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Fishing communities in Costa Rica oppose the 30×30 conservation target

By Chris Lang - REDD Monitor, June 15, 2021

Costa Rica is currently the co-chair of the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, together with France and the UK. A central goal of the Coalition is to protect at least 30% of the world’s land and seas by 2030. This 30×30 target is included in the draft of the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, that will be negotiated at the next Conference of Parties of the Convention on Biodiversity, planned to be held in China in October 2021.

The High Ambition Coalition hopes to push the 30×30 target at the UNFCCC COP26 meeting in Glasgow in November 2021, as well as the CBD COP15 meeting in China.

The Coalition promotes the 30×30 target as aiming “to halt the accelerating loss of species, and protect vital ecosystems that are the source of our economic security”. But there is a serious danger that the 30×30 target will result in the biggest land grab the world has ever seen.

A recent Declaration from the Grupo de las Gentes del Mar in Costa Rica highlights this danger. The Declaration puts the 30×30 target in the context of the livelihoods of fishing communities in Costa Rica, and in the context of the history of dispossession, displacements, violations of human rights and violence associated with the creation of protected areas.

The declaration is available here with a full list of signatories.

Declaration about the 30×30 initiative
Grupo de las Gentes del Mar (People of the Sea)


I. Since “we are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental”[1], on July 8, 2020, the group ‘People of the Sea’ (composed of the various national fishing sectors, the mollusk catchers, the Puntarenas Dioceses, the Pastoral for the People of the Sea, and the Social Pastoral Caritas) published the Manifesto Grupo de las Gentes del Mar, Puntarenas 2020 (Declaration of the People of the Sea Group, Puntarenas 2020), in which the main objectives and values of our group are established. As the Declaration states, our main goal is to study and find efficient democratic and fair solutions to the big issues that threaten Costa Rica’s fishermen and mollusk catchers, as well as their communities. This goal is to be sought in accordance with the values of union, loyalty, alliance, honesty, perseverance, respect, social commitment and earnestness. Thus, our Declaration established a work strategy that seeks to strengthen the dialogue with the government authorities, the participation of the communities in decision making processes and the principle of democratic sustainable development. This last concept is essential, and we understand it as the union between environmental conservation, and the wide and fair access to the benefits derived from biodiversity and marine resources. In this regard, the environmental sustainability, the human rights and human dignity are all an essential part of democratic sustainable development and thus cannot be understood separately.

II. We have discovered fundamental issues which negatively affect the national fishermen and mollusk catchers, the main ones being: 1) The lack of alternatives to the fishing activity; the are no real and decent opportunities for the fishers and mollusk catchers to change their way of life, due to the high unemployment in coastal areas and the need of the fishing communities to maintain their cultural identity. 2) The setbacks and hardships to maintain a dialogue between the fishers and the government, the latter historically showing a lack of interest and commitment to listen and validate the needs, knowledge and opinions of the fishermen and mollusk catchers. 3) The existence of an international agenda promoted by non-governmental organizations and international agencies, which exerts a considerable pressure in Costa Rica and that is exclusively focused on environmental conservation without any regard for the living conditions of the fishers and their communities. 4) The generalized condition of informality of the small scale fishermen. In accordance to OSPESCA’s data, there are more than 15.000 fishermen, from which only 4.000 have a fishing license. There are also other relevant factors than must be taken into consideration because they worsen the conditions of the coastal communities: the high unemployment in the coastal areas, the socioeconomic vulnerability of most of the fishermen, and the criminalization of these people by the State, even when most of them have been living by the coast and fishing for generations, their social and cultural life revolves around fishing and they lack other means for their sustenance.

III. On October 15, 2020, the ‘People of the Sea’ wrote the Declaración sobre el modelo de desarrollo en la actividad pesquera y acuícola (Declaration about the fishing and aquaculture development model). Here, the development model which is currently being used by the State was questioned, since “the model generates unfair and undesirable conditions, such as an increase in poverty and the exclusion of the coastal communities from the decision making processes. This situation affects thousands of families in the coastal provinces, both in the Pacific and the Caribean”. In the light of this scenario, inspired by the Church’s Social Doctrine and considering the State’s duties to guarantee the common good through the fair and equitable distribution of wealth, to grant fair access to the benefits derived from the biodiversity, and the principle of democratic sustainable development; we declare the importance of “abandoning the fake dilemma between environmental conservation and the socioeconomic wellbeing of the people and the communities”, of resorting to dialogue and the democratization of the decision making processes, as well as ensuring the respect from human dignity, human rights and adequate working conditions for the fishermen.

