The “Blue Economy” is a new development framework for the oceans’ economy, seeking to balance three objectives: the economic development of the maritime sectors, social equity, and environmental sustainability. To qualify a program under this innovative development framework, Blue Economy activities must be environmentally sustainable, socially equitable, and economically viable. Crucially, the Blue Economy differs from Blue Growth—while the latter tries to maximize economic growth, the former focuses on sustainability. The Blue Economy incorporates specific economic sectors capable of balancing the objectives mentioned above, with the most relevant, established ones being fishing, tourism, and maritime transport, while the most relevant, emerging ones are offshore renewable marine energy, aquaculture, activities extractives, and biotechnology. In contrast, some authors have suggested that the extractive industries of non-renewable resources, being non-sustainable, cannot be part of the definition of the Blue Economy.
The economic, social, and environmental importance of the Blue Economy
The Latin American and the Caribbean region has more than twenty-thousand kilometers of coastline, and the need to develop and promote sustainable activities in its ocean is critical—as its oceans are under severe pressure, fishing has reached unsustainable levels, and deforestation of mangroves is three to five times greater than that of terrestrial forests. The Blue Economy could play a more significant role in the region through coordinated action to protect the marine and coastal environment and the communities that depend on it. Tourism alone and other major ocean-based sectors can account for more than 20 percent of the GDP in the region. The expanded Blue Economy represents noteworthy economic and commercial opportunities. For example, rebuilding overfishing stocks could increase global annual output by 16.5 million tons, equivalent to annual revenues of USD $53 to 83 billion. Latin American countries could take a good part of this output, as they are net fish exporters. The Blue Economy is also relevant for its benefits to humanity. According to the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC), the ocean could sustainably provide sufficient food to feed the entire world population in a state of food vulnerability. Moreover, it plays a central role in relieving pressures on land resources and fostering mitigation and adaptation to climate change.
The Blue Economy in the region
Latin America is just adopting the Blue Economy. One study recently classified Latin America and Caribbean territories according to the countries’ implementation of strategies to foster the Blue Economy. It found that despite the concept is being included in the discourse of at least 80 percent of the territory, only 23 percent of it is linked to regional Blue Economy strategies, while national strategies or plans cover only 16 percent of it. On regional strategies, the study mapped two efforts: the Regional Strategy for Blue Growth in the Countries of the Central American Integration System (SICA), which is led by the Organization of the Fisheries and Aquaculture Sector of the Central American Isthmus (OSPESCA), including eight Central American countries: Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, and Dominican Republic; and the Regulatory Framework of the Sustainable Blue Economy, linking up the member countries of the Andean Parliament: Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and Bolivia. On National Strategies, the study mapped the efforts of Bonaire, Colombia, and Trinidad and Tobago, which count on self-formulated plans and programs, along with Montserrat, Barbados, and the British Virgin Islands, with plans developed along with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Antigua and Barbuda, based on the Commonwealth framework, and Grenada with a world-reference plan assisted by the World Bank. The study shows the diversity of approaches to the Blue Economy in the region but highlights the need to link policy discourse to strategy.
Another relevant study points to international organizations and multilateral banks’ efforts to support Blue Economy projects in the region. It found that even though, between 2012 and 2020, international donors contributed $13.3 billion to the region—represented in 434 blue projects—they concentrated the resources in some sectors and countries. For example, Brazil was the largest recipient in the number of projects (81), followed by Colombia (62), Peru (55), and Panama (54). Brazil also had the largest investment dedicated to its projects. Furthermore, the study found the resources were oriented preferably toward coastal state development projects ($5 billion dollars), followed by energy projects ($3.2 billion), management and conservation of environmental resources ($2.5 billion), agriculture ($0.6 billion), tourism ($0.5 billion), and fishing and aquaculture ($0.17 billion).
These studies show that programs promoting the Blue Economy in Latin America point to diverse objectives, ranging between economic development, sustainability, and social development. While countries like Brazil, Chile, and Peru prioritize their Blue Economy efforts on coastal development and environmental conservation; countries like Colombia, Nicaragua, and Honduras do so on the economic exploitation of the ocean. Only countries like Ecuador and Costa Rica are oriented more toward the sustainability of the ocean, fisheries, and aquaculture. However, tourism is prioritized in all regional and national documents as a key sector to develop.
Challenges of the Blue Economy in the Region:
The implementation of a holistic Blue Economy approach within the region faces many challenges, among which it is important to highlight as follows:
The adoption of the concept of Blue Economy in all dimensions. The confusion between Blue Economy and Blue Growth may generate a deviation in regional and country-specific objectives. For example, the focus on economic development has marginalized sectors such as artisanal fisheries from large-scale planning and investment. Similarly, the focus on the large-scale tourism industry has put sustainability and social equity at risk. Tourism can generate tensions between the local community and tourists, and socioeconomic gaps resulting from forced relocation due to increased income in touristed places.
The formalization of the objectives in concrete and financed plans. Latin American and Caribbean countries still need to adopt regional strategies or develop national plans for nearly 60 percent of their territory to foster the Blue Economy. It is also necessary to allocate more resources from the national budgets of Latin American countries and resources from international cooperation, to meet the needs of implementing the Blue Economy in the region.
Fragile implementation of legal frameworks for coastal and oceanic governance. This weakness generates phenomena such as overexploitation of species, loss of biodiversity, and vulnerability to climate change. For example, in Panama, sustainable use of marine resources is possible but not enforced due to a lack of management tools assigned to the government. It allows illegal groups to exploit resources, harming the region’s ecosystem and small-scale fishers. Furthermore, in Costa Rica and Colombia, there is weak coastal and ocean governance due to poor coordination between government agencies and political problems such as corruption and prioritization of economic gains.
The clash between the rights of communities and traditional industry. The interests of conventional actors in large, strategic industries limit the incorporation of minority group interests into Blue Economy strategies. Therefore, groups of small and medium fishermen and women are often excluded, or their interests minimized, in the design of plans and programs. For example, in Brazil, it is difficult for small-scale fishers to have power and influence over industrial fishing and infrastructure, as there is less opportunity for public participation and oversight in ocean governance. Similar situations have played out in Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, and others.
The incorporation of the Blue Economy in Latin America still needs work. Although there is evidence of progress in developing regional and national plans and programs, they cover only 39 percent of the region’s territory. Additionally, existing governance frameworks are fragile and sometimes deviate from the concept. Adopting the Blue Economy concept in the region requires a holistic and comprehensive approach that balances economic benefits with potential impacts on the marine environment and local communities. Developing this approach requires better governance frameworks, effective monitoring and management measures, and joint construction with all stakeholders, including local communities, to ensure the inclusion and benefit of all parties.
Camilo Ayala is a Colombian former diplomat holding positions in Ecuador and the U.S. For several years he led the lawyer’s team at the Colombian Trade Office in Washington, D.C. He was also Chief of Staff and charge d’ affairs at the Colombian Embassy in Ecuador. He is an international lawyer (LLM) specializing in economic matters, and holds a master’s degree in international studies at American University, Washington D.C. Camilo has over 20 years of experience, advising governments, banks, associations, exporters, and investors on a range of corporate, business, trade and investment, and finance law matters. He has successfully managed internationalization programs, projects, government affairs, and negotiations. Nowadays, Camilo runs his own international trade consulting company (www.millanandayala.com), focusing on trade between LAC and the U.S.