Environmental Pirate Paul Watson Runs Aground In Paris

Wanted in two countries for his actions to save endangered marine wildlife, the Sea Shepherd founder is now under the unofficial protective custody of France, where he manages an extreme conservation group that makes Greenpeace look like pikers.

Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson
Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson
Cordélia Bonal

PARIS â€" Is a stranded pirate still a pirate? Living as a refugee in France since July 2015 â€" after a prison stint in Germany, an escape to the Netherlands, and 15 months of exile at sea â€" the stirring Sea Shepherd founder set anchor, at least temporarily. As the target of an Interpol Red Notice, by request of Japan and Costa Rica, and with two outstanding arrest warrants against him, the marine wildlife conservationist knows that if he takes off again, he runs the risk of arrest.

It's not on the high seas that we find him, but on the banks of the Seine. With his white hair and black sweatshirt, he's hard to miss. His heavy eyelids and trimmed beard make him look like a captain from a Jules Verne book.

At 65, Watson has come to terms with being drydocked under the unofficial protection of French authorities. "I was on the water for 50 years," he says. "If they think that forcing me to stay here will stop Sea Shepherd, they're wrong." It should be added that Watson has found a way to make the return to port much more bearable. A year ago in Paris, he married Yana, a 34-year-old Kazakh who has lived in France for 15 years. The old seaman went overboard for this mermaid who, like him, is 100% vegan and an animal rights activist.

Yana is his fourth wife, and the first with whom he has a daughter. He survives on proceeds from his copyrights and writing, while managing Sea Shepherd, whose mission is "to end the destruction of habitat and slaughter of wildlife in the world's oceans in order to conserve and protect ecosystems and species." The couple has settled down near Toulon, not far from Marseille where the Brigitte Bardot is docked â€" one of nine ships in the Sea Shepherd fleet.


The headstrong captain can be an excellent communicator when it comes to defending those he sees as his "clients": whales, seals, turtles, otters, sharks, fish â€" all massacred by overfishing. "We have already wiped out 90% of all the fish," he says. "We've lost 30% of the oxygen produced by phytoplankton. If the ocean dies, we die."

He remembers how as a child and the oldest of six motherless siblings, in a small fishing port in New Brunswick, Canada, he would seek out and destroy leghold traps that were set by beaver hunters. Later, in 1975, then a member of Greenpeace, he was deeply disturbed by the sight of a sperm whale being slaughtered by a Soviet whaling fleet. Two years after he left Greenpeace, he founded Sea Shepherd.

The fearless captain has now become a kind of Robin Hood of the seas, relentlessly tracking and sinking every poacher he can find. His first famous feat was in 1980, when the whaler Sierra went under in the port of Lisbon. Since then, Sea Shepherd boasts having sent 10 ships to the bottom and saved tens of thousands of whales all over the world. Costa Rica has initiated a lawsuit against Watson for "endangering the lives of others" after his troops foiled illegal shark finning. And it's far from being over: Another dozen campaigns will be initiated soon.

Between Greenpeace and Watson, the divorce is final. Greenpeace regards his organization as extreme, opportunistic and unmanageable. Watson counters by saying that the excessive bureaucracy within Greenpeace is undermining its sincerity.

"Greenpeace is all about business," Watson says. "At Sea Shepherd, we have 2% of their budget, but we use it effectively, because we are flexible. We are on the ground. We have passionate volunteers.” To join Sea Shepherd, he says, you only have to answer one question and obey two rules. "Are you willing to risk your life for that of a whale? The rules: We do not hurt anyone (though we can attack a vessel), and we do not negotiate with the enemy."

A demanding guru

Watson is the embodiment of Sea Shepherd and his reputation as a guru, alongside the romantic pirate imagery, attracts a youthful crowd in search of thrills. "When you join the NGO, it's true, you join Paul," says Lamya Essemlali, president of Sea Shepherd France. "The DNA of the movement is inseparable from what he is: inspiring, combative, intransigent and â€" for some â€" troublesome. But he's also a very positive person, who inspires confidence and leaves people a lot of freedom."

Watson is less a megalomaniac prophet than a warrior monk, says well-known French environmentalist and Nicolas Hulot. Out of "respect for his fight," Hulot has protected the Canadian refugee, welcoming him to his home in Brittany and Corsica for his honeymoon. "He entered into resistance," Hulot says. "He did not allow his troops to compromise. Undoubtedly, he will enter the pantheon of heroes of ecology."

Needless to say, Watson found December's COP21 global climate summit in Paris as exciting as a sea without wind. "Business as usual," he says. "There is no binding commitment. It does not even mention the oceans. The salvation will not come from leaders. They lack vision, long-term perspective."

A U.S. citizen, Watson supported Barack Obama in 2008 but not in 2012, because of the Patriot Act's extension. This time, he supports the self-described socialist Democrat Bernie Sanders. Don't even talk to him about Hillary Clinton. "She's a new Margaret Thatcher," he says. "She's entangled with Monsanto. She is no different from the Republicans."

Few find favor with the misanthrope, except for his role models like Dian Fossey, Pierre Rabhi and David Suzuki. "People do not realize the seriousness of the situation," Watson says. "Or rather, they do not care." It reminds him of his father, a cook, "who knew he had to stop smoking but still died of lung cancer."

What good is it then, to continue? "The question is not whether we will win or lose the battle, or if the world will survive," he says. "We fight because it is the only right thing to do." Asked whether he will one day lay down arms, he answers, "No one ever retired in my family. I don't see why I should be the first."

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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