By 2018, 100 transnational corporations (TNCs) accounted for 60% of the capital accumulated in the ocean economy. Offshore oil and gas and shipping alone accounted for a staggering 86% of these 100 corporations.i Poised to regain pre-pandemic levels, offshore oil and gas investments are predicted to reach USD 155 billion this year, more than double the anticipated investments in offshore wind energy by 2025.ii Other sectors are also rapidly expanding. Cruise tourism is on a strong rebound, letting clients choose between yoga classes at the North Pole and camping in the Qatari dunes.iii Aquaculture, now the world’s fastest growing food industry, has become a lucrative investment target for funds and speculators trading green bonds or betting on ‘sustainable debt financing’ schemes.iv In terms of aggregate investment dynamics, however, the steering room of the global ocean economy remains firmly controlled by the fossil energy and shipping sectors.
Recent economic statistics and reports on the ocean economy have cast a sobering light on the rise of a small number of TNCs over a space on which roughly 3 billion people depend for their livelihoods. But even this not enough. Among the top global TNCs, corporate power is gradually consolidating, marking a sharp rise of several quasi-oligopolies. Just before the pandemic, the container shipping sector consolidated into three mega alliances, together commanding about 80% of global container trade.v And even as global supply chains came under sustained pressure since 2020 – leading some to herald the end of globalisation as we knew it – the Danish logistics frontrunner Maersk announced its highest-ever earnings for the first quarter of 2022.vi Not least for Maersk, this follows a record year of global mergers and acquisitions,vii propelled by central bank injections and debt-funded government buyouts. Needless to say, the proportion of the ocean economy controlled by a dwindling number of mega TNCs is even further on the rise.
But perhaps of greater concern is the question of equity ownership and interlocking connections. A close look reveals that the top 100 TNCs are deeply interlaced with each other, masking ownership structures behind a complex web of parents and subsidiaries registered in industry-specialised offshore financial centres.viii Moreover, BlackRock, Vanguard and State Street – just three of the world’s five largest asset managers, all US-headquartered – accounted for 24% of the shares in these corporations. ix BlackRock, the undisputed number 1, recently broke the 10 trillion USD mark in assets under its management.x For comparison, the combined gross domestic product (GDP) of the Eurozone in 2020 was gauged at USD 13 trillion. Such stark amassing of shareholder rights and insider knowledge permits these firms to define the terms and conditions under which much of the ocean economy operates and the future course it charts. The current direction of this course can be gleaned from BlackRock’s 2022 climate-related shareholder proposal, which specifies that BlackRock will use its authorised shareholder voting power to prioritise long-term financial interests, and in doing so ‘support proportionately fewer [climate proposals] this proxy season than in 2021, as we do not consider them to be consistent with our clients’ long-term financial interest’. xi
The political implications of this extraordinary concentration of capital ownership and control cannot be overlooked in a year that the Norwegian minister of International Cooperation xii has called the ‘Ocean Super Year’, a term dubbed by the World Economic Forum in 2021; a reference to several large international and corporate summits on variations on the theme of a sustainable ocean economy and the 40th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). During the past six months, a slew of meetings has already been convened, most prominently The Economist’s World Ocean Summit (virtual event), the One Ocean Summit in Brest and the Our Ocean Conference in Palau. Unsurprisingly, a cross-cutting topic has been the financialisation of the ocean economy and the expansion of finance as an ostensible cure for the ocean’s many ecological and social ailments. The recent Clube de Lisboa Conference, for example, was concluded with instructive remarks by the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean:
‘…we are confident finance will start flowing at the scale necessary to enable global transition to a truly Sustainable Blue Economy… money talks, and if the CEO of BlackRock speaks in favour of taking the current while it serves, the voyage to our destination of a net zero economy is looking ever more auspicious’.xiii (Peter Thomson, UN Special Envoy for the Ocean.)
