Thursday, 29 January 2015

Trouble in Paradise

There’s an archipelago everyone's heard of that's being threatened by reckless decision-making from a corrupt government a thousand miles away on a different continent.

The Canary Islands – of package holiday and winter sun fame – have been ruled from Madrid for hundreds of years and one particularly contentious issue has recently bubbled to the surface: oil exploration.

When Repsol announced their intentions to scour the surrounding seas for oil the islanders suggested they stick their rigs where the sun don't shine. Namely, not the Canaries. However, in August 2014 the Spanish government granted the Madrid-based energy company a three-year licence to drill as they please, infuriating just about everyone.

The only reason I came to know anything about this was due to spending a couple of weeks on Fuerteventura, the second largest of the islands. The nature of my visit – as part of a small production team making films about adventure athletes and their relationship with the great outdoors – meant I was well in tune with the environment and various related issues came to light.

One of our adventure athletes ridge running in Fuerteventura

Fuerteventura is rugged, windswept and attracts surfers in as equally high numbers as German pensioners. Thankfully though, the sprawling eye-sore resorts are out numbered by isolated vistas and wild beaches. It bathes in sunshine 320 days of the year and it’s possibly the most consistently windy place I’ve ever been. 'Fuerteventura' even means 'strong wind'. 

A perfect case study then, you’d think, of a self-sustainable island whose inhabitants live in harmony with their surroundings, relying on its bountiful natural resources to provide an abundance of clean energy. Nope, not even close. In fact, of the 3,195 Megawatts of installed capacity across all of the Canary Islands, solar and wind power can’t even muster a 10% share between them.

When Repsol began eyeing up the ocean off the coast of Fuerteventura the local government expressed concern. “The Canary Islands need tourists to survive, and tourism in the Canary Islands needs a clean sea.” were the words of Fuerteventura’s president Mario Cabrera, recognising the unavoidable risk of a spill. 

In the same vein - from the next step up the power ladder - the President of the Canary Islands, Paulino Rivero, described Repsol's plans as "incompatible with tourism and a sustainable economy" and dismissed them. "Our wealth is in our climate, our sky, our sea and the archipelago’s extraordinary biodiversity and landscape" he gushingly attested.

The people agreed. In fact, hundreds of thousands of islanders took to the streets across the Canaries in a flurry of protests and President Rivero subsequently announced a referendum to settle the score once and for all. However, foreseeing the outcome of this outlandish practising of democracy would be detriment to their interests, the Spanish government stepped in and banned it. Then, despite the uproar, Repsol moved in to drill.

Canary Islanders saying NO to Repsol.

This tale of woe highlights a broken democracy, the careless pursuit of burning fossil fuels and the sheer power and influence of oil and gas companies. However, it does have something of a happy ending. Just a couple of weeks ago, after extensive searching, Repsol gave up and fled the Canaries completely oil-less.

Repsol have simply moved on, to Angola, where they're not likely to come across such stiff opposition. As for the Canary Islands, perhaps this could be the wake up call they need to begin a fight for independence in the effort to forge a more sustainable future and one that isn't dictated by the shamefully unscrupulous politicians in Madrid.