Sometimes it takes a fresh eye to spot things which, as locals we take for granted, or don’t even notice. In 1994 a young man named Wim Geirnaert from Belgium arrived in Fuerteventura to follow his passion, surfing, and cast that fresh eye over what he saw. Over the following five years, the rubbish accumulating around the island increasingly disturbed him. In those days, this included even old fridges and electrical appliances. Instead of tut-tutting, as most of us do, he decided to do something about it.
He began by organizing protests about the rapidly growing problem. Since his passion is for the ocean, it was natural for him to concentrate especially on the shoreline, and he started to organize beach cleans, but instead of criticizing the lack of activity in this area from the local councils, he involved them by asking for gloves and bags for the volunteers to use. Little by little, involving the community in this way began to work. Wim’s philosophy is to teach by example instead of lecturing – which none of us like to hear, even when we know the lecturer is right!
The name of this growing movement is Clean Ocean Project, and when I first met Wim he was busy practising what he preaches, cleaning the beach at Majanicho, near Cotillo in Fuerteventura, favourite haunt of surfers. True surfers are usually a conscientious bunch when it comes to keeping their environment clean, but nobody is perfect, and beaches are there for all to use in Spain. As well as rubbish left by visitors to the beaches, a fair amount also washes in from the sea. On some islands, trash washes down the barrancos during the rainy season, so it isn’t just people who use the beach or sea, but those in the mountains who pollute too.
Wim was, obviously, busy that particular day, but I managed to catch up with him in his shop in Las Lajares a couple of weeks later. The shop, of the same name, sells clothing and surf gear made from organic cotton and recycled materials. It’s easy to spot when you arrive in Las Lajares from the south, by the distinctive mural outside, representing a surfer in a sea of rubbish. I can vouch for the excellent quality of the goods, as I bought a couple of T-shirts and a hoodie. I asked how he could be sure that everything made for Clean Ocean Project is the genuine article, and he assured me that he personally ensures that everything in the shops (there is also one in Corralejo) is sustainable. That said, he was eager to point out that this is a movement, encouraging us to be positive about looking after our environment, and he was reluctant to answer questions about himself. Nevertheless, I had the distinct feeling that his leadership and example is the driving force behind the movement and the business.
It goes without saying that the words “islands” and “ocean” go together, perhaps for some archipelagos more than others, making pollution of the seas a topic which is of vital concern to those of us who are island dwellers, and it is encouraging to know that someone is giving back to the ocean.
The Canary Islands, sited at this crucial crossroads between Europe, the Americas and Africa, as the politicians like to remind us, perhaps is more conscious of its relationship with the ocean than other island chains are. Since the Spanish conquest, shipping from all four of those continents has passed through here, and with all the environmental concerns that implies. First they raped the land for wood and tar for their wooden boats, now they dump their rubbish in the water, and there is the constant worry of oil spills on pristine beaches.
Then there is tourism, the great and the awful lifeline, which lifted the islands into the 20th century, when its agriculture was failing and thousands were migrating elsewhere, but which brought its own distinct problems when it comes to the environment
Apart from supporting the movement against the drilling for oil off Canarian shores, Clean Ocean Project is concentrating on campaigning against plastic at the moment. Figures suggest that 80% per cent of rubbish on beaches is plastic, and Clean Ocean Project believes that we are all responsible for our own litter, but that companies should take more responsibility for plastics. Nestlé in particular, with its plastic Nespresso cups is coming in for a lot of criticism.
Will big business listen? Wim thinks so, provided that enough of us make our voices heard, after all it’s our environment.