Human Rights and Coastal Justice
Human rights are not things that are put on the table for people to enjoy. These are things you fight for and then you protect – Wangari Maathai
It is easy to feel tired, skeptical and disconnected from the meaning of Human Rights Day as the 21st of March approaches. Despite the language and awareness of human rights being all around us, prominent in our political discourse, in our international laws and in our national identity, there is a gap between this rhetoric and the lived realities of so many people trying to access those rights on a daily basis.
There are also critiques of the dominance of human rights as a concept; both because the language and legal frameworks for human rights are very western; and because of concerns about the emphasis on human rights being used to reinforce the false dichotomy between humans and nature. However, through the leadership of intersectional, decolonial and indigenous environmental movements, and the expansion by these groups of limited western legal notions of rights, to include the sovereign rights of rivers, mountains, ocean and earth; and through the courageous work of environmental human rights defenders who risk their lives to defend their community-ecosystems, we are shown how human and environmental rights are one and the same, and how the wellbeing of people and wellbeing of earth is indivisible.
Considering human rights from the perspective of coastal communities in South Africa, it is clear that blatant rights violations are constantly experienced, with very little recourse to justice. I asked a community-based fisher activist from Hamburg, Eastern Cape, who chooses to stay anonymous, what Human Rights Day means to him. This is a transcription of the voice note he sent me:
‘For me, Human Rights Day is a day for acknowledging and celebrating and advocating for our human rights. Amongst our human rights, very key to us as coastal fishermen, is our customary rights, which means our rights to use our natural resources in a sustainable way, as our previous generations used to do, before they were forcibly removed or restricted.
Human rights of coastal communities have been violated in a number of ways. For a start, if you want to fish to eat or to feed your family, you have to go to the post office, queue, pay for a license. Then you still have to buy bait and other things. This makes it unaffordable and unrealistic for people. So people continue to fish without permits. This means that compliance officers can arrest you, they can confiscate your equipment (which people cannot afford to replace), they can fine you and if you don’t pay the fine you can have a warrant of arrest against you. I have two warrants of arrest against me right now.
The other violation is the lack of consultation with fishers and coastal communities about what is happening in their areas. Look at what happened with the seismic surveys – the communities were not consulted. Marine protected areas have been established around many areas of our Eastern Cape coast. This was done without proper consultation. They did not tell the people what these MPAs would really mean for them, or ask the people about the ways we know how to protect the ocean. As far as I am concerned that is a violation of our rights. In places like Dwesa-Cwebe there are fishers that have been shot and killed. In Northern KZN there are two young fishermen who are bread winners who have been shot and killed because they are called poachers, fishing in their own traditional waters. If that’s not human rights violation I don’t know what is. Then there are these ladies who are looking for shell fish. It is such a painful thing to see a young man in his twenties (a fisheries compliance officer) chasing an old woman struggling to feed her family – women in their 50’s running away from these youngsters in uniforms, under threat of arrest for trying to feed their families. There’s plenty more but I’m a bit angry right now so I’ll have to take a break… ’
In recent months, there have been two very significant court cases heard in South Africa, in which the right to be adequately consulted, the right to a healthy environment, cultural and spiritual rights, have all been powerfully articulated by coastal community applicants, and upheld by the courts. The seismic survey court cases – the case against Shell and DMRE, heard in the Makhanda High Court, and the case against Searcher GeoData heard in the Cape Town High Court – are really important, precedent setting cases. Whatever your position on the seismic surveys themselves, the ways in which community led movements, supported by rigorous research and excellent legal counsel, have defended the rights of communities to be included in meaningful ways in decisions that directly affect them, AND the recognition of the absolute interconnectedness of culture and nature, are extremely significant victories for all defenders of human and environmental rights.
Sifting through all of the rhetoric and contradictions of human rights day, it is clear that for rights to mean anything, they have to be illuminated and brought to life, through defining for ourselves and collectively what these rights look and feel like in our entangled lives.
Christian Adams, one of the applicants in the case against Searcher Geodata, expressed the inextricable connections between traditional fishers and the sea, in his affidavit:
“The fishers with whom I fish have a deep knowledge of the ocean ecosystem. I know that like me, this knowledge has been passed down over several generations of fishers. We know the sea in so many ways: we can tell what fish will be available by looking at the sky, by smelling the wind, by feeling the wind against our faces. We know this West Coast and the way that sea and the weather interact here as if it was part of us.
We know each rock and reef, we know the curl of the waves in different places and how different winds shape the waves and the currents at different times of the tide and seasons.
We have learnt to judge the depth of the water from its colour and the sound of the waves, we know this territory because it is part of us. This traditional knowledge is part of our culture, it is who we are. We did not learn this knowledge at university but as a culture, the West Coast traditional fishers hold the knowledge of generations of ocean guardians.
[If we cannot continue to catch fish, it not only affects our livelihoods]… but it poses a risk to our culture and who we are as fishers of the West Coast. Our ability to feed our families and our communities, to extend a helping hand to our neighbours who are struggling, depends on us having a good catch. If we cannot continue this custom, it will impact not only the physical health of our communities, but also the social fabric and customs that make up who we are as a people.”
For customary coastal communities, a violation of the ocean is a violation of their humanity. How do we ensure that our approaches to ocean conservation do not exclude, criminalise and further oppress the people whose lives are most intimately connected with the sea, and whose very identities are reliant upon a healthy ocean? Let all of us who work to heal, defend and restore ocean health stand in solidarity with these rightful ocean custodians, this Human Rights Day.
About the author
Taryn Pereira is a researcher-activist based at the university currently known as Rhodes, in Makhanda. She is part of the Coastal Justice Network, a working collective of researchers, civil society and small-scale fisher organisers. We monitor, dialogue and facilitate strategic actions relating to environmental justice along the South African coastline.