Science Diplomacy and Environmental Peacebuilding: Oceans Governance and Dispute Management

*Sunitha Anup, Carla Elliff and Dhanasree Jayaram

In the third and final webinar of the three-part webinar series concerning science diplomacy and environmental peacebuilding, the focus was on oceans governance.Our planet is mostly covered by water and while we have tried to divide this territory geopolitically, our ocean resources do not recognize borders. This means that to sustainably exploit our marine environment, we need strong and integrated management. The session was joined by Dr. Leandra R. Gonçalves, postdoctoral researcher at the Oceanographic Institute, University of São Paulo, Brazil, and James Borton, faculty associate at the Walker Center, University of South Carolina, United States; and it was moderated by Dr. Dhanasree Jayaram, Co-Coordinator, Centre for Climate Studies (CCS), Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), India and Research Fellow, Earth System Governance Project. 

Dr. Leandra Gonçalves, who has been working on science diplomacy, started her research in the field with the aim of bridging the gap between science and policy at the national international levels, from both theoretical and practical points of view. She provided a theoretical background to science diplomacy and then spoke in length about its relevance in oceans governance. There are three ways of looking at science diplomacy – “science in diplomacy” (science to inform policy), “diplomacy for science” (formal diplomacy to achieve scientific goals) and “science for diplomacy” (international engagement through science). As explained by Dr. Gonçalves, “Virtually every significant issue confronting the developing world has science, engineering and technology as part of the cause – or part of the solution.” Science diplomacy is therefore relevant in terms of resolving global challenges such as climate change that do not recognise political boundaries and hence, cannot be tackled alone. 

Dr. Gonçalves contextualised science diplomacy through the concept of the Anthropocene and referred to the ongoing research on the idea of “safe operating space” for humankind through the existing institutional frameworks, in light of challenges such as chemical pollution, climate change, ocean acidification and ozone among others.Highlighting the importance of her research on the global governance of oceans, she not only reiterated the need for having in place “mechanisms that are not in the sphere of nations”, involving different groups and stakeholders, but also listed out various issues that need urgent attention such as migratory species, energy security, greenhouse gas emissions, plastic pollution (including micro plastics) etc. She uses the global maritime traffic flow and the global fisheries industry to reinforce the criticality of global oceans governance. Since 1990s, many multilateral environmental agreements in the form of treaties, protocols and amendments have been signed, which have involved interactions between the scientific and policy communities over the years. 

Dr. Gonçalves brings to light the connections between issues such as biodiversity loss (referring to the report released by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services), societies that depend on environmental resources, resource scarcity, conflict and security, through the lens of securitisation. She points out that the role of the state as a security provider continues to be remain important – it does not disappear, but is definitely changing. Therefore, reducing vulnerabilities and enhancing resilience and sustainability are crucial to the maintenance of security, instead of merely mitigating threats posed by other actors. This involves both human and national security concerns. 

Dr. Gonçalves uses the model of formal policy process (that involves agenda setting, policy formulation, decision making, policy implementation, monitoring and evaluation) to explain the entangled world of Brazilian marine bill, lacking harmony between various sectors, including academic, executive, legislature and civil society. The use of science diplomacy in an environment where policies do not interact with each other is being manifested through knowledge networks, consisting of social and natural scientists, which are working towards harmonising the policy process by interacting with each other. One such solution for the use of resources in the Brazilian EEZ is Marine Spatial Planning (MSP). While this is a relatively new framework and has not been broadly implemented across the world, it is a flexible strategy and allows better communication among users. Moreover, there are increasing number of initiatives worldwide, including in Brazil, targeted at oceans and sovereignty, under which Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are being enhanced. In Brazil, for instance, by the end of 2018, the MPA rose from 1.5 percent to 27 percent. Although most of these recently created MPAs are located in the EEZ, in biodiversity hotspot areas, they are placed far from the coast. And for many reasons, scientists have argued that this was not the best design. So, in this case, it seems Brazil is still far away from including science information in policy-making due to the preponderance of power in this decision-making.

Following Dr. Gonçalves’ presentation, James Borton provided an interesting perspective on the tensions in the South China Sea not only over sovereignty, but also due to competition over the marine resources in the region. His talk focussed on the role of science diplomacy in providing a way to avoid the worst in the South China Sea in a rational and transparent manner by finding the common ground. He started by talking about the daily skirmishes between competing fishing vessels (many of which are not reported in mainstream media) in the Spratly Islands, which are the centre of the dispute. He observed, “If science diplomacy and cooperation fail, then the South China Sea’s rich natural heritage faces dire ecological danger.” Developments in the region such as land reclamation and overfishing threaten marine biodiversity, affecting almost 1.9 billion people. 

