Politics And Pollution Make For Troubled Waters In The Bay Of Gibraltar

The Bay of Gibraltar has a serious pollution problem. Efforts to clean up the mess, however, have so far been hindered by historic animosities between British and Spanish authorities, which have conflicting claims over the bay.

An oil spill followed the 2007 sinking of the
An oil spill followed the 2007 sinking of the
Sandrine Morel

BAY OF GIBRALTAR – On the east side, one can see the Rock of Gibraltar, a massive limestone block whose white cliffs rise up to more than 400 meters above the sea. To the west is the Spanish town of Algeciras. In between, some 30 oil tankers and ocean liners are lined up side by side in a stretch of water that is barely seven kilometres (four miles) wide.

The ships are waiting to be refueled in the anchoring area. Located at the very end of the straits that connect the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, the Bay of Gibraltar is Europe's number one oil transfer port. More than 110,000 vessels per year pass through this port, which enjoys a privileged tax regime and does not charge a fuel tax. Ships that come to refuel can also save money on docking fees.

But while shipping companies may see the area as a fiscal paradise, environmental groups say the Bay of Gibraltar is an ecological nightmare – a toxic time bomb that is ready to explode.

A few yards away from this British territory, the huge oil tanker Jacques-Jacob is sending thousands of gallons of fuel down a pipe that runs along its hull, stretches over the water and leads into the tanks of the barge that it's refueling. Both ships, moored at sea, float close to each other, separated only by a buoy. A wrong move could easily provoke an oil spill.

Each day, dozens of ships make the same tricky maneuver, known as "bunkering." In Spanish territory, barges refuel on land. But in Gibraltar, three large floating gas pumps remain permanently in the bay because of a lack of space to stock fuel tanks. These pumps are approved by the UK but forbidden in Spain.

Alfonso Marquina, a local sea captain, looks on disapprovingly. "The risks are too high," he says. Each ship, Marquina points out, carries roughly 100,000 tons of oil.

"In 2010, a storm broke out that sent one of the ships off course during 48 hours. In its storage rooms, there was 80,000 tons of oil," says Antonio Muñoz, member of an environmental organization called Verdemar which decided to raise the issue with the European Parliament.

Gallons of "minor" pollution

So far this year, the Algeciras-La Linea port authorities have already reported four accidents. In January, some 1,250 gallons of oil leaked into the sea when the tank of a ship overflowed while being refueled. And in June, another ship leaked about 75 gallons of coolant. Smaller leaks – a few gallons of oil here and there – are routine and tend to go unreported.

These accidents cause "minor" pollution, according to authorities in Gibraltar. Critics, however, say the routine leaks and splashes happen so often that in the long run they could cause more harm to the seabed than do big oil spills. This argument was defended in a thesis, introduced in 2007 at the University of Cadiz by Carmen Moral Caselles, a marine scientist.

"In 2006, four years after the Prestige oil spill, off the cost of Galicia, the deterioration of sediments in the Atlantic Islands of Galicia National Park ended. Here, in the Bay of Gibraltar, the coastal sediments are significantly more damaged because the bay suffers seriously from industrial discharge and bunkering activities," her research concludes.

On the nearby Punta de San Garcia, a point in Spain's beautiful El Estretcho Natural Park, pebbles are blackened from a fire that broke out two months ago in one of the oil tanks in Gibraltar. According to Tony Davis, Gibraltar's director of maritime affairs, "nearly 100 tons of oil were poured in the sea. However, 90% of it stayed in the containment barriers and the remaining 10% were quickly mopped up."

Residents in Algeciras, where the shores were covered in oil, had a very different take on the accident. "Our ship for environmental preservation managed to recover 10,560 gallons of oil, even though the Gibraltar authorities claim the leak was 10 times smaller," says Alfonso Marquina. An investigation into the June spill is currently underway.

Sara del Rio of Greenpeace in Spain says the habitual finger pointing by Algeciras and Gibraltar does little to solve the environmental problems affecting both. "Every time there is an accident, the Algeciras and the Gibraltar authorities only blame each other," she says. "Eventually, the pollution issue itself becomes less important to them." Polluters, in other words, are benefiting directly from the historic tensions between Gibraltar and Spain, which does not recognize the UK's sovereignty claim to part of the bay.

The ships aren't the only ones to blame. Both Gibraltar and Algeciras dump wastewater directly into the sea. On the beach of Puente Mayorga, a stretch of sand punctuated by pipes belonging to an oil refinery, oil pellets stuck to swimmers' feet. Here, local industries dump huge amounts of chloride, fluoride, nitrogen, phosphorus, lead, arsenic, and other chemicals into the bay.

Juan Manuel Sanchez, an amateur fisherman, is fed up with the obvious pollution. "This bay has become the toilet of Europe," he says matter of factly. The smell in the Saladillo marina, where Sanchez moors his boat, is indeed disgusting.

Juan Antonio Carrasco of the Association for the Defense and Study of Nature, a local environmental group, says only the ocean currents save the bay from being even more inundated with toxins. Water currents carry pollution out towards the straights, out of sight and out of mind – but directly into an ecosystem teeming with dolphins, whales, orcas and migratory birds.

Read the original story in French

Photo - Johnny Shaw

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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