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.
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.
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.
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.