Next in line is the UN Ocean Conference to be held in Lisbon from 27 June to 1 July. The final draft of the leaders’ declaration negotiated ahead of the conference buttresses a further dive into ocean financialisation, as encouraged by the various corporate run-up events. Among a range of promises, leaders commit to:
‘[e]xplore, develop and promote innovative financing solutions to drive the transformation to sustainable ocean-based economies, and the scaling up of nature-based solutions[…], including through public-private sector partnerships and capital market instruments,[…], as well as mainstream the values of marine natural capital into decision-making and address barriers to accessing financing’.xiv
Yet, while governments will use the meeting’s many side events to forge stronger ties with the business and banking sectors in a bid to ‘cure the sea’, social movements are alarmed about an unparalleled round of ‘ocean grabs’.xv The scale of these grabs, many fear, is compounded by a corporate capture of decision-making processes within the UN system. xvi Looming large is thus the question of how the overwhelming presence of business and financial interests at the Conference will affect democratic decision-making in global ocean governance. In other words, how can we interpret the prominent participation of actors that are simultaneously at the forefront of the current ‘blue investor’ frenzy around the ‘untapped’ ocean frontier? Will their leadership help to resolve urgent ecological, nutritional and social crises? Or, might it rather facilitate an intensification of resource enclosures, shareholder-value driven exploitation, and a marginalisation of populations who depend on the oceans for a living? And, last but not least: can we expect the UN Oceans Conference to tackle these questions and concerns in a meaningful and equitable way that amounts to more than a new round of ‘blue washing’ pledges?
The conference has been years in the making. The process was initiated by a UN General Assembly resolution in May 2019.xvii The resolution sets out the rules for the preparatory process and the convening of the conference, including the opportunities for civil society to potentially shape the conference agendas. A list of non-state actors to be involved in key planning sessions was drawn up by the President of the General Assembly. Whereas this list excludes established social movement and labour unions, TNCs, banks, conservationist and philanthropic organisations feature prominently.xviii The resolution also encourages ‘… the private sector, financial institutions, foundations and other donors… to support the preparations for the Conference through voluntary contributions’ as a means to plug the funding gap for the conference.xix
In general terms, the exclusionary politics written into this process testify to the democratic limitations of ‘multi-stakeholderism’xx – a development in global governance that social movements have long criticised as gradually dismantling the democratic foundations of the UN system. In the lead-up to the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit, for instance, over 1,000 movements and NGOs from across the world signed a letter denouncing the corporate takeover of the summit:
‘The UN Food Systems Summit is not building on the legacy of past [UN] World Food Summits, which resulted in the creation of innovative, inclusive and participatory global food governance mechanisms anchored in human rights… The upcoming Food Systems Summit is an illustrative example of how corporate-driven platforms in close cooperation with like-minded governments and high-level UN Officials intend to use the United Nations for supporting and legitimizing a corporate-friendly transformation of food systems while promoting at the same time new forms of multistakeholder governance to further consolidate corporate influence in public institutions at national and UN level.’xxi
Following in the footsteps of its 2017 precursor, the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon is expected to produce a torrent of voluntary commitments. More than 1,400 such commitments were made at the last conference, making it nearly impossible to track them coherently, let alone independently. These commitments were supposed to contribute to the ‘triple win’ bottom line of the UN Sustainability Agenda: simultaneously beneficial to the economy, the environment and the people. A study by the UN Division for Sustainable Development suggests that the financial pledges amount to an aggregate of USD 25 billion for multi-year programmes. xxii While this might initially appear to be a huge sum of money, it pales in comparison with the magnitude of investments that preserve the status quo in traditional ‘brown ocean economy’ projects. For example, ExxonMobile just announced its aim to channel USD 10 billion in a single off-shore oil exploration venture off the coast of Guyana.xxiii
That said, there are also strong reasons to doubt those making pledges this time will succeed in living up to these noble aspirations. The UN analysis acknowledges ‘the diverse nature of the commitments presents certain challenges for follow-up and monitoring’ and that there are no mechanisms for ensuring commitments ‘…[will not] have negative impacts on other initiatives and stakeholders, for example those most vulnerable’ or for ensuring the participation of under-represented groups.xxiv The idea of voluntary commitments to achieve sustainability goals is nothing new. ‘Multi-stakeholder commitments’ for sustainable development was introduced at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg as a mechanism to complement the commitments made by the UN member states.xxv Yet, after 20 years of these voluntary commitments, there is essentially still no instrument to ensure these will contribute to the sustainability agenda; monitoring remains a major challenge; and while the total amounts committed might appear impressive, they remain insignificant compared to the investment agendas of the largest TNCs.
