the lagoon in May and this is the first year that the land has not completely dried up during the dry season More rains mean that there are more waterways opening up through the boggy land around the lagoon, but less land for the neighbouring cattle farmers to work with every year. The lagoon conditions are affected by the sea conditions in the Gulf of Mexico (where the initial pair of lagoon manatees travelled from) which can create huge waves in the lagoon, sometimes forcing the fishermen to camp out for several days until safe conditions return. Fishing there is easy according to Juan, in tbat thre are always fish to catch. Species caught include the valuable and meaty pes lagarto (crocodile fish, so named because it looks like a miniature crocodile), 4 different species of mojara, and savalo (which is no longer allowed to be sold on the market and is only for private consumption).

As we floated over the lagoon I asked Juan if there were aby stories about the area which the fishermen told their children. theere was a moment´s silence as I saw him hesitate - then he called to one of the other fishermen ´She wants to hear the stories...´. It was almost as if he was asking for permission. Lowering his voice, Juan started to tell me about the fishermen who have disappeared in this lagoon, and in other lagoons in the area. Fishermen who have been struck down with inexplicable fever. And the light. Juan himself has seens the light several times, but not in the last 15 or so years. The first time he saw it, he was fishing the lagoon by night, and he thought it was a big star. But then he and his crew member realised it was too big to be a star and that it was moving towards them at a great pace. They remembered the stories they had been told and put out their own night light on the cayuco and started to move their cayuco in curves in stead of straight lines. This makes it hard for the evil light to find them - according to the older fishermen it is because of the evil light that people disappear. When the light appeared, Juan said that the wind dropped and everything became eerily still. As they evaded the light, it stoped moving and then disappeared and the wind picked up again. They were safe.

And the 4 wooden clothespegs? They are by far the most useful items I have brought with me on this expedition. More on that in the next post.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

In the future there is no plastic...

 'Journeys; voyages; dreams. To reach out beyond what we are, what we know. To dare, to fail. To stand among the wreckage, and imagine anew.'
Jon Bonfiglio, Director, The Clipperton Project

In less than a week I will be on board a traditional canoe, paddling down the Usumacinta river in the Chiapas region of Mexico, as part of an interdisciplinary team which includes artists, biologists, educators, writers, documentary film-makers, a medical doctor and a social ecologist (me).  Behind the voyage is an inspiring organisation called The Clipperton Project (TCP), 'an international, independent not-for-profit organisation which promotes notions of exploration around the world, especially in terms of its empowering potential for all people, wherever they find themselves, whatever their age or background.' With a strong (but not exclusive) marine focus, and addressing a range of issues from sustainability to plastic in the marine ecosystem, TCP's art-science expeditions enable people to work across personal, cultural and professional boundaries. Expeditionaries share their experiences with broader audiences in workshops and events which inspire and empower the public to explore their own surroundings, their own abilities and possibilities, and to regain a sense of wonder for this world. Live updates of the Usumacinta adventure can be found on @ClippertonTweet. Expedition highlights will also be posted on this blog in June.

Friday, April 11, 2014

A vision for marine renewable energy in Scotland....

The following is an article by Caroline Sejer Damgaard from the University of St Andrews, Department of Geography and Sustainable Development

Due to increasing human activities such as fishery, shipping, resource extraction and recreation, the ocean is becoming increasingly crowded and characterized by competition for space. Scotland has the largest offshore renewable energy resources in Europe, estimated at 200GW offshore wind- tidal and wave resources, and with the national goal of meeting 100% of Scottish electricity consumption by 2020, offshore
developments are central to the government’s energy plans. For maximisation of the Scottish potential, there is need to reframe discourses of Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) from issues of competition to issues of potential and integration.

Marine renewable energy developments are regulated under Scottish Planning Policy and a range of energy-related acts and plans. The Blue Seas Green Energy Sectoral Marine Plans provide a planning framework with defined zones and areas for future offshore developments. These policies largely adhere to principles of adaptive governance, but lack concrete integration measures and institutional arrangements for successful real-world application. As Scottish marine renewables are only just developing, there’s good potential to shape a truly integrative approach to governance as it emerges.

MSP is integrative, bringing together distinct planning practices and sectors under the umbrella of a coherent spatial plan. However, a deeper, broader concept of integration is desirable. In order to facilitate more efficient, multi-level integration, a planning framework could benefit from the application of a three-tiered concept of integration (Potts et al 2012):

1) integration at the level of actors and activities
2) spatial and temporal scale integration
3) integration at the level of the full socio-ecological system

Current planning practices do well in incorporating the second tier, integrating marine plans with energy plans and national and European planning policy, while strategic plans incorporate the long-term perspective. 

At the levels of actors and activities and, to some extent, the wider social-ecological system, integrative processes could be developed further.

To ensure sustainable management of oceans while supporting offshore renewable energy developments, the concept of co-location needs to enter into planning. Stakeholder involvement is not in and of itself sufficient, rather reconceptualising marine space and functions could encourage multi-functional use of space, inspire a move from fundamentally competitive uses to integrated uses. This could involve windfarm-location within a marine conservation area, fishing-allowance in or in the vicinity of the farm, co-location of different renewable technologies, or even big co-location platforms integrating renewables, aquaculture, transport and recreation, as explored through, for example, the European TROPOS project.

Professor Richard Barnes and colleagues at the University of Hull, encourage co-location as a legally feasible spatial planning strategy. They make the case for co-location based on increasing competition for space, but also highlight potential related benefits. 

Windfarm establishments may function as automatic regulation of environmentally destructive fishing practices such as trawling, and may even result in habitat enhancement. Evidence from windfarms in Denmark and Germany, for example, shows that windfarms provide healthy habitats for blue mussels, oysters and seaweed, and potentially good breeding grounds for certain species of fish. 

The potential is there, but an enabling, supportive regulatory framework is essential. Successful co-location is highly site-specific, and will require extensive Environmental Impact Assessments, as well as stakeholder support, developer co-operation, and public support. 

Cooperation and collaboration will be fundamental to institutionalised co-location planning to a higher degree than is the case in current MSP. A regulatory framework should facilitate engagement of planning authorities, developers and stakeholders, already in the location-selection phase and throughout the project planning, design and implementation phases. This entails networking modes of governance, with maintained trust between actors as a major concern, due to the high-risk nature of the renewable energy sector. Market mechanisms and regulations could serve to encourage cooperation, build trust between stakeholders and address issues of financial risk.

In addition to such deeper processes of integration, attention should also be given to broader processes of integration. Public opinion is a central concern for renewable energy planning. 

The “not in my back yard” effect has been commonly accepted as cause of opposition to developments, but recent research indicates that, not only does that theory fail to capture important aspects of opinion formation, it prevents appropriate dialogue and solutions.

Dr Maarten Wolsink identifies the public-opinion problem as an institutional one, a problem with central planning and the framing of decision-making. Following his and other research, participation and equity are key issues to address. Participation relates to the decision-making process, and goes hand in hand with the need for deeper and more thorough stakeholder involvement, earlier in the planning process. Participation is not meaningful if reduced to simple consultation after the completion of project design and announcement.

Aside from the institutional framework, other pressing issues related to ownership and equity. It is peculiar that, as greater emphasis is placed on local ownership of onshore renewable energy developments in Scotland, and with international evidence of high success rates of locally owned developments – both on and offshore – Scotland’s offshore renewable plans involve no level of community ownership or local investment possibility. The Crown Estate owns and manages the vast majority of Scottish marine territory, and explicitly prevents local management agreements when it comes to offshore renewables development.

Equity and connection to local economies play a major role in shaping public support (Wolsink 2005). 

