“The Ocean Is Not a Dumping Ground”

An internationally renowned scientist, Ameenah Gurib-Fakim became Mauritius’s sixth president on June 5, 2015 – and one of the few Muslim women heads of state in the world. Her nomination constituted a major event in the island’s quest for greater gender parity and women’s empowerment, giving a higher profile to women in the public and democratic sphere of Mauritius.

Gurib-Fakim started her career in 1987 as a lecturer at the Faculty of Agriculture, University of Mauritius. She was one of the leading figures in local academia with a reputation far beyond the Indian Ocean before she accepted the post of president.

She has also served in different capacities in numerous local, regional and international organizations. Gurib-Fakim has lectured extensively and authored or co-edited 26 books and numerous academic articles on biodiversity conservation and sustainable development.

In this exclusive interview with IPS, President Gurib-Fakim urged world leaders to save our oceans, noting that this critical ecosystem impacts millions of livelihoods, particularly for small island-states and coastal communities.

This June, the United Nations will convene a high-level Conference to Support the Implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development at U.N. Headquarters in New York.

Human activity has already left a huge footprint on the world’s oceans, Gurib-Fakim notes. “We have always assumed that the ocean is a dumping ground – which it is not.”

Excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: How would you rate the oceans in terms of importance in the context of sustainable development?

A: The ocean space occupies 70 percent of the world’s surface and it still remains unknown. There is no doubt that ocean space impacts livelihood, especially for islands and coastal communities. Several countries in the South-West Indian Ocean, for example, rely heavily on fishing to sustain livelihoods. In 2013, fish accounted for 17 percent of the world population’s intake of animal protein and 6.7 percent of all protein consumed. Coral-reef fish species also represent an important source of protein.

With more than 60 percent of the world’s economic output taking place near coastlines and in some African countries, the ocean economy contributes 25 percent of the revenues and over 30 percent of export revenues. It is becoming increasingly clear the enormous potential of our oceans.

Q: Do you think that the objectives of the World Ocean Summit can still reverse the decline in the health of our ocean for people, planet and prosperity?

A:  This Summit brings on board all the stakeholders involved with ocean issues. This summit is also a pledging conference as funding always remains a thorny issue and yet there is urgency in data collection on several areas of the ocean ecosystems. It provides the policymaker and the researcher a holistic picture of what the ocean stands for and will hopefully change the narrative on the need to reverse the decline of the health of our ocean space.

Climate change remains a big component as acidification of the waters as well as rise in temperatures will affect both the flora and fauna.

We must always be mindful to the fact that humans have had a huge footprint in the health of our oceans as we have always assumed that the ocean is dumping ground. It is NOT. There are within the ocean space, very fragile ecosystems that can be destroyed by small increases in acidity or temperatures.

Q: As an Ocean State, Mauritius does not seem to have given due consideration to the importance of our oceans in terms of an environmental asset. How would this Ocean Summit help to change our mindset?

A: Mauritius has a very small landmass, we have a very huge space of 2.2 million km and I think what the ocean summit helps us to do is to bring back to the fore these multiple challenges or opportunities that the ocean as an entity presents to the economy of Mauritius. As I said, one of the areas will be sustainable fishery, which can be flagged into the economy. Mauritius and in the South West Indian Ocean fisheries are threatened, with up to 30 percent of the fish stock over-exploited or depleted and 40 percent fully exploited. The poor management of this sector has amounted to an annual loss of about USD 225 million.

However, the ocean is not only fish, it is also sustainable tourism as well as renewable energy, including wave energy, amongst others.

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By Nasseem Ackbarally

A general view during an aerial photoshoot of The Caves Course at Pinnacle Point Beach and Golf Resort in Mossel Bay, South Africa. Picture Credit: Andrew Redington/Getty Images.