Meeting Antoni Font Gelabert

While staying in the port town of Agios Kirykos in Ikaria island, we met with Antoni Font Gelabert. Antoni has been involved in environmental protection and sustainability for over 30 years, including seven years of being a board member of Greenpeace International. He is currently working on two projects. The first, Pandion, is an environmental consultancy firm. As he explains, Pandion is the Latin name of the fishing eagle, since they mostly work in marine conservation. The second is Ocean Observer, a project that aims to introduce electric boats into operation, from installing electric engines to borrowing electric boats to non-governmental organisations.

Coming from Mallorca and having expertise in the Balearic Islands, Antoni visits Greek islands every year for the past 12 years. Connected to both these places, he transfers his experiences from home to the processes that the Greek islands are undergoing now. As he says, he is interested in seeing and understanding how the same processes that have destroyed Mallorca are acting in different places.

“I come from a place that is strongly saturated by human pressure. Mallorca is growing at the rate of the full population of Samos each year. In the coming years, Mallorca will grow by 300 000 people, ten times the population of Samos. So mainly the challenges and the problems we detect have to do with this overcrowding and the pressure of tourism. But not only tourism: there are people who want to come to Mallorca because Mallorca has very good infrastructure, very good transport and all these things that are fantastic for any project or business. In fact, of the 80 000 people who come to live there each year, 50 000 go away because they don’t find their real dream. So Mallorca is what I call a dream shredder: a shredder that destroys the dreams of 50 000 people whose dreams don’t come true. Because the pressures and the competition are really hard. But the rules of neoliberalism say that everything must go in the direction of growth.”

On our islands we have released the ropes and we are drifting in terms of the relation of people with nature. And here, of course, this is starting to happen. But when we come here, we feel like in the Baleares 50 years ago. There is internet, there is everything that is in our islands, but many ways of doing are still old fashioned. And that has a lot of value: I love the old fashioned way of relating to nature. In the basic sense, I feel at home.”

He talked about where he sees the current problems of the Mediterranean – and the ways to solve them. 

More is also as AUDIO.

“We are still struggling with the industry of tourism. Tourism is an industry that is seen as a soft thing: you are a tourist, you are not a steel factory or a mine that is destroying the environment. So it looks like a happy thing. But it has to be recognized that it’s a very transforming industry. For example, in Mallorca, there was an agricultural economy that was very good, but we have developed tourism without keeping agriculture. But that should be possible. If you do it well, you can develop tourism but protect agriculture. It’s like a pipe: if you start doing this, all the people from agriculture come to tourism.”

Tourism is a monster that you have to keep in a cage and feed cautiously. Because one of the first things that tourism tries to take over are democratic processes and decisions. Because they come saying: ‘Okay, you all are living off tourism, so you have to do what we want. We need hotels, we need this and that, we need a new road that crosses the island fast.’ What I see is this kind of use of the land and the abandonment of agriculture.”

I think one of the main things is having a plan. Knowing what model of society we really want, instead of just accepting. The neoliberal story is to spread and wait for something to happen. And what can happen is a real rape of the island, or it can happen that you are driving the situation. In Ikaria with only an 8 000 or 10 000 population, it should be possible to discuss what kind of Ikaria they want for the future. Do we want to keep the honey, the olives? Do we want to keep being a mountain society more than a sea society? Do we want to keep these values? Do we want to open the door? Can we control the door of the touristic raid? Because tourism is huge; the pipe has no limits. It can make the island explode. It’s about how we want to control this.  Can we put an eco-tax so there are projects that are good for everyone, not only for the guy who has the tourism business? It’s about knowing the model of society that you want, instead of ending up with the model of society that the economy wants, that the market wants. It’s about market or democracy.”

Antoni sees solutions: “Before, there were many municipalities. Now there is only one… I think more municipalities would be more effective in connecting citizens to the authorities and the policies that are related to the plan and the model of society that we want.”

I’m interested in seeing and understanding how the same processes that have destroyed Mallorca are acting all over and how they are more active in some places and less active in others. For example, in Greek islands, islands without an airport look to me more healthy from an environmental point of view. It looks to me like they have the possibility of being really sustainable in the coming future. For example, Ikaria, with its surface and one-third of the population of Samos, has less human pressure and can develop mechanisms to accept an amount of tourism, but regulate and have a good agricultural, fishing or other activities that are giving people… well, wellbeing.”

