High seas treaty could strengthen maritime protections in South Africa


South Africa is well known for its iconic land species such as elephants, giraffes and lions; after all, the country has more than 290 conservation parks and is home to nearly 300 species of mammals, about 860 species of birds, and 8,000 species of plants.

Courtesy of Mathu Joyini

But the country’s waters are also teeming with life, from the great white shark to the hemichordate, a worm-like invertebrate found only in South African waters that could be a game-changer in the fight against cancer. Encompassing one of the largest exclusive economic zones in the world, South African waters port around 15% of the world’s marine species and is the site of the planet’s largest annual migration, the annual sardine run.

Ambassador Mathu Joyini, the first woman to serve as South Africa’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations, is working to ensure that science and equity remain front and center as that the negotiations for a treaty on the high seas at the UN are almost complete.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: South Africa is surrounded by three oceans: the South Atlantic Ocean, the Indian Ocean and the Southern Ocean. How has this shaped your personal views and your interaction with the ocean?

A: I grew up in a village in South Africa which was far from the coast, so the ocean was a mystery to us. I thought of it as a place where you go to have fun, a place where you just go and be amazed. So luckily my parents, quite early—I must have been about 6 at the time—

decided that we will take a trip to Durban. For a girl from a small village, the excitement of going to see the ocean for the first time and realizing how vast it was made this trip a memorable one. It was so good that my parents planned a trip to Cape Town the following year, so we could see the ocean again. With a coastline of 3,000 kilometers, I soon realized how important the ocean is to our existence and the various ways it contributes to South Africa’s economy and prosperity.

Q: South Africa was the first African country to mark Marine Protected Areas (MPA) Day on August 1, raising awareness of the vital role MPAs play in protecting coastal communities that depend on a thriving ocean for their survival. Why do you think this is important?

A: South Africa, particularly our national legislature and research institutions, has a long tradition of environmental protection and respect. This is true for oceans and forests as well as for indigenous landscapes. And we work hard – and have had great success – to make sure science informs environmental policy, because our health and our future depend on it. So, knowing that the fate of South Africa – and the fate of the world – is intertwined with the health of our ocean, we celebrated MPA Day last August. For us, it was important to let the world know that we can all help protect the ocean to ensure the ocean continues to support us – and MPAs are one of the best ways to keep the oceans healthy.

More importantly, what happens on the high seas has an impact on our fishers and fisherwomen. These communities have seen a reduction in marine life provided by the ocean. And we are lucky to still have, for example, the sardine track which is a marvel of nature. It happens every year, and we look forward to it.

We must be careful because we are already facing difficult challenges. If you look at what is happening along the Durbin Coast, you realize that we need to adhere to certain principles — and implement the policies — that we have put in place. Otherwise, the natural resources and livelihoods of coastal communities will be threatened. I imagine that for most of the African continent – ​​if you look and listen carefully – you see the threats to our coasts and marine life across Africa.

Mako shark, Isurus oxyrinchus, off Cape Point, South Africa, Atlantic Ocean

Shortfin mako shark off Cape Point, South Africa, Atlantic Ocean

Getty Images

Q: We are at a critical juncture in negotiations for an agreement to protect biodiversity in waters beyond national jurisdiction – the part of the ocean that is outside a country’s jurisdiction, also known as the high seas. In fact, the final round of negotiations for a treaty on the high seas – which would protect marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction, also known as BBNJ – should take place this year. In your opinion, what is at stake in these upcoming negotiations?

A: Most people agree that ocean regulation should be based on solid knowledge, retrieved by scientific methods and approved by peer review by other scientists before publication. Today, however, there are growing calls to integrate knowledge from other sources, including traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLC) and local knowledge from practitioners, civil society and the private sector. It is therefore an important element of the negotiations. But there are others.

For example, there is a need for a stronger framework to develop and implement Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) in areas beyond national jurisdiction, and to create a clear EIA process taking into account climate change and cumulative impacts. Also, regulations governing access to marine genetic resources (MGRs) are needed for areas beyond national jurisdiction – and for the sharing of benefits arising from their use – particularly when developing new drugs, for example. We do not know the potential economic value of these genetic resources, but in the meantime there have been heated discussions about the imbalance between developed and developing countries in marine research and the use of marine genetic resources to develop some products.

Q: You talked about the role of traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples and local communities in developing a global governance framework to protect the high seas. Why is this important?

A: Science is important, but so is technology because it allows us to do a lot of things. But at the end of the day, even with technology, what matters most is people. This includes our indigenous and local peoples who have lived in coastal areas for many years and who know these areas like the back of their hand. These communities have lasting and meaningful relationships with nature, which allows them to continue to thrive for generations to come. It is therefore vital to find creative ways to merge science with these knowledge systems that have been functioning for centuries.

Q: You are South Africa’s first female ambassador to the United Nations and have championed equity throughout your career. How do you see fairness playing out during negotiations?

A: It is important. Ultimately for this [treaty] to be implemented and to do so in a meaningful way, we need to think about funding and resources. Thus, from the perspective of South Africa and [the U.N. regional grouping] the African Group, equitable access to marine genetic resources is something we want to keep at the center of the negotiations. Currently, most developing countries are unable to access these resources due to lack of funding or technical capacity.

To address this imbalance, the Africa Group proposes a process and structure to ensure that implementation considers equity when it comes to access to MGRs, but also for benefit-sharing, in particular when it comes to the most developed countries.

We strongly believe that this mechanism should be supported and will be instrumental in ensuring that African nations and other developing countries are able to participate fully in the implementation of the new high seas treaty.

Q: Are there other areas of importance to your country and the African region that have not yet been addressed during the negotiations?

A: First, it is important that we provide information about the BBNJ process, including ways to ensure that delegates can clearly understand what is at stake given the highly technical nature of the negotiations. Second, I strongly believe that we have an opportunity to step back and better understand the categories of needs of developing countries, which must be taken into account to ensure their meaningful participation in the negotiations. Finally, financing is essential to ensure that developing countries build the necessary capacities to effectively implement the agreement.

This piece was originally published on the All of Africa website on June 8, 2022.


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