How Massive Canal Projects Threaten The Caribbean

With the Panama Canal set to expand and Nicaragua planning its own huge canal, the Caribbean is bracing for big shifts in shipping traffic. On the French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, hard questions from both fishermen and environmentalists.

What can be conserved?
What can be conserved?
Martine Valo

POINTE-A-PITRE— It's a construction site unprecedented in scale for Guadeloupe, the French island in the Caribbean. The dredging boats arrived in late February and are now working 24/7 on the Jarry site in the bay of Pointe-à-Pitre. If all goes well, the island will have a mega-terminal for containers in early 2016. That will require increasing the depth of port waters from 11.5 to 16 meters, which in turn means extracting seven million cubic meters of sediments from the seabed.

Guadeloupe seems to have succumbed to an imperious construction fever sweeping the entire Caribean region. In Jamaica, in Cuba, everywhere, there is digging and upsizing of discharge platforms designed to be ready when the new locks in the Panama canal become operational in 2016. These will allow the biggest container ships to sail through, meaning ships that can carry 16,000 20-foot equivalent units (TEU) of cargo, or 16,000 boxes measuring 38.5 cubic meters.

Pointe-à-Pitre will not be able to handle these container monsters, but it aims to receive the preceding generation of ships that will be rerouted in the region. There is also on the horizon even more changes that could come with a whole new Chinese-backed canal planned for Nicaragua to further connect Atlantic to Pacific.

The idea in Guadeloupe is to triple the island's annual cargo traffic from the 3.7 million tons registered in 2013. Half of that came in containers (200,000 TEU). The port wants to be able to receive ships with 5,000 TEU cargo capacity, or twice the size of those docking in Jarry now, and 12,000 TEU ships by 2020.

"We have no choice," says Yves Salaün, head of the Guadeloupe port authority's board of directors. "We have to follow the general movement in development or our goods will pass through other ports and their cost will increase." Predicting losses to the Guadeloupe economy of some 50 million euros a year without the expansion, port authorities convinced regional politicians and the French state to invest 210 million euros in the project. But this has turned out to be a veritable overhaul, and more complicated than its promoters had initially thought.

Impact on marine life

The problems began in October 2013, when the French Ecology Ministry's environmental and sustainable development agency CGEDD reviewed the construction site, likely the biggest in volume it had ever had to assess. Of the seven million tons of seabed that had to be dredged out, only 630,000 cubic meters could be used as backfill, the rest having to be thrown back into the sea, 10 kilometers from the coast.

But the environmental agency became concerned by these sediments whose composition was "not clearly identified" because of insufficient sampling. Drilling three times for samples then revealed the presence of arsenic, copper and heavy metals.

Wide body squeezing through the Panama Canal. Photo: Dozenist

CGEDD also noted a "direct impact on marine life of great ecological value" in the form of noise, cloudiness and other factors. The risks would be particularly high in March and April, when humpback whales and large dolphins come to reproduce near the island.

The CGEDD was especially surprised that the public dossier on the project did not devote a single line to Martinique, the neighboring island, which was also planning to extend its container terminal, directly threatening a huge swath of coral reefs.

"The assessment is very strict, a little discouraging even," Salaün says, adding, however, that "we have made progress because of it."

Salaün, who took over in 2014, begins a kind of mea culpa to highlight all the efforts made since the project was first sketched out five years ago. "Gradually, we realized we were not up to this project, and our compensation estimates had been too low."

The first operations to transplant no fewer than 4,150 coral colonies and 3,300 square meters of healthy seagrasses suited to tortoise reproduction began in January, at the prefect's request. None of this had been foreseen before state services began battling to minimize the damage done by the work site.

Financial compensation

Guadeloupe fishermen have been at the forefront of this battle, not surprisingly as the future port will complicate their fishing activity. They have already been forbidden from working fewer than 500 meters from the east coast of the Basse-Terre because of chlordecone (CLD) pollution. This was an insecticide long sprayed onto banana plantations. They must also deal with invading lionfish, a fearsome predator that arrived from the Indian Ocean, and now with an immense, marine cloud of dredging mud, filled with hydrocarbons and paint residue from boats.

In October 2014, Guadeloupe hosted the Second International Conference on Biodiversity in the European Overseas. Fishermen used the opportunity to defend their cause with Nicolas Hulot, the French president's special environmental envoy.

Nicolas Díaz, general secretary of the regional fishing committee, explained that fishing here is essentially 800 little boats under 12 meters in length and one or two thousand professional fishermen catching 4,000-5,000 tons of fish.

The work will create tons of sediment that will spread over 70 square kilometers at least, suffocate the bed and deposit silt on the tourist beaches in the Gosier area. And that excludes the marine mammals that will also suffer.

The fishermen have also appealed to French Ecology Minister Segolène Royal directly. She was surprised by the simultaneous development of France's two Caribbean ports. "It is rather strange, the money being spent on both ports, all the environmental damage," she said.

The European Union is contributing 18.7 million euros by 2016 to the first phase of work at Jarry, expected to cost 87.8 million euros.

In mid-January, Guadeloupe fishermen finally made some progress: There would be more analysis of sediment, more ecological surveillance of the seabed, and they would be compensated for lost revenues. The Guadeloupe region estimated the cost of compensation, mitigation measures and further tracking of the environmental impact at 17 million euros.

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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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