When they start selling land and it is Russians, Germans or Americans who buy these houses, they buy these houses not because they relate to the land. They buy it because it is an investment. So land is seen as a financial product.

“Of course, many of the islands are not pristine. All of the islands in the Aegean have been hugely transformed by human hands. But that transformation was a transformation that was done with care, by people caring, with hands and with rudimentary tools. They were relating and living in balance with what the earth can provide. Now, when provisions can come from all over, we are in a foolish relation with the land. And what disconnects us from the land makes us more vulnerable.”

About overfishing: “Calculations show that if you stop fishing and let the fish grow, you have a sustainable rate of extraction that can provide you with more captures than simply going and capturing everything. Because you allow them to reproduce, to grow.”

According to Antoni, the maximalist mentality has even seeped into the thinking around fighting climate change: “Many times, for example, if I work in marine conservation, the key topic is to protect the marine environment from the excess of people fishing and wanting to do whatever they want. Some people think: ‘We’ll sink a boat into the sea so that we can preserve and recover the place. But not on a simple boat, an army boat! Three hundred metres, five thousand tons!’ But that‘s crazy. Five thousand tons of steel have to go to recycling and to be reused for the economy, not put on the sea for the divers, because we have plenty of places in the rocks that have the fish and that can serve for that… So, in the end, it’s mainly about protecting the environment from the trending ways of the economy.”

Antoni also spoke about how the market has compromised the independence of science and universities: “There are about 30 years of being involved in the environmental movement and consultancy, and in relation with science, the university, the academy. Over these years, I have seen how the academy has lost its independence. In Spain, for example, the universities have been forced to go out to the market to get their money. So this compromises them; they have a conflict of interest. There have been many cases of ‘bad science’, driven by the authorities. The authorities say: ‘Okay, I’ll pay for your study, but the result of the study has to be good for us.’ So they try to find the good parts of their projects. These projects are a real disaster. Their projects of regeneration of the beaches, for example, are an environmental disaster, each one of them. And there are universities that say ‘well, okay, if you do this and this, you can do this’. The solutions they propose are usually not very good. So we are in jeopardy because many of the gears of the machine are polluted and endangered by this economic interest of the market.”

About global warming: Global warming is bad. But if we don’t rethink what we are doing with energy, it’s stupid to be thinking about the pollution that the energy makes. In that way, even if we leave fossil fuels behind and start doing everything that’s not polluting and not making CO2, we will still be destroying the planet, only with clean energy. You can destroy the Amazon with electric Tesla bulldozers. So there’s no pollution, but we destroy the Amazon. The emissions of CO2 are a side effect. What’s really bad is what we are destroying: the life on the planet. We’re building a huge harbour for clean energy that’s destroying the nesting place of the fish. Yes, this is the first emission-free harbour in the world, built by bulldozers that run on batteries. The rocks are taken, one by one, but with clean energy systems. That’s crazy because you are still destroying the life of the planet. We are removing trees with electric chain saws, saying: ‘Ah, this is not polluting!’. Climate change, of course, is a problem. It’s out of control. I am not denying it. I know that it’s happening. But even when we reach a solution to that, the drama can be that we have clean energy that’s cheap, free for all, democratic, for use with no limits. But using energy with no limits is what is destroying nature. Not only the pollution from the production of this energy. This will be the next discussion. They will say: ‘Okay, here they are, the environmentalists! We have solved the problem of climate change and now they come saying that we can’t use energy as we want!?’ And it’s true – we cannot use energy as we want. It depends on how what you do affects the planet. For example, you can fly with electric aeroplanes, but that’s not much less bad than the others since the exhaust systems of the planes are emitting tons of water. This is a huge amount of water at the top levels of the atmosphere. So it’s not the only CO2, this is also changing the reflexivity in the atmosphere. We can do better. But not if we perform 30% better while we double our activity.”

Antoni spoke about Posidonia, a sea plant that only grows in the Mediterranean. Also called “the lungs of the Mediterranean” and compared to an underwater tropical forest, Positionia is vital for preserving the Mediterranean ecosystems. It produces great amounts of oxygen and biomass, filters water, discourages shore erosion and serves as a habitat and food for many marine species. At the moment, Posidonia is disappearing throughout the whole Mediterranean sea.

