All posts by Linda Wainwright

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CLEAN OCEAN PROJECT: Campaigning to keep Canarian beaches clean

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.

Clean Ocean Project

Clean Ocean Project

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!

Clean Ocean Project

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.

Beach Clean up in Alcala, Tenerife

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.

You can follow Clean Ocean Project on Facebook and Twitter to see when there is an activity in your area you might want to join.

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Oil Protests in the Canary Islands

Saturday, June 7th, was, without doubt, a triumph for the environmental groups who organized protests throughout the islands, against the exploration of the ocean bed between the archipelago and the continent of Africa by oil giant, Repsol, at the behest of the Spanish central government.

Reported estimates by organizers claim between 150,000 and 200, 000 turned out to show their opposition to the plans. Central government representatives, and local members of the ruling PP claim the numbers to be more like 45,000 to 50,000. You can’t be everywhere at once, and I can only tell you that the numbers at the rally I attended in tiny La Gomera were definitely closer to the 1,000 estimated by organizers than the 500 claimed by officials.

Oil Protests in the Canary Islands

The biggest protest was in Tenerife where either 16,000 or 80,000 attended, depending on whom you believe, but of course it isn’t the numbers themselves so much as the proportion of the population which is significant. The spokesman for environmental group Ben Magec told me that he was delighted with the La Gomera turnout as a per centage of the population.

There isn’t the slightest doubt in my own mind, traveling around the islands as I have been doing of late, as to the depth of opposition to the drilling, though for obvious reasons it’s a hotter topic in Fuerteventura and Lanzarote. President of the Canary Islands autonomous government, Paulino Rivero chose to make his position clear on the tiniest inhabited island, La Graciosa, saying; “ Our petroleum is tourism, the landscape, the environment and our rich biodiversity.”

La Graciosa, possibly, has more to lose than any island in the event of an oil spill reaching its shores. A true “desert island” with long, white beaches, it has nothing but fishing and tourism. An oil spill affecting those industries would be fatal to the island economy.

La Graciosa

The image of the sort of oil damage we’ve seen from Galicia, Alaska or the Gulf of Mexico over recent years on those pristine sands is powerful, but the issue is about more than just the possibility of an oil spill, as various speakers pointed out. It’s about the safety of drilling into the sea bed of an area which is less than stable; it’s about the image oil platforms present to tourists; it is about our reliance on fossil fuels over all, not just on this archipelago. It’s also about the callousness of central government which in imposing this on the islands without proper consultation of the population. As Canarian Socialist spokesman, Manuel Fajaardo Palarea said: “Refusing to consult the population confirms the contempt the government has been showing towards the islands.”

Whatever individual reasons for protesting were, there was no question of the unity this has brought about. At all the rallies, the cries were; “Una sola Voz” (One voice only) and “Canarias no se vende, Canarias se defiende” (The Canaries is not for sale, the Canaries will defend itself).

Meanwhile, the president of the ruling PP in Fuerteventura claimed that the Socialists and the Coalition Canaria were politicising the question. I observed no overt party politics going on in La Gomera, it has to be said. Though the crowd was chanting slogans aimed at Jose Manuel Sória, Spanish minister of Tourism and Industry, who is, unbelievably, Canarian, one speaker asked not to blame him alone, but to understand that there is shared responsibility, pointing out that Caixa Bank was one of Repsol’s largest shareholders.

Oil Protests in Lanzarote

Speaker after speaker in La Gomera pointed out that not only do we need to protest oil exploration, but at the same time it is vital that we demand more investigation and investment in alternative energies. Elsewhere, spokeswoman for Ben Magec, Rita López called on the Canarian government to commit to sustainable energy, and pointed out that whilst it was a great thing to be united against big oil, her organization was still against Canarian investment in gas.

Remarkably, whatever the turnout, it’s a triumph that out of 8 marches no serious incidents were reported, in fact, scarcely any incidents at all. This came as no surprise to me because the most impressive thing about the event was that this really was a united front of ordinary people. At protests in the past I’ve observed a majority of the attendees to be, well, people who prefer “an alternative lifestyle,” not to criticize that, but they are not the main stream. Last evening’s rally was made up for the most part of ordinary citizens, grandparents with walking sticks, young mums pushing prams, families, in other words, your neighbors.

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