Swamped By Toxic Seaweed, The French Antilles' Cry For Help

Since 2011, the Caribbean islands have been attacked by rafts of algae which give off a pungent odor as they decompose.

Sargassum on a beach on May, 11 at Le Robert in Martinique, French Antilles
Sargassum on a beach on May, 11 at Le Robert in Martinique, French Antilles
Patrick Roger

PETIT-BOURG — First, a stench catches you even before you can see the shoreline. Then a tide of red algae comes, which pours onto beaches, rocks, the mangrove. Coming from the deep and carried by marine currents, this algae is known as sargassum.

"This is no longer an emergency, it is a calamity," said the Minister of Ecological Transition and Solidarity, Nicolas Hulot, on his arrival in Petit-Bourg, Guadeloupe, where a hundred protesters from the local anti-sargassum collective were waiting. He was accompanied by the Minister of Deep Seas, Annick Girardin.

Since 2011, the inhabitants of the Caribbean islands have regularly been accosted by these rafts of algae, which can reach several thousand square meters and which give off nauseating smells when decomposing. But this year, the scale and duration of these algae blooms are unprecedented. Worse still, the problem could be prolonged.

"We are facing an exceptional phenomenon not simply because of its magnitude, but one which may increasingly repeat itself due to climate change," says Mr. Hulot.

"They have been there for six months," says Jocelyne Traventhal-Hatchi, spokesperson for the anti-sargassum coalition. "Six months that we've played host to H₂S and NH₃."

H₂S and NH₃: hydrogen sulfide and ammonia, two of the toxic gases identified in the fumes. However, depending on the nature of these sargassums, other toxic components may be active, such as arsenic, which increases fear within the community.

Government mobilization was late. Too late; plunging inhabitants into a sense of abandonment. There had been "a delay in action and a lack of coordination between actors, and the state is not exempt," Ms. Girardin said.

Welcome to Sargasso Land.

At each stop the ministers were met by a reception of residential committees, mostly wearing protective masks, eager to tell the reality of their daily lives for the last few weeks and months. The daily stench that the winds are not strong enough to sweep away, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, swollen eyes, irritated throat. Their testimonials which caused officials to close schools and transfer students away from the decomposing mounds of algae.

For the small islands of the Guadeloupe archipelago, whose economy is largely based on tourism, the consequences are even more catastrophic. Some of them, like Marie-Galante or Terre-de-Bas, were cut off for several days because the ships could not enter or leave the ports, which had been invaded by brown algae. The fishing boats are immobilized in the middle of a pestilential mud that corrodes and oxidizes everything, just as gas emissions blacken and degrade household appliances. The tourists have deserted; shops and restaurants are closing.

Clearing efforts are slow going with only a fraction of the algae having been cleared. The only town hall of Capesterre-de-Marie-Galante has already spent half a million euros. Nevertheless, even if the exchanges were sometimes fraught, this visit was welcomed as a testimony that the state, finally, cared for these territories "at the end of the world." "Welcome to Sargasso Land," Marlene Miraculeux-Bourgeois, the mayor of the town, said upon the arrival of the two ministers, recalling that, in seven years, no minister of ecology had moved to Marie-Galante. As they left citizens begged, "don't give up on us."

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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