Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Seal pup on the sand

When I decided to spend a few days this month in Samos, the Greek island in the Agean Sea closest to the coast of Turkey, I knew that it was one of the very last Mediterranean monk seal breeding grounds, but I was not expecting to see any.

I knew a few basic things about the Mediterranean monk seal: it is one of the most threatened marine and European mammals; there are only about 50 of them left in the Agean Sea (and there are very few left in the rest of the Mediterranean); and they stay away from humans, spend their days in underwater caves and go out for fish only at sunset. So, to expect a seal sighting in Samos was like planning a holiday in the Pyrenees and expect to encounter a bear, or to go to a fiesta in Andalucia and hope to run into a lynx. The odds were so slim, it was not even within my plans.

I had been marginally associated in the late 1970s in advocacy to protect the Mediterranean monk seals, but to say the truth, nearly fourty years later when we arrived in Samos by boat a week ago, I was not even quite sure whether decades of conservation efforts had borne fruit and whether there were any seals left in Samos.

So, when a local gave me a tip and told me that a seal pup had been sighted and reported as staying for several months not far from where I was staying, my mind was blown away. Although the explanation was vague, I decided to try and check it out for myself.

After getting lost a bit on the road, I made it and ran into the seal pup. Under the protection of Paulos Teka, a volunteer from Finland who works for the Archipielago Institute of Marine Conservation, a Greek NGO that works for biodiversity and ocean protection in the Greek islands, the orphan female seal pup has been spending most of her days on the same small beach since the month of March. Her behaviour is almost unheard of. What's most likely to have happened, Paulos explained, is that the calf's mother got caught as by-catch in a fishnet, and maybe it's a miracle the seal pup survived. So far.
With Paulos Teka (seal pup on the bottom right)

The future of the seal pup is uncertain. At first sight, one can see that she may be developing a skin desease (sunburns?). An Israeli vet has been able to examin her hearing functions, Paulos told me. But little can be done because the priority is to prevent interference from humans. So, during the summer months Paulos and his colleagues have fenced part of the beach area and, under a beach umbrella, their job is to maintain tourists at a distance.

Paulos confirms that normally Monk seals stay away and hide from humans. But now the Archipielago Institute is concerned that the pup is becoming used to the presence of humans. She even seems to look for it, and that can be a problem when (if) she grows up. Tourists brought by cruise liners take the sun and swim, most of them not knowing that it is a unique nature wonder they have alongside. "It's better this way", says Paulos, "we don't want the seal to become a sightseeing spot". Of course, and that's why I'm not giving details on where the pup is to be found.

Click here to support and donate to the Archipielgo Institute of marine Science.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

One ocean

Today is June 8 - World Oceans Day on the United Nations calendar. A perfect day to revive my blog which I've kept sleeping for eight months.

My message to the UN on this day is "change the name". Today should be called World Ocean Day, not oceans. The ocean supplies the oxygen in every second breath we take; billions of us rely on it for food, fresh water, energy, medicine, transport and trade; it covers 70% of the Earth's surface and supports all life on Earth. If we want people to protect it and use it wisely, we've got to stop managing the ocean on a sectoral basis and modernize ocean governance to meet contemporary and emerging challenges. And this won't happen if we do not look at the ocean as one single interconnected system.

The main reason why I've been very lazy with my blog in the last eighteen months, and completely silent for eight months has been my current responsibility as Deputy Executive Secretary of the Global Ocean Commission. In that capacity, I had to write extensively with incredibly tight deadlines, first taking the lead to prepare the Commission's Policy Options Papers and other documents, and since the month of March preparing the Commission report which will be made public in New York on 24 June. So much to do, I completely ran out of steam for the blog. On Friday we were able to put the report to rest, which goes tomorrow to the printer and translators.

The adjective "global" in Global Ocean Commission does not only refer to the widespread geographical representation of the commissioners. A key message we're trying to convey is that there's only one "global ocean".

If you think that talking of  "one ocean" will cost you a bit at the beginning, a very practical thing you can do is update your spell check programme, so that it automatically removes the s in the ocean.

Sunday, October 27, 2013


Together with Peter Willcox who is known for having been for the captain of the Rainbow Warrior when we were victims of the French Secret Services bomb attack in Auckland New Zealand in 1985, Dima Litvinov is the other "Greenpeace Arctic 30" that I know personally. The Arctic 30 are the Greenpeace crew currently jailed in Northern Russia for staging a peaceful protest against a Gazprom oil drilling platform in international waters near Russian waters in the Arctic Ocean.

I worked with Dima in Russia two decades ago. First in the late 1980s during the Perestroika when the country was still called the USSR, and we continued in the early 1990s after the country imploded and had become the Russian Federation. Together we uncovered the illegal dumping of radioactive wastes in the Kara Sea and the Sea of Japan. It took us several years of John Le Carre-style campaigning to collect all the evidence, which I distilled each year with official submissions at the meetings of the London Convention, the international treaty that regulates the dumping of wastes at sea, at the Headquarters of the UN’s International Maritime Organization (IMO). All the delegates of the countries members of the London Convention were stunned each time we brought more evidence from Russia. The Soviet/Russian delegation maintaned for several years that we were fabricating the data, but after sometime President Boris Yeltsin ordered an official investigation that concluded we were right. All the data we’d collected were validated by the Kremlin!

At the time, there was a worldwide moratorium on the dumping of radioactive wastes at sea. I’d worked intensely for a whole decade first to get that moratorium adopted, and then to turn it into a permanent ban, and the evidence we collected with Dima was very important to bring the radioactive waste dumping issue on top of the international agenda. In November 1993, exactly 20 years ago now, our campaign bore fruits and the Parties to the London Convention agreed to ban permanently the dumping of all radioactive wastes at sea worldwide. This permanent prohibition is legally-binding on all the Parties to the London Convention, as well as all the Parties to the Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS). In other words, the ban applies to all countries in the world, even to the Russia Federation who lifted its initial formal objection in 2005.

Dima’s father Pavel has just written a beautiful piece in the Washington Post in which he explains that Dima is the third Litvinov generation to end up in a Russian jail for political reasons. Some of the most vivid memories I have from my time in Russia is the excitement and enjoyment of the young Dima for being able to return to his homeland from which he’d been expelled when he was 10 after his dissident father was freed from the Gulag, something he couldn’t have dreamt before Gorbachev started with his reforms. It was a time of optimism for the Russian diaspora to which Dima belonged; he reunited with relatives who’d staid in the USSR while he lived in exile in the US, and he was happy and proud to join Russia’s emerging civil society. Most people don’t know this, but Greenpeace was the very first international NGO to take the risk to settle in the USSR as soon as the Perestroika began. Dima moved to Moscow with his family for several years, and there he helped build Greenpeace Russia. Dima was a Russian/US hybrid, and it was amazing to watch him operate, and to watch how Soviet/Russian citizens were reacting to him.  [Dima’s family name added to the confusion: Dima’s great grand-father was Maksim Litvinov, a hero of the October Revolution and Foreign Affairs Minister in the early times of the USSR, who was replaced and sent in disgrace by Stalin before the USSR-Germany Pact of non-aggression of 1939].

It is sad to see how the wind of optimism that was blowing two decades ago in Russia and elsewhere vanished (remember everyone talking of the “dividends of Peace”?). The return to a Russian jail of a member of the Litvinov family summarizes it all.

Beyond the environmental aspects, behind the fate of the Arctic 30 there is a wider right-to-protest and freedom-of-speech issue. If you agree, you can sign up to the Hands Up for the Right to Peaceful Protest Facebook page. 

My thