Blue Growth or Blue Commons? Interview with Andre Standing

Andre Standing, based in Kenya, is an advisor to the Coalition for Fair Fisheries Arrangements.

He was a guest at Slow Fish 2019 in the Fishers’ House, the network meetings where members of the Slow Fish community compared their respective situations, objectives and strategies. Under particular scrutiny in Standing’s testimony was the difference between the ideas of “Blue Growth” and the “Blue Commons”, which we discussed at length in a further interview.

Thus, Blue Growth sees our marine resources as an “untapped frontier”, according to Standing. “Private capital sees potential for accelerated growth in offshore mining and shipping, while fishing is not normally considered a part of the economy which can grow. The investment banks and other private actors who are putting their weight behind Blue Growth propagate the idea that economic growth can somehow be decoupled from resource depletion and resource consumption.”


Flaws in Blue Growth

Another point used to sell Blue Growth is the promise that it will benefit poorer communities, but as Standing asserts, “there is little evidence to suggest that it will, and plenty of evidence to suggest that it will do quite the opposite.” This comes as little surprise, given that the major pillars of Blue Growth are sectors where poorer coastal communities will have little or no interest: shipping, seabed mining, and marine biotechnology—the use of marine organisms to produce pharmaceuticals.

On the ecological front, Standing continues, there’s a profound flaw in this. “It’s wrong to accelerate economic growth and try to make a profit from the ecological crisis which capitalism has created. The dominant international organizations see this crisis as a business opportunity, like everything else. The central incentive for private investors to fund the Blue Growth Initiative is to see a financial return, not to benefit the environment.”


Financializing nature

On the social front too, aligning what sustainability means for coastal communities and private investors is “impossible”, according to Standing. “How can investors make a return from these communities, from small-scale fisheries? The whole point is that they can’t, and shouldn’t try to. If we continue to financialize coastal communities and the nature they depend on for survival, we transfer power away from politicians to bankers.”

And how exactly is this money to be raised? One innovative aspect Standing mentions is so-called Blue Bonds, which were launched in the Seychelles last year. These are just like Green bonds, which raise money from private investors to be spent on environmental projects. The World Bank and the UN helped to launch the first blue bond in the Seychelles, and it seems that big environmental NGOs such as the Nature Conservancy hope to launch many more”. Standing argues there are big risks in this approach; encouraging privatisation of resources and indebtedness, while there is very little to ensure the money generated is used for legitimate ends. “It is absurd to trust global financial markets to solve complex ecological and social challenges.” (1)

Photo: Seychelles News Agency

Blue vs Brown

The interest in Blue Growth grew among the European Commission in the wake of the financial crisis, and the need to “develop new sectors of the economy, generate income and jobs, find new frontiers for growth”, as Standing says. “But the reality is that the investments aren’t really there. Blue Growth has traction as an idea, but there’s limited evidence showing any substantial return on investment for really innovative projects that save the environment and benefit poorer communities. At the same time, national governments continue to prioritize investment in the ‘brown economy’—oil and gas—because it continues to be a safe bet, financially. These are easily passed off as part of ‘blue growth’.”

What are the potential consequences? Standing provides the harrowing example of Mozambique. “In 2014 their government sold a sovereign bond to a consortium of European investors. The bond money was supposed to be used to strengthen Mozambique’s own tuna fishing fleet, as foreign fishers are plundering their waters. About a billion USD was funneled into companies owned by politicians (2), on the basis of a three-page prospectus which massively overvalued the capacity Mozambique tuna fishing fleet. Criminal investigations followed, and Mozambique was bankrupted. Then when tropical cyclones hit the country, and the government has no money to spend on disaster relief, who suffers most? The small-scale fishers and coastal communities.”

Cyclone damage in Mozambique. Photo:

Blue Commons

So what should we be focusing on then, if not Blue Growth? Standing has an alternative proposal, which he calls the Blue Commons.

“Blue Commons is the idea that marine resources are part of our common heritage, a “common good”, as the slogan of Slow Fish 2019 hold. “The concept of the commons goes back centuries, although now it is increasing being applied to new areas of our economy—shared resources that are not owned by the state or private companies, but rather freely available for people to enjoy and use. the internet is a great example, but so too is a beach or park”. Successful commons have to be managed, and the commons ideal stresses the importance of the ‘commoners’ having a direct role to play. Of course, we have lost large areas of the commons through privatisation.

In reviving the commons ideal Standing argues “our coastal commons go beyond fishing. We have to see coastal communities more holistically, and think about all the people who benefit from them, and we need to understand that the value of the commons is not necessarily defined by profits. Shared resources might not generate economic rents, but they have a very important role in the wealth of our society.”

A talk at Slow Fish 2019. Photo: Alessandro Vargiu and Matteo Properzi

Slow Fish

Slow Fish events have provided an opportunity to hear about some inspiring examples of how communities are reviving the commons idea. One comes from Galicia, Spain. “Faced with diminishing fisheries, the community developed a collective plan for a marine protected area. They created their own commons, and innovative systems of self governance working closely with local scientists and coastal businesses such as restaurants. It’s been remarkably successful despite difficulties with regional governments, who seem reluctant to give up power. People understand how a system previously dominated by competition and distrust had to become something based on a collective effort. The blue economy treats us as rational economic actors only concerned with maximizing our own economic interests, but that’s not what we are. Successful commons are often based on volunteering and sharing.” Standing says that this highlights the idea of ‘commoning’; “the commons is not simply a natural resource or an area of sea, it is something that depends on sharing and co-operation by the people that use and enjoy these resources”.

Another example of commoning in action is found in Tunisia: “Fisheries communities were facing problems with selling their catches as they lacked basic infrastructure, such as a lack of ice, so they pooled their money, and put a percentage of their revenue from fishing into a shared fund which has been used to improve facilities for fish processing.”

A fisherman from the Slow Fish network in Tunisia. Photo: Slow Food Archive

A Commons Fund

New thinking about financing is a key part of the blue commons idea. Standing proposes a Blue Commons fund. “Private use of the commons should generate payments to a common’s fund, the proceeds of which are invested and then only the dividend spent to protect and enlarge the commons. This fund must be held in trust for the commons, and is not something that is available for government spending. There are many proposals on how such funds could be financed, including levies from coastal tourism, a coastal land tax, and a carbon tax for example.”

The key concept is that income deriving from the private use of the commons should not go back to governments who may choose to spend it all elsewhere. “The Blue Commons fund may sound radical, but you actually find similar sovereign wealth funds already in many countries, such as Norway and Alaska. Many developing countries have set these up to manage windfall gains from oil and mining. The problem is that too often governments have access to them, and tap into them for their own ends, so the pot of money that should fund future generations is easily squandered on short term spending.” The commons fund is completely different system of funding to private financial markets, as these tend to increase debts, encourage over-exploitation of resource and transfer profits elsewhere.


Protecting our common heritage

At the core of it all is the idea that our common heritage (or ‘natural capital’, as blue growth proponents call it) should not be used simply to grow the economy and enlarge private profits. Instead, we should see the role of the economy as serving the needs of our commons. “Blue Growth is a flawed proposal to avert our ecological crisis, so we have to shift the narrative. That’s the challenge. Blue Commons is an idea which is compatible with the philosophy of Slow Fish because it is empowering and humanizing. Slow Fish should serve as an alternative to the massive conferences like that held in Nairobi last year (called the Sustainable Blue Economy Conference) which was little more than a trade fair for the oceans, were governments, institutions and investors got together to talk about how the oceans can be “prosperous”. For whom? Of course, no small-scale fisheries were represented.”

by Jack Coulton

[email protected]

1 Bonds are financial instruments where private investors lend money to governments which is then paid back with interest in the future. Countries with large national debts, such as the Seychelles, may use bonds to pay their debt off. As the Seychelles is not paying interest on these bonds, they instead promise to turn part of the ocean territory into a protected area.

  • Did you learn something new from this page?
  • yesno