“In Mallorca, Posidonia seabed is very resilient. You can destroy it a little and it looks like nothing happened because there are mechanisms that protect it and keep it working. But at some moment, it will happen. In Mallorca, there was a fishing factory. The authorities said okay, you can set up the fishing farm, but you have to look out for the Posidonia bed and if there’s any damage, you have to stop. For six years it looked like the Posidonia bed was okay. In the seventh year, there was some damage; next year, there was more damage. So they stopped and took the fishing farm away. But five years later, the damage was still growing. It’s like a Trans-Siberian train. It’s rolling. Even if in some moment it begins to stop, there is nothing that can just stop it.”

“It’s like the Gulf Stream. If the Gulf Stream slows down – and it’s a fact that it is slowing down – how can we revive it? How can we stop it? We can’t. So the Gulf Stream, for example, is not resilient enough. It’s slowing down, but it’s giving us a ‘respect time’, saying: ‘Guys, you must do something’. And we do nothing. If the Gulf Stream stops, well, the planet will change completely. Because the warmth won’t arrive in England, et cetera, et cetera. And there are many things that we don’t know that is affecting this. So it’s about looking at the resilience and trying to make resilient societies.”

“Life is ordered. Death is a disorder.”

“When we talk about sustainability, many people are all about discovering new things to do to be sustainable. But our grandparents were living in a society that was much more sustainable than ours.”

“I’m trying to understand the reasons a person would keep an olive grove, and so on. I’m trying to understand what’s driving us to do these things… It’s about keeping your feet on the ground. And trying to keep it safe, to keep yourself safe.”

“It’s about security. If we like our way of life, we should secure it. And securing it means that you have to see what’s really worthwhile to keep and other things that you can keep apart to make a system that is really stable in itself. It’s about resilience. And resilience is a kind of resistance.”

“I think going back to local production would be a good step. Kilometre zero.”

“It‘s about digging a little bit about every island’s past capabilities. What had been driving the character of each island? Some of them might have been more oriented to the sea and fishing, or to goat milk and cheese. Sometimes, you can do modern projects. For example, goats are very destructive for the vegetation. So, for example, you can try to set up systems to collect water from the sewage.100% of the sewage water, even if it is treated, is thrown into the sea. It’s very difficult to get water on islands like these. So it’s stupid to throw away the sewage water after reparation.”

“What’s important is planning, discussing, participation. Involving people in what has to be. Now they start talking about ‘ecofascism’. There are some economical powers and think-tanks that are promoting the idea that if we give too much presence to the environmental problems, it can be a good excuse to reduce democratic processes in the name of the environment. If there will be more rules on the things that affect the environment, some people fear that these rules will be implemented without a democratic process. So they’re talking about ‘ecofascism’… I think the planet will be a bit fascist with us. In the end, the planet will impose things onto us.”

The more global I go, the more local I see that we have to act. I believe in the grassroots movement very much.”

“We have to go and convey our messages very clearly, and see that our messages are not stolen by the middlemen. Political middlemen are using them to transfigure what we are saying. I call these guys eco sharks. They are there, waiting for something to happen, and they eat it. For years, we have been trying to protect the sea. At some moments it arrives to the European Commission and there is a fund with millions of euros for projects for the protection of the sea. And then some big concrete companies decide that throwing big boxes of concrete into the sea is the best way to protect it. So we as the grassroots movement generate a state of opinion. This opinion finally crystalizes in a protection idea. And then, this idea is reinterpreted: ‘Okay, we have millions of euros to spend, but what will these stupid small guys that are all over Europe be able to do with this money? It’s better that we, the big guys, provide the way to burn these millions of euros in the form of concrete.’ So the lobbies are reinterpreting and rewriting what was originally meant.”

Antoni and his wife Martha Zein, a writer and… www.marthazein.com

transcribed and edited by Laura Mangunda

PS from Antoni: “I suggest to include my recommendation for the documentary ‘All inclusive. Damages and consequences of tourism on our island’ (it has subtitles in many languages, and I invite any person interested in providing a translation to a new language to do it).” 

Posted by bojanb
a couple of weeks ago
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