World-leaders in offshore renewable energy such as Denmark and Germany are characterised by local ownership of the majority of wind energy establishments, and Scotland is seeing immense success and growth of onshore community renewables. This change in ownership dynamics is seen as key to meeting Scotland’s 2020 target, but marine planning policy does not reflect these trends. Financial engagement of the public, community ownership and local investment could not only benefit local economies, it could stimulate a shift in public perception of offshore windfarms from one of contestation and intrusion to one of potential and inclusion.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Emergence of Coastal Low Carbon Economies

The following is a copy of a recent seminar and blog by Tavis Potts in partnership with the University of Wollongong (Australia) Global Challenges Program: Sustaining Coastal and Marine Zones.

The emerging impacts of climate change are increasingly felt across the globe. Examples span both the northern and southern hemispheres, from the diminishing extent of Arctic summer sea ice; the extensive flooding in the south of England across January; or the increasing occurrence and intensity of bushfires in Australia.

No matter the location, the message is clear – the scientific consensus indicates a warming climate driven by human greenhouse gas emissions. In 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that warming of the climate system is unequivocal.

The assessment highlighted that CO2 concentrations are at their highest concentration for 800,000 years with 90 per cent of the heat being absorbed by the oceans. Increased CO2 and heat absorption will increasingly effect marine and coastal environments through sea level rise, ocean acidification and impacts upon coastal habitats such as seagrass meadows, mangroves and corals.

This is a significant concern because productive coastal habitats provide a number of critical services for society including protection from flooding, fisheries and culturally important seascapes and are increasingly threatened by a combination of climate impacts and development pressure.

Our link with coastal regions is an ancient one. From the time we crawled, hopped and slithered from the sea we have established coastal populations, settlements and civilisations.
Fifteen of the 21 global mega cities of more than 10 million people are perched on areas of low coastal elevation.
It is clear that climate change will substantially impact these coastal spaces and related ecosystems and that a mix of adaptation and mitigation measures will need to be planned in the short and long term. However, despite their critical importance coastal systems tend to be decoupled from debates on economic growth or social welfare. Much of the dialogue around coasts and climate change is centred on risk minimisation – in particular, the scenarios of what will happen under sea level rise and flooding.

Recent developments hint at a change in this discourse with increasing awareness of the role of the coast in supporting low carbon growth and dialogue on the positive benefits that support societal development.This includes the transformation of traditional industries such as fisheries, shipping and coastal infrastructure and the emergence of new maritime industries such as marine renewable energy, aquaculture, eco-tourism and bio-prospecting.

‘Coastal low-carbon economies’ (C-LCEs) are defined as economies that link climate mitigation and adaptation measures to the development of coastal industries and communities. They are regionally focused innovation systems, being built upon regional specialisations that draw upon ‘blue carbon’ ecosystems and associated services, coastal infrastructure and human capital.
Europe, in particular, is embracing the concept of a coastal economy with dedicated policy programs and initiatives.
Both European legislators and their national counterparts increasingly see the economic, social and environmental advantage in investing in coastal low-carbon infrastructure across a range of scales and industries. The European Commission is building capacity through its Integrated Maritime Policy (IMP) that identifies how low-carbon maritime innovation can provide a route out of the recent economic crisis through new ideas and job creation. The IMP is supported by several marine directives, which encourage growth within environmental carrying capacity and mandate marine spatial planning across the EU.

Examples are emerging from the Atlantic seaboard where countries such as Scotland recognise marine renewable energy, aquaculture and biotechnology as national policy priorities that can grow in conjunction with conservation initiatives such as marine protected areas and marine spatial planning.

In Scotland, the offshore economy is emerging with substantial investment in marine renewable energy. This is supported by legislation such as the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2010, which establishes a long-term framework to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050, an interim target of 42 per cent by 2020 and legislates the equivalent of 100 per cent of gross electricity consumption, from renewable sources by 2020.

