Blue Justice

Coastal communities often bear disproportionate coastal and marine harms, but people are beginning to fight back...
30 September 2023

Interview with 

Jessica Blythe, Brock University


Traditional fishing techniques


"Coastal communities, Indigenous peoples, and small-scale fishers are intimately connected with the ocean. Yet, these historically and structurally marginalised groups often bear a disproportionate distribution of coastal and marine harms, and are culturally and politically excluded from marine decision-making." - those are the words of Jessica Blythe, of Brock University in Canada, in her paper on what's dubbed "blue justice", and how those communities are pushing back, as she explains to Chris Smith…

Jessica - In a nutshell, this manuscript is trying to tell I think a David and Goliath story, which is about marginalised coastal communities who are standing up to big business or governments or other organizations when they're being disproportionately exposed to harms.

Chris - And which harms, and which nations?

Jessica - The harms come in many forms and one of the things we argue in our paper is we need to expand the lens that we're looking through to see what coastal communities are experiencing. Coastal communities are often exposed to hazardous waste and equitable resource extraction harms and also ocean grabbing or displacement in the name of usually development or economic growth.

Chris - And on what sort of scale is this happening?

Jessica - From local to global scales in every country in the world, but often along lines of economic inequality. So often harms are going from wealthy nations to low income nations or low income communities and populations.

Chris - So it's a bit like western countries exporting all of their manufacturing of nasty stuff to other countries and then saying, look, we've been very virtuous and we've cut our carbon footprint and our pollution footprint. All we've done is swept it under the carpet geographically?

Jessica - Exactly right. And there's some really horrifying examples in our paper of hazardous waste from the United States going to Haiti or from oil refining hazardous waste going from Europe to countries in Africa. So absolutely.

Chris - What do you advocate that we can do then?

Jessica - One of the most exciting things about this paper is it's really a story about solutions and about possibilities. And what we argue through a review of all these amazing cases is coastal communities already know what to do. They're already fighting back, resisting, preventing these kind of harmful projects. But not only that, they're also proposing solutions and alternative ways forward that are both healthier for the environment and better for those communities.

Chris - Can you give us some examples?

Jessica - Yeah, absolutely. So one really exciting one happening here in Canada is the revival of an ancient first nations practice called clam gardening. They're building up little areas of the coast with essentially rock fences and it keeps clam populations inside those and the tide comes in and floods those areas and it causes a higher concentration of clams which can be harvested for food. They also are good at preventing erosion from big storms, so also climate adaptation and they're helping to revitalize indigenous management practices, culture, traditions. So that's a really exciting example of a solution.

Chris - Is your point then that if people are more autonomous and they also are more engaged with their environment, they're less likely to be susceptible to the charms of big business because they can pay their own way rather than thinking, I have a choice to make. Do I eat today, or do I take their dollar?

Jessica - Yes, absolutely. And I think that's one of the most exciting parts of this project is it's not an either or situation, but it's a both and situation where the kinds of solutions that communities are proposing are successful at resisting environmental harms, but they're also economically better for communities. They keep more resource access locally rather than being exported. They're better for social wellbeing and cohesion amongst communities because they're often revitalizing community networks and practices that were in place. Yes.

Chris - It sounds a bit like a kind of what's not to like comment is needed from me here, but why is this just not happening anyway then?

Jessica - Yeah, that's a really good question. That might be the most important question. One of the things that we argue in our paper is that these stories just aren't being heard widely enough. And so we argue that one of the roles of academics potentially is to help bring these stories to the broader public so that they can be used as little pilot studies that can be scaled or learned from. So I don't think there's a problem with the community's responses. I think there's a problem of communicating them and making sure that they can learn from one another.

Chris - So you are saying that there are some really bloody good ideas out there being implemented perhaps on a small scale in some places and because people in those other places that could do the same don't implement them 'cause they don't know about them or people who could fund the implementation, dunno about them. They're not happening.

Jessica - Yeah, absolutely. And I think there's a feeling of being the underdog or it being not possible to resist these big forces that are very wealthy and very well entrenched in our economic systems and our political systems. So I believe that one of the benefits of sharing these stories is not only to learn ideas because each community requires a contextualised solution, but also to build this feeling of possibility these solutions are possible and they are happening. You know, the fact that they're happening at all I think is not well enough known.

Chris - Won't the big businesses just up their game?

Jessica - Yes, potentially; but I guess I'm an advocate for collective action and social movements and we have lots of examples historically of those movements being very effective at taking down, you know, what I would characterise as these Goliath big business. And I think that is happening. And so part of our job is to help work with those communities and, and with these movements to push back against those big forces.


Add a comment