Having interacted and worked with several the South China Sea marine scientists, he revealed that they were already talking to each other about the way forward in terms of preventing a major collapse in the fish stocks. Earlier in 2019, a workshop was held in Beijing, in which all the claimant nations gathered to discuss marine conservation and the issue of fisheries. This essentially brings to light the importance of science efforts and science diplomacy through which a regional joint science authority could be established to address environmental issues such destruction of coral reefs, pollution, depletion of fish stocks and so on. Science diplomacy can therefore, help build trust and promote cooperation between the claimant nations, based on shared interests, without involving territorial contestations (self-interests). Borton drew attention to the role of science in the implementation of sustainable development strategies, which is what the South China Sea requires at this stage. Inclusiveness is the key to these strategies, which must involve engagement with the local fishermen and other stakeholders as well who are affected by environmental challenges on the ground (through initiatives such as citizen science workshops). As an environmental policy writer, Borton recognises the importance of hearing all the voices. He mentioned, for example, how the fishermen in Vietnam do not expect their children to continue in this trade given low security and support, which is a concern to thousands of livelihoods. 

The question of whether or not science diplomacy can be effective needs to be assessed through various lenses. One of them is the language spoken by marine scientists, which is common across the board. This should be a useful and convenient starting point for initiating science discussions and regional cooperation. The Hague tribunal ruling on the environment in 2016 adopted an ecosystems approach but unfortunately, China has failed to conduct environmental assessments of its own reclamation activities. Therefore, there is a need to go beyond rules, regulations and guidelines; and science diplomacy could be the solution as there is an urgent need to address food and environmental security in the region. 

Oceans are fundamentally a part of the global commons, and this message needs to be reiterated time and again through science diplomacy. More MPAs are required in Southeast Asia, which could be relevant for the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and for individual countries in the region. It is imperative that the marine scientists engage in intensified science discussions, such as on joint marine science ecosystem monitoring. Importantly, there are frameworks such as the East Asia Regional Seas Programme, Partnership in Environmental Management for the Seas of East Asia, and the United Nations Environment Programme that are working on environmental protection in the region. However, ultimately, the need of the hour is to engage all the ASEAN countries to address the growing crisis in the South China Sea. According to Borton, this would come about, despite apprehensions regarding China’s response to such efforts, but since China itself recognises the importance of science cooperation. In fact, China plans to hold another workshop this fall along the same line as the one mentioned earlier in the talk. 

On the specific question of ecological ramifications of oil drilling in the pre-salts of the Santos Basin, Dr. Gonçalves said that it was indeed a major concern in Brazil. The readiness of political processes concerning the discovery of new oil reserves and their  drilling are not ready, but the economic conditions are ready. These have the potential to meet the economic and developmental requirements of the country, but the government needs to have a conversation with the society on the need to shift from fossil fuels to a more ecologically friendly way of fuelling economic development in the country. 80 percent of Brazil’s energy is met by renewable resources, mainly hydro. When asked about current scientific challenges in Brazilian politics, Dr. Gonçalves explained that this is in fact a very complex period, with former ministers for the environment collaborating to point out current flaws, a concerning wave of science denialism, and unfavorable conditions for research. Brazilians working in the field of environmental research are being surprised on a daily basis and are still struggling to react.

Questions with regard to the effectiveness of science diplomacy in the South China Sea, amidst geopolitical tensions, power politics, and China’s dominant positon in the region, were responded to by Borton, according to whom, China is recognised as a global and regional power that is definitely threatening the smaller nations. However, he pointed out that the workshops organised by China could engender a level of trust and that science diplomacy could take roots in a regionally contested area like the South China Sea. Science, in his observation, is capable of starting a new conversation on an issue that is ridden with geopolitical underpinnings. In fact, according to him, China wants to change the narrative rather than come across as a hegemonic power that wants to grab more land. It sees the need for it to be recognised as a global science leader and an environmental peacebuilder by leveraging its vast pool of resources (such as three state of the art marine science research vessels). 

The promise of science diplomacy in oceans governance, including in disputed regions, were brought out by both speakers, who touched upon a variety of issues that threaten oceans, populations that depend on them, and security dynamics. Being the last webinar of the three-part series, it was a great way to conclude on a hopeful note!

The full recording of this webinar can be accessed at:

Further details of the webinar series, the first and second webinars' reports can be found at:


The webinar series has been made possible with support from the following networks and institutions:
  •         Centre for Climate Studies, Manipal Academy of Higher Education
  •         Environmental Peacebuilding Association
  •         Earth System Governance Project
  •         Early Career Researchers Network of Networks and Future Earth
  •         Young Ecosystem Services Specialists
  •          Network of Early-Career Sustainable Scientists & Engineers
  •         International Consortium of Research Staff Associations
  •         Responsible Research and Innovation Networking Globally

*Sunitha Anup is a PhD Candidate at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi, New Delhi, representing the Network of Early-Career Sustainable Scientists & Engineers (NESSE); and Carla Isobel Elliff is a PhD Candidate at Universidade Federal da Bahia, Salvador, representing the Young Ecosystem Services Specialists (YESS) network.



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