While there is considerable work to be done to achieve these ambitious targets and many challenges remain, it is clear that Europe appears to be investing in a low carbon shift with coasts and oceans at its heart. Fundamentally, these reforms are changing the nature and identity of the coasts in Europe.
New developments are emerging – for example, a recent announcement in Scotland highlighted consent for two large offshore wind farms in the north east of the country, totalling 1866 MW of capacity providing electricity to power nearly a million homes.

There are increasing clashes between traditional users of the sea, such as fisheries, with the new kids on the block, such as renewable energy and large-scale aquaculture. Communities are also facing challenges from the industrialisation of coastal regions, particularly in areas that are remote or have cultural and scenic values.

A number of responses are emerging to the challenges. They include implementing a marine planning regime across the EU that will potentially navigate a path between traditional and emerging users of the seas; ensure the equitable flow of ecosystem services from the seas to individuals and communities and integrate the approach into policy; and ensure that communities participate in the planning process and reap the benefits as the necessity for a low carbon economy increases.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Hydrodynamic insights into designing and locating effective MPAs

 Image: Tom Adams

New research has found that fish populations within the majority of marine protected areas (MPAs) studied are not significantly different to fish populations in unprotected waters. The study looked at a total of 964 sites in 87 marine protected areas (MPAs) across 40 different countries (including both tropical and temperate waters).  It also found that only 10% of those sites studied are ‘effective’ in meeting their conservation goals. ‘Effective’ MPAs were defined as those meeting at least four out of five management and planning criteria:
·      No-take (no fishing permitted)
·      Enforced well (MPA boundaries and restrictions complied with)
·      Old (more than ten years old)
·      Large (more than 100km squared)  
·      Isolated (by deep water or sand)

This latest research is likely to add fuel to an already raging debate (discussed in an earlier post on this blog) on the designation of areas to create an ecologically coherent network of MPAs in the UK. Indeed, the study (discussed by the lead author here) has already been picked up on in this context in another recent article in The Conversation which takes the view that:

Evidence from UK waters may be poor, but there is ample information available from the rest of the world to provide a guide for the best way to build a biologically functional MPA…. The challenge to conservation planners, in Britain and elsewhere, is to build a series of protected areas that fulfil the criteria for successful conservation. It would help to have clearly stated biological goals for these parks that would provide a basis for their location and design.'

The problem (or one of the many problems) is that locating and designing effective MPAs is not as simple as having clearly stated biological goals. Scientific research uses mathematical models (which are informed by huge amounts of scientific data) to predict, for example, the likely changes to fish populations in an area over time. While models of both population dynamics (eg changes to fish populations) and hydrodynamic processes (such as the effects of ocean currents) are now well developed, studies that combine both are rare. Yet accounting for hydrodynamic processes is a crucial part of understanding population processes in specific environments, such as larval dispersal and settlement. If such processes are not understood, it is difficult to predict whether a designated area will be effective in maintaining or (ideally) increasing the fish population within that area.

The science of where to situate MPAs in temperate waters is still very much developing and studies have, to date, been largely based on estimated tidal movements (see here for an example). However, the situation is a lot more complex. Estimated tidal movements alone do not provide the full picture in relation to, for example, how larval dispersal takes place in a particular environment. Recent research on larval dispersal of intertidal organisms shows that differing roles of particular sites as larval ‘sinks’ and ‘sources’ need to be taken into account in order to fully understand dispersal patterns. Understanding such dispersal patterns is necessary to accurately design and locate networks of MPAs so that the biological goals of such MPAs (which will include the recovery or maintenance of fish stocks) can be achieved. However, studies such as this research have not generally been taken into consideration for MPA design and location up to now. An exception is a recent study by Marine Scotland Science. While this is a positive step forward, such work is still in its infancy and needs further refinement to work well in coastal areas.