Governments, business leaders, philanthropic organisations, environmental NGOs and others will meet in Lisbon under the banner of ‘Scaling up ocean action based on science and innovation for the implementation of Goal 14’.xxvi The issues they will discuss span from fisheries, aquaculture, carbon off-setting, and marine protected areas to renewable energy. However, the biggest elephant in the room – oil and gas – and other highly contested developments, such as coastal and deep-sea mining, were relegated to the side-event agenda. Furthermore, the participation of social movements will be marginal, with civil society organisations (CSOs) from many parts of the world struggling to participate. While some fisher movements have been invited, the profound asymmetries of power and information between these marginalised majorities at ‘one end of the table’, and the corporate and state actors at the other, suggests that their presence will merely serve to tick the ‘participatory’ box.
Global Justice Association tweet @GlobJustAssoc
Social movements are caught between the devil and, literally, the deep blue sea, with the option to either participate – and in so doing add legitimacy to the conference and its multi-stakeholder character, or to boycott, resist, or advocate from the ‘outside’. Given existing corporate media allegiances, the latter clearly entails the risk of being ignored or dismissed as ‘non-cooperative’. Telling in this is respect was, for instance, the piecemeal coverage of the International Peoples’ Tribunal on the Impact of the Blue Economy held across six Indian Ocean countries in 2020.xxvii This series of tribunals provided in-depth documentation, including witness testimony, of the devastating effects borne by coastal populations and fishers through the recent blue economy expansionism; issues which are almost entirely absent from the 2022 leaders’ draft declaration.
At the 2017 Ocean Conference, the two leading global fisher movements – the World Forum of Fisher Peoples (WFFP) and the World Forum of Fish Harvesters and Fish Workers (WFF) – which represent over 100 fisher organisations and 20 million people who depend on the sector from all over the world, maintained that the current course was a clear call for ‘ocean grabbing’: the capturing of control by powerful actors over crucial decision-making, including the power to decide how and for what purposes resources are used, conserved and managed’.xxviii Notwithstanding, they opted to not participate in the last conference, summing up the dilemma in a joint statement:
‘Over the past two and a half decades, there has been a gradual shift away from a human-rights based governance model with the states as duty-bearers who have obligations vis-à-vis human rights holders (i.e. the people), towards a much more vague system based on ‘partnerships’ facilitated through ‘multistakeholder’ dialogues.’xxix
The preceding observations raise an age-old yet now particularly acute question: how and by whom should the oceans be governed? Is it the role of the UN to continue the pursuit of ‘stakeholder’ partnerships through voluntary commitments? Or should the UN member states retreat from multi-stakeholderism and re-prioritise negotiated agreements between state parties that reclaim the principles of the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UHDR)? In addressing these questions, it is important to take into consideration the crucial distinction between ‘stakeholders’ and rights-holders. The former signifies an approach in which whoever can assert a ‘stake’ in the process will be able to speak in the name of a multi-stakeholder group. Conversely, rights-holders encompass those, for whom the realisation of their human rights is inextricably linked to their customary and socially defined claims to coastal and marine space and resources.xxx Taking the pyramidical and oligopolistic state of the global ocean economy seriously necessarily means that the multi-stakeholder approach adopted by the 2022 conference will help politically entrench economic inequalities at the expense of marginalised right holders.
