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Ex-Seychelles president has bigger fish to fry now

Mr James Michel notes that while the Seychelles may be a small country, it has made big strides in sustainability efforts. The government will issue blue bonds this year to fund the development of sustainable fisheries. He believes that a sustainable
Mr James Michel notes that while the Seychelles may be a small country, it has made big strides in sustainability efforts. The government will issue blue bonds this year to fund the development of sustainable fisheries. He believes that a sustainable perspective - and a mindset that resources are there to be shared - can help defuse tensions in the South China Sea.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

He's championing a blue economy to use the sea in a sustainable way for economic growth

It may be a small country with a population of just under 100,000 but Seychelles reckons it can punch above its weight in the international arena by leading the way in what is called the "blue economy".

The notion, apt for an island nation, refers to balancing marine conservation and economic development. For Seychelles, it involves using innovative ways to use sustainable policies to restructure debt and launching the world's first "blue bonds" to raise funds to develop ecologically sound fisheries.

The effort is being spearheaded by former Seychelles president James Michel, who was in Singapore in November last year to give a talk on maritime governance at the Institute of South Asian Studies.

He was sanguine in an interview with The Straits Times about the potential of the "blue economy".

While there are many definitions, he said, the basic idea is to use the sea in a sustainable way to meet the need for economic growth.

UNTAPPED POTENTIAL

I started championing the blue economy because I felt that the oceans have ... so much untapped potential, not only for small island states, but also for the world.

MR JAMES MICHEL, former president of Seychelles.

The concept first gained prominence at the United Nations for Sustainable Development summit in 2012, popularly known as Rio+20.

Then, the term "green economy" had taken centre stage as countries discussed achieving economic growth in a more sustainable fashion, such as making investments that reduce carbon emissions as well as enhancing energy and resource efficiency.

"The summit was also an opportunity for small islands to say, look, we haven't got that much land, that much mass for green economy, but we have the sea and the ocean, so let's include the blue economy," said Mr Michel, adding that the concept was eventually included in the UN agenda, prompting the multilateral body to launch its own blue economy concept paper.

While the first step was to bring international awareness to the need to tap on and use the oceans in a sustainable fashion, he added that the blue economy will be developed by different countries in different ways.

In his book Rethinking The Oceans published last year, he wrote that "we have not so far thought of using the sea as creatively as we have used the land. Yet the sea is far more extensive, with so much of it still unknown".

Mr Michel said innovation would be the key to unlocking the potential of the concept, calling for a "Bill Gates of the blue economy".

He suggested doing research on harnessing wave energy and tapping on marine life such as algae for pharmaceutical and cosmetic purposes.

Seychelles is walking the blue economy talk by implementing several milestone policies.

In March 2015, it became the first country in the world to implement a comprehensive zoning plan for its entire ocean territory of almost 1.4 million sq km.

While only around 1 per cent of Seychelles' waters are protected as marine national parks, the plan is expected to increase this figure to between 10 and 15 per cent.

He said the country wants to prevent overfishing since fishing is one of the economic pillars, with catches making up most of its exports.

Parts of the ocean territory will be zoned for exploitative activities such as commercial tuna fishing and hydrocarbon exploration but there will also be "no-go sections to ensure there is always reproduction of fish there", he added.

The country is also debuting innovative financial mechanisms.

After the 2008 financial crisis, Seychelles racked up public debt of US$808 million (S$1.2 billion), representing almost 95 per cent of GDP. Much of it was owed to the Paris Club, an informal group of 20 industrialised nations including France and Britain.

In March last year, the government signed a first-of-its-kind debt swap with its creditors. It bought back US$21.4 million of debt to the Paris Club, which will go into a fund that will pay for conservation and climate adaptation projects.

While the debt swap will not significantly reduce Seychelles' debt levels, the deal represented a rare 5 per cent discount because of the elements of sustainability.

"In a way, we do not pay a part of our debt and use it instead to mitigate effects of climate change. We think that other small islands can benefit by emulating it," he said.

The country is also preparing to be the first in the world to issue blue bonds.

Modelled after green bonds, the sale of US$10 million worth of government-backed bonds, expected this year, will be used to develop sustainable fisheries.

Mr Michel thinks Asia can make use of the blue economy concept, despite heightened tensions due to disputes over islands in the resource-rich South China Sea.

"We need political will of our nations to understand that the world is one, and resources are there for everyone to benefit from," he said, adding that a sustainable perspective can help to defuse political tensions.

Mr Michel left a 40-year career in politics in October last year. He served 12 years as president but stepped down on Oct 16 after his party lost in parliamentary polls.

He could have stayed on as president but decided not to, although he won the presidential elections in December.

But far from taking a rest in his idyllic country, Mr Michel, 72, appears newly invigorated by his mission to promote the blue economy, quipping that "life after the presidency has been as interesting as the presidency".

He plans to continue campaigning for the blue economy globally, and is not fazed by United States President-elect Donald Trump's proclamations of disbelief in climate change.

"It could be that it was campaign rhetoric. Sooner or later, his administration will realise that climate change is a reality, and he will probably tone down," he said.

Mr Michel plans to launch his own foundation to promote the blue economy early this year and is looking to work with organisations such as the Clinton Foundation and the International Renewable Energy Agency.

"I started championing the blue economy because I felt that the oceans have... so much untapped potential, not only for small island states, but also for the world.

"It's two-thirds of the surface of the planet that is still untapped so let's not make the mistake that we did on land...

"Let's use the ocean to save the planet."


Correction note: An earlier version of the article said the population of Seychelles is under one million. It should be under 100,000. We are sorry for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 02, 2017, with the headline 'Ex-Seychelles president has bigger fish to fry now '. Print Edition | Subscribe