How can a country secure a sustainable future if 99.3 per cent of its territory is water? UN Secretary-General António Guterres arrived in Cabo Verde, the 10-island archipelago off West Africa’s Atlantic coast that is exploring innovative solutions to help answer that important question.
The answer goes back to 2015 when the national Government detailed a strategic plan on how the blue economy would be a central part of the island nation’s future, as well as to a series of investments that have been made since then.
But this evening, looking out at nearly a dozen boats participating in the Ocean Race docked in the port of Mindelo, their 10-story high masts slicing the sky above the island of São Vicente, Mr. Guterres was witness to one of the most visible ways this bet has paid off.
The Secretary-General called the blue economy “a fundamental opportunity to promote sustainable development in the archipelago” and said the UN looks forward to working with its government and people to “translate this ambition into reality.”
The Prime Minister of Cape Verde, José Ulisses Correia e Silva, said that his country wants to be “better known and have more relevance” in the international arena, and the Ocean is the sector where they want their voice to be heard.
“It makes sense to position ourselves in this specific area and to do it with relevance. It makes sense that this message is coming from here,” he said.
In the past five years, as part of this effort, the country has held an ‘Ocean Week’ every year and Cabo Verde is partnering with the Ocean Race to hold a summit that will feature speakers from all over the world, including the Secretary-General.
An existential threat
Cabo Verde’s commitment might not be enough. As Mr. Guterres warned, the country is “on the frontline of an existential crisis” – climate change.
“Sea level rise and the loss of biodiversity and ecosystems pose existential threats to the archipelago,” he explained. “I am deeply frustrated that world leaders are not giving this life-and-death emergency the necessary action and investment.”
Some of these consequences can already be felt at the port hosting the Race, one of the best in all of Africa’s west coast, the reason it attracted merchants and pirates centuries ago and now welcomes sailing’s greatest around-the-world challenge.
In the last few years, Cabo Verde fishermen have noted a drop in the capture of black mackerel, one of the most popular fish among the locals. In 2022, the packaging industry reported a reduction in the capture of tuna and the absence of black mackerel, raw material for the industry.
According to the preliminary results of an UN-led assessment that should be presented and discussed with key national stakeholders early this year, by 2100, the biomass of large pelagic fish – those that live in the pelagic zone of ocean or lake waters, being neither close to the bottom nor near the shore – such as albacora, a species of tuna, is expected to decrease by up to 45 per cent. In the neighboring Senegalo-Mauritanian basin, the reduction will be even greater.
Changes like this can have a profound impact on the islands’ economy. In 2018, the fishing sector provided employment to 6,283 people and was a touchstone in the diet of the 588,00 population. These products also accounted for almost 80 percent of the country’s exports.
“Climate change is an obvious threat to the future of fishing, but also all biodiversity. The fact is, there is a very clear connection between the fishing industry and climate protection. Experience has shown that when you protect a certain region, it has a multiplying effect in other areas, and everyone benefits,” said the Secretary-General as he participated in the Speaker Series promoted by the Prime Minister, at the Cabo Verde National Center for Art, Crafts, and Design.
The two men sat against an extension of the National Center, its facade covered in the circular shapes of lids from oil barrels painted in primary colors. The installation is a statement on the country’s commitment to sustainability, but also a nod to its large diaspora of over one million people; these barrels are often used by immigrants to send gifts to their families.
“The climate challenges are getting stronger and more frequent, but we have always faced difficulties and always found a way to overcome them,” said the Prime Minister.
According to Mr. Correia e Silva, the loss of species can affect Cabo Verde in yet another way. The archipelago has been considered one of the top 10 marine biodiversity hotspots in the world and, for decades, the 24 species of whales and dolphins recorded in these waters – almost 30 per cent of all the cetacean species – have attracted many visitors that make tourism a stronghold of the country’s economy.
In 2022 alone, after a couple of years dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the islands received close to 700 thousand tourists, raising the sector contribution to around 25 per cent of its GDP.
Climate justice for Cabo Verde
Cabo Verde has started fighting back against these changes. The Secretary-General said the country “has shown climate leadership in words and in actions” and has highlighted the “efforts to convert debt into climate projects, including in the blue economy.”
Up to 20 per cent of Cabo Verde’s energy production now comes from renewable sources – one of the highest in sub-Saharan Africa – and the goal is to increase renewable energy use by up to 50 per cent by 2030.
The Prime Minister said his country needs to “reconcile the needs of the economy, the environment, the communities” because it needs “these resources producing wealth to the country.”
Mr. Correia e Silva shared an example of how this can be done. In the community of São Pedro, in São Vicente Island, a part of the population has transitioned in recent years from fishing to providing a service where tourists can safely swim with turtles. He went on to highlight a series of initiatives to fight plastic pollution and promote the circular economy. He also recalled how the country approved a “demanding” new law governing fishing and is working to extend the protected area from six to 30 per cent.
“We do want to go further, but we need resources to do that,” he said.
“We need justice for those who – like Cabo Verde – did little to cause this crisis, but who are paying a heavy price,” agreed the Secretary-General.
As the conversation came to an end, a few blocks away, at the port, the crews from the Ocean Race were taking a break. In just a few days, they start the second leg of the competition, which will take them out of Cabo Verde, across the Equator, down the coast of South America, and into Cape Town on the southern tip of South Africa.
The sailors had met Mr. Guterres, who shared how his son, just a few years ago, had joined three friends on a sailing trip crossing the Atlantic.
This story prompted one of the skippers, Kevin Escoffier, to ask him: “Would you ever do something like that?”
“Maybe one day,” he quipped. “When I’m retired.”