By Gisela Ruiseco
Being originally from Colombia, in my childhood I visited repeatedly its Caribbean zone. I remember an incredible mangrove area, which, back in the 1980’s, was destroyed by the construction of a highway. Experiencing the resulting death zone was shocking. In those days, conservation was not a trending topic. Moreover, the destruction of the way of life of local populations was certainly no issue in a country obsessed with development and “becoming civilized”. These factors seem to have changed…
Today, in the region of Cispatá, on Colombia’s Caribbean coastline, there is a project in process which seems to break with many of the previous developmentalist attitudes. The region has long been inhabited by a black population which lives in a community inseparable from the mangroves¹. As one inhabitant states: “the forest is communitarian and the people have managed it in community”.
The pioneering project, called “Vida Manglar”², was generated by several NGO’s and scientific organizations. The mangroves in Cispatá had been declared a protected area since 2006, but there were not enough means (i.e. will) to enforce their protection, and territory was being lost to cattle-grazing and agricultural small holders. With ‘Vida Manglar’ an income has been secured. It “is the first project to fully measure — and monetize — the carbon that mangroves sequester in their soil”. In 2021 the first “Blue Carbon credits” were issued, 92% of the revenues were to be used for the project: conservation of the mangroves and support the livelihoods of the 12000 inhabitants.
According to one of the supporting NGOs, Conservation International, local communities actively participate in the monitoring of the mangroves, and also in the collection of data. For example, previous hunters have become crocodile custodians. Further, the population is supported in (some of) its traditional activities, for example improving market access for women who collect honey. The NGO states that “The project is demonstrating that carbon offsets, combined with collaborative, community-based approaches, produce conservation results”.
This project can be seen as part of the offensive towards building up a ‘blue economy’ in Colombia, an important theme in a country with almost half of it territory consisting of oceans. The ‘sustainable development’ plan “Colombia Potencia Bioceánica Sostenible 2030” (CONPES) was approved in 2020. According to the press release of the corresponding governmental entity: the country is going to ‘project itself, by 2030 as a ‘bio-oceanic power”; ‘growth and development’ are going to be potentialized’. More recently, the Colombian (former) vice-president stated in the international ‘Foro Bioceánico’ that Colombia is seen as “advancing” towards a “blue economy”, which is imagined by her as bringing together ‘economic development, sustainability and the social axis’. The optimistic win-win-win imaginary is in consonance with the international discourse: as Ertör & Hadjimichael³ point out “The World Bank has defined the ‘blue economy’ as “the sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs, and ocean ecosystem health”.
An article published in the mainstream magazine Semana, illustrates this triumphant three-fold winner ethos. The title of the article⁴ presents the blue economy in its value for the “preservation and conservation or marine resources”. However, already the first sentence jumps into the blue economy as an opportunity for the financial sector, highlighting its present growth rate. Concrete calculations are made for capital gains for investors. The article does mention the urgency of a more sustainable treatment of the oceans, providing some data, but does not see any contradiction with fostering the rapaciousness which has brought us to the present un-sustainability in the first place: the quest for capital accumulation. There is no further discussion as to how sustainability could be achieved. All in all, the blue economy is presented as a savior, but not in the sense of the climate emergency. Rather, the article ends dramatically saying that it will ‘prevent the economy as a whole from drowning’. Excitement around “oceans as a new commodity frontier for further capital accumulation”³ is palpable.
The “Vida Manglar” project fits into the CONPES plan. It also, interestingly, diverts from a traditional development discourse, as it defends the commons and a localized production, and gives importance to biological and ethnic diversity. It could thus actually also fit in a twisted manner with some of the conditions for talking about a ‘blue degrowth’³ . The project could even be seen as ‘decolonizing the imaginary’ since Other⁵ knowledges, coming from a racialized population, seem to be considered valid, in a country which had profoundly identified itself with the task of ‘civilizing’ this Other⁶.
However, the knowledges are only recognized in order to be appropriated. The project is clearly commodifying elements which belonged before to a frowned-upon subsistence economy. It could be that, in the long run, we have to do here with what Wolff⁷ has characterized, discussing the creation of protected areas and with respect to small-scale fishers, as a ‘protectionist, authoritarian and violently repressive practice of conservation’.
For the manglar population has lost its autonomy, as the directives are coming from outside experts. Further, these people can be seen as being trapped in, and perhaps becoming dependent of, huge, volatile market forces for which a whole way of life is functional for the continuation of the system (and the continued release of CO2 somewhere else). All in all, one can see coloniality’s matrix of power⁸ continued appropriation of non-western richness.
Further, in supposedly solving socio-environmental-historical conflicts through market forces, the problems of the inhabitants have become depoliticized, their previous abandonment overlooked. Mainstream Colombia’s historical contempt for Other ways of life, the profound contradictions given here vis-à-vis the country’s progressive constitution which grants special rights to indigenous peoples, are not addressed. Coloniality’s impregnation of the economic system is glossed over by what can be pinned down as a ‘neoliberal operative multiculturalism’⁹.
As Barbesgaard⁷ puts it, it would be more effective, just and sustainable to approach the situation from the point of view of the food sovereignty movement, as defended by the World Forum of Fisher Peoples. But that would be another story…
Gisela Ruiseco is s social psychologist originally from Colombia. She is presently a student at R&D’s Online Master on Degrowth. She has experience in academic writing on the themes of decoloniality and critique of developmentalism, and is currently writing about environmental topics on her blog fueradelmito.
¹possibly in a way parallel to what Escobar describes for another region in Colombia in Escobar, A. (2014). Territorios de diferencia: Lugar, movimientos, vida, redes (1.a ed.). Universidad del Cauca. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvpv504m
²meaning “Mangrove life”
³see Ertör, I., Hadjimichael, M. (2020). Editorial: Blue degrowth and the politics of the sea: rethinking the blue economy. Sustain Sci 15, 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1007
⁴El potencial de la economía azul en la preservación y conservación de los recursos marinos.
⁵ refering to the othering of the non-white, non-western western in coloniality’s regime of power
⁶ see Ruiseco, G., & Slunecko, T. (2006). The role of mythical European heritage in the construction of Colombian national identity. Journal of Language and Politics, 5(3), 359-384. https://doi.org/10.1075/jlp.5.3.05rui
⁷see Barbesgaard, M. (2018) Blue growth: savior or ocean grabbing?, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 45:1, 130-149, DOI: 10.1080/03066150.2017.1377186
⁸refering to Anibal Quijano’s concept of coloniality’s matrix of power
⁹see Duarte Torres, C. (2015). (Des)encuentros en lo público: gobernabilidad y conflictos interétnicos en Colombia. (Publication No. HAL Id: tel-01485413). [Doctoral dissertation, Université Sorbonne Paris Cité]. URL: https://tel.archives-ouvertes.fr/tel-01485413/document