Blog #3: Ecosystem Governance Challenges in Galicia

In October of this year I spent three weeks in Galicia, the green and mountainous province of northwestern Spain where Celtic traditions are strong and thousands of hikers as modern day pilgrims pour into Santiago de Campostela, the end point of the famouscamino.  I gave a short course for the Campus do Mar on the fundamentals of coastal governance.  Another objective of the visit was to explore how the contents of the short course might be applied to Galicia.

 In such situations I try to structure the conversations around four questions:

  1. How did we get to where we are (current coastal conditions at the scale of Galicia and some of the smaller coastal jurisdictions);
  2. What are the issues - the problems and opportunities along the coastline of concern to the public and the principle stakeholders; 
  3. Of those issues, which may be tractable at these spatial scale; and,
  4. In the short term, what responses might produce positive engagement in an ecosystem governance initiative?

The short answer to “where are we?” (Question #1)  is that Spain is in a profound economic crisis.  The crisis came after, and is in good part a consequence of, a decades-long economic boom fueled by massive loans from the European Union.  These loans must now be paid back. The magnitude of the boom is made dramatically tangible by the massive investments in infrastructure - magnificent highways with bridges spanning estuaries along the coast and valleys further inland.  Every seaside village and town has its malecon, a shoreside walkway, clearly built with few economic constraints and often featuring fancy lampposts and well-equipped boat launching sites.  In the larger towns there are many imposing, spanking new public buildings.  The investments in housing, often in the form of multi-story apartment buildings, are equally impressive.  There has been a boom in marinas for pleasure craft but in recent years unoccupied births are abundant.  A huge new seaport near A Coruna was empty when I flew over it and many of the shipyards in Vigo are idle.  Today unemployment is very high, 30 to 40 percent for young professionals.  Many are migrating, others are moving back in with their parents.  I was told that 70% of the architects and civil engineers who used to make big salaries are now out of work.  I spoke to laid off nurses and teachers who were trying to survive on unemployment benefits of 200 to 400 Euros a month.  Some were moving into the countryside where a vegetable garden and a cow or pig made life easier.  Was I seeing a foretaste of Phase Three of the Anthropocene?  Some allow as much, but most hope that the economy will pick up again and more prosperous times will return.

What are the issues along a magnificent coastline where rocky wave battered shores are interspersed with sheltered estuaries around which the population and the bigger towns are concentrated (Question #2)?  The recurring answer is that the priority issues are governance issues.  There is little trust, little ability to forge cooperation and alliances among inshore fishers, mussel farmers, port managers and the many other factions and interests jockeying to maintain their claim and grab more if they can.  There are frequent complaints about the lack of transparency in how decisions that affect many stakeholders are made, and acknowledgement that compliance with rules is low - rules over fisheries, wastewater discharges, building in the public zone of the shoreline.  In the highly productive nearshore waters, the numbers of fishers is declining and the “goods and services” of this commons is becoming concentrated in a few efficient, and increasingly wealthy, operators.  Some deplore the “uglification” of a beautiful coastline.

All of these issues are tractable at the scale of the region of Galicia and municipal governments (Question #3).  Spain’s regions are titled as “autonomous” and they have considerable freedom in how they respond to national and EU policies and regulations.  Both inshore fisheries and coastal management are the responsibility of the institutions of Galicia’s regional government.

What might be attempted (question #4)?  There is an EU draft directive that calls for integrating coastal management with marine spatial planning and there are fascinating initiatives supported by a local NGO to rethink and restructure how nearshore fisheries are managed.  Might these be the springboard for a public dialogue and a fresh approach to problems and opportunities of coastal Galicia?  Where trust is low and engagement poor a good tack can be to document, mainly on maps, what IS.  Where are the fishing grounds, where are the polluting outfalls, where are the nonconforming structures in the coastal “public zone”?  Agreeing through well-structured public meetings on what is where as this relates to the national CZM law would be a significant technical undertaking.  There will be disagreements over any classification system for the adjoining marine waters and there will be instances where people cannot agree.  But usually you can come to a broad consensus on what is and how it got to be that way.  This could then be the basis for thinking about what could be and what should be.  The more significant problems and opportunities will come into focus - as will any major disagreements on what should or should not be done.  Many of the building blocks for such an undertaking are there.  Maps of excellent quality have recently been prepared for the landward side of the coastal region.  The EU has generously funded Grupos de Accion Costera in the smaller coastal municipalities.  However, they have no authority nor a mandate to generate plans of action that meet a set of explicit standards. 

A critical issue is that such an effort to integrate coastal and marine spatial planning into a coherent set of policies and actions must have a mandate from the region’s government.  The draft EU directive is open-ended on how such integration should proceed and only calls for addressing five goals:

  • Securing an energy supply
  • Promoting the development of marine transport
  • Fostering the sustainable development of fisheries and aquaculture
  • Ensuring the preservation, protection and improvement of the environment
  • Ensuring climate resilience 

A response to the proposed EU directive must be requested and supported by the Galician authorities and there must be a basis for expecting that the product will be given a serious hearing.  Undertaking such a project without a clear mandate from the Galician authorities would likely end in frustration.

In the dynamics of the process I am imagining the challenges of the Anthropocene will weave their way into the dialogue as people assess the impacts of sea level rise, migrations of people, and potentially dramatic shifts in world markets as climate change affects food production and political stability.  If Galicia could demonstrate that it has the ability and the political will to formulate and implement an integrated coastal and marine spatial plan that addresses the five EU goals, a significant step forward toward ecosystem governance in this beautiful corner of the planet would be made.