Rather than heads of state congregating to endorse the propositions fed them by private-sector run-up gigs, the UN Ocean Conference should facilitate open and transparent dialogues that adequately acknowledge those who stand to lose from the concentration of power in the ocean economy. For starters, this could be a return to the spirit of the negotiations leading up to the UNCLOS in the 1970 and 1980s, where compromises on a large number of political, economic and ecological fronts were brokered between states and state alliances, and where the presence of liberation movements and civil society observers was more than a box-ticking exercise. The ongoing negotiation of a binding instrument for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction – the BBNJ Treaty – could have revived this spirit. But apart from revealing transparency issues at its latest meeting in March 2022 – from which observers were excluded – it also exemplifies another issue, that of ocean governance fragmentation. xxxi New processes often overwrite existing arrangements, dividing up the ocean into myriad ecological and political domains that require immense resources to document and monitor.
The result is an obscure governance architecture that both lends technically well-informed TNCs and multi-stakeholder groups extra manoeuvring space, while overstraining the ability of CSOs and social movements to keep pace. For certain sectors, the most prudent choice would be to reinforce existing arrangements. In the context of fisheries, for instance, decision-making should be brought back to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the UN body where the UN Voluntary Guidelines on Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries (VGSSF) were originally negotiated and endorsed. Indeed, fisher movements have articulated these ‘guidelines themselves build on the core UN principles of justice, respect, human rights, tolerance and solidarity and international human rights standards and principles’. The movements have reiterated the importance of taking seriously the VGSSF and other UN human rights instruments:
‘Their [VGSSF] development resembles a legitimate, democratic country-led process, and the guidelines themselves build on the core UN principles of justice, respect, human rights, tolerance and solidarity and international human rights standards and principles. We express our recognition and appreciation of the stewardship of the FAO in the process of developing the SSF Guidelines.’xxxii
WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM/swiss-image.ch/Photo Michael Buholzer (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Each year, control of the global ocean economy is being further consolidated in the hands of fewer and ever-larger TNCs and financial institutions. Naturally, the concentration of economic clout results in a centralisation of control over maritime space, technology and proprietary knowledge that intensifies economic contradictions.xxxiii Through decades of mergers and acquisitions, 60% of the economic activities are now in the hands of just 100 companies, while in terms of revenues the oil and gas sector is followed by shipping – including port activities – tourism, industrial fisheries and offshore wind energy. New large-scale investments by the highest valued TNCs in the ocean economy such as Saudi Aramco, Petrobas or ExxonMobile, and backed by the leading asset managers, add to the already intense pressure on resources and heighten competition over maritime space. It is within this process of capital re-investment and shareholder-focused accumulation that small-scale fishers, wage labour and coastal populations are being squeezed out from economic participation and decision-making, with many losing access to the spaces upon which their livelihoods depend.
In an apparent neglect of this economic reality, the UN Ocean Conference creates the illusion that both sides are at the same level when appointed ‘stakeholders’ are invited to the table in Lisbon. By endorsing a multi-stakeholder approach, the conference seeks to advance the UN sustainability goals, encouraging participants to proclaim voluntary commitments. Yet, while the conference may well be record-breaking in terms of financial pledges, it remains to be seen whether these will achieve the SDG agenda to ‘leave no-one behind’. Keeping in mind that there is still no functional mechanism for ensuring the adherence to commitments and that monitoring remains a major challenge, odds are low that the coming round of voluntary commitments will contribute to respecting, protecting and fulfilling the human rights and economic needs of the majority.
When the UN Special Envoy for the Ocean earlier this year raised high expectations for the Lisbon conference, with his reference to ‘the CEO of BlackRock speak[ing] in favour of taking the current while it serves’,xxxiv he also reaffirmed the conference’s faith in multi-stakeholderism and voluntary commitments. But this course is precisely what over 1,000 movements and NGOs warned against in their letter condemning a similar UN conference in 2021, referring to the UN’s push for ‘… multistakeholder governance to further consolidate corporate influence in public institutions at national and UN level’.xxxv For ocean governance to become a fair and transparent development, recognising the economic imbalances within the global ocean economy and the resultant distribution of political power will be the essential first step. Making sure that the UN Ocean Conference does not become just another major blue-washing occasion will therefore depend on state leaders and other decision-makers urgently addressing the deep-seated flaws in the current political process.