IV. The Costa Rican government is currently co-chairing an international initiative called the 30×30, which was created by the High Ambition Coalition (HAC) for Nature and People. The initiative consists in the protection of 30% of the land and 30% of the sea by 2030. The goal regarding the land percentage is almost complete in Costa Rica, since its protected wildlife areas cover around 27% of the country. However, the protection of the sea remains at about 3% of the territory, thus, enormous protected areas will have to be created on both the Pacific and the Caribbean to comply with the initiative’s objective.

V. Around the globe there is a history of dispossession, displacements, violations towards human rights and violence against the native, local and afro descendent communities, directly linked to the creation of protected wildlife areas or the enlargement of existing ones. This situation occurs because the human factor is not considered; in other words, the opinions nad needs of the people that depend on those areas for their livelihood are not taken into consideration. The enforcement of the 30×30 initiative in Costa Rica is bound to repeat this path because most of the areas that are being considered for the creation of protected wildlife areas are located in the coast, which is the only place where most of the country’s fishermen can work. To this day, the State has not approached the fishermen to ask for their opinion or consent about the project, or to enable them to participate in the consolidation of the 30×30. On the contrary, the State’s institutions are already planning to enlarge the protected areas that neighbor the fishing communities, all of which pose a big threat to the responsible fishing areas and other local governance models that exist in Costa Rica.

VI. There is a worldwide tendency to use the environmental conservation and the creation of protected wildlife areas as a way to do business. The areas in which the native, local and afro descendent communities become displaced, usually become tourist sites run by foreign capital and big hotel chains. This development model excludes the areas inhabitants and increases dramatically the social gap, worsening the socioeconomic problems. In the minority of cases, the tourism industry becomes operated by the former community members, but the issues regarding the loss of economic independence, of food security and community identity remain.

VII. The 30×30 initiative, analyzed at a national and international level, results unjust to the Global South. In this area resides around 91% of the people who inhabit on land which is important for environmental conservation. This means that the social and economic impact on the communities is much higher in low and middle income nations, resulting in higher economic pressure for this countries compared with the impact of this 30×30 initiative in the Global North.

VIII. Conservation actions undertaken by native, local, coastal and afro descendent communities tend to be highly successful and efficient. Also, the recognition of their rights and the formalization of their governance models is much more fruitful in contrast with the expropriation of land, thus, broadly speaking, it is a much better conservation strategy which also contemplates the protection of the communities’ human rights. In this regard, rights’ based approaches to conservation result in an undeniable superior strategy in social, cultural, environmental, economic and humanist terms, when compared to exclusion based conservation.

IX. Costa Rica is a county whose fishing fleet is almost exclusively composed of artisanal fishing vessels. Even longline ships can be also considered as artisanal vessels due to their small size, in accordance with international criteria. Thousands of fishermen live from small scale fishing and ensure the food security to their communities and the the country as a whole, even with all the issues that affect their activity. In this scenario, the implementation of the 30×30 initiative must adjust to the country’s reality, ensuring the livelihood of the fishers, their families and communities. The choice to create protected areas where local governance is being developed or is already enforced, is a decision which excludes thousands of people from their livelihoods, negatively affects the most vulnerable fishermen and benefits exclusively the giant foreign vessels which do not fish near our coasts. All of this is happening in a country where a rights-based approach to conservation is completely vialbe. The conservation of the oceans must be made hand in hand with the people’s dignity, not at its expense.


An integral analysis of the 30×30 initiative reveals very high costs regarding the living conditions of the coastal communities of Costa Rica. It is an initiative based on exclusion, which is not respectful of human dignity, of the fundamental right to work, the human right to culture, the right to food security, and the right to the tenure of land which the fishermen have ancestrally inhabited. Due to these reasons, and in attention to the indisputable supremacy of human rights, the protection of human dignity, the concept of democratic sustainable development, and the principles of humanity and justice, the People of the Sea declares its firm opposition to the enforcement of the 30×30 initiative in Costa Rica, as long as the terms of the project remain the same.

The People of the Sea also invites the government once again to participate in a democratic and earnest dialogue with the fishers and the mollusk catchers, with the aim to humanize the 30×30 initiative. This type of dialogue cannot be reduced to the participation in a meeting; the government must listen to the people and understand their problems, reach agreements that are satisfactory and that benefit all, recognize and value the fishermen’s traditional knowledge in the decision making processes and give the adequate follow-up to the dialogue.

We, the fishermen, want to live in a clean and healthy environment too, and just like everybody else, we deserve to enjoy our human rights and human dignity.

[1] Holy Father Francis, Laudato Si, 139.

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