Is this an excuse to ignore the alarming decrease in the biodiversity of the world’s oceans and to throw the precautionary principle out of the window? Not at all. The authors of the recent MPA research underline the seriousness of this decline:

‘By using effective MPAs as an unfished standard, our study allows the first global assessment of the magnitude of fishing effects on temperate as well as tropical reef communities. Fish biomass was greatly reduced overall, with 63% of all fish biomass, 80% of large fish biomass, 93% of sharks, 84% of groupers and 85% of jacks apparently removed.’ 

What I am highlighting is the need to acknowledge the complexity of designing and locating networks of effective MPAs, and to enable and encourage emerging science around population dynamics and hydrodynamic processes to be taken into account by, and incorporated into, the social, cultural, economic and political contexts which shape, and are themselves shaped by, the creation of these networks.

I am grateful to Dr Tom Adams for comments on this piece.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Bringing the arts and culture into Scotland's marine planning process

Photo: Amanda MacQuarrie, Barra

From July to November 2013, MarineScotland (the arm of the Scottish Government responsible for the integrated management of Scotland's seas) carried out a mammoth consultation process (PlanningScotland’s Seas) to take forward integrated marine planning for Scotland’s seas. As part of this process, they sought the views of the public on a National Marine Plan, offshore renewable energy and a proposed network of marine protected areas.

At one of the many consultation meetings delivered around Scotland during this 16 week period, a colleague of mine advised Marine Scotland to ‘sex up’ their consultation process in order to get the public more engaged in this important debate on the management of their seas. I’m not entirely sure if this suggestion is now floating its way along the corridors of Victoria Quay in Edinburgh, where Marine Scotland is currently analysing the results of this consultation process. I do know, however, that some of the 14,000 responses to the consultation on a proposed network of 33 marine protected areas for Scotland's seas arrived in the form of poetry, drawings and paintings. Fortunately, one of the members of Marine Scotland’s Marine Analytic Unit is an anthropology graduate.

It is heartening to hear about these imaginative responses to the consultation. It was also encouraging to be invited, as a social ecologist, to deliver a lunchtime seminar at Marine Scotland last week about my understanding, from a cultural perspective, of a conflict around the creation of two marine special areas of conservation off the coast of Barra, a small island in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland. My co-speaker was Ruth Little (Associate Director of Cape Farewell), an Australian dramaturg, teacher, writer and former academic who has developed ‘a philosophy and methodology of ‘metabolic’ dramaturgy: the dramaturgy of non-linear living systems, which considers the biological, cognitive and social realms in the creation and interpretation of performance works, and attends to patterns, processes and emergent moments in dramatic structure and human experience.’ Ruth spoke from an artistic perspective about the islands of
Fair Isle, Shetland and Orkney (in Scotland's northern waters) in relation to marine spatial planning issues and relationships between local communities and fisheries/energy.

Ruth Little and I share a common belief in the importance of acknowledging and embracing culture as an aspect of local ecologies, and extending the ecosystem approach to encompass the specific kinds of relationship that people have with their marine environment, and the ways in which they perceive and express those relationships. We offered the Marine Scotland audience visually illustrated cultural and artistic perspectives on many of the issues within the Planning Scotland’s Seas consultation process. From the lively discussion which followed, it was evident that Marine Scotland (at least the 25 people who attended the seminar) are open to engaging with these different ways of knowing and relating to the seas around Scotland – and indeed many of them hail from the coastal and island communities we were talking about.

It is important for artistic and cultural perspectives to weave their way through the ‘integrated’ marine planning process for Scotland’s seas. Beyond the realm of marine planning, and in a broader sense, some of these perspectives currently find expression in publications such as The Island Review, an imaginative and beautifully illustrated online magazine which describes itself as ‘a haven in the vast and stormy online ocean…bringing together great writing and visual arts from islands all over the world.’

Without local cultural and artistic perspectives, the marine planning process for Scotland's seas, quite simply, won’t be integrated. The specific kinds of relationship that people have with their marine environment, and the ways in which they perceive and express those relationships, form the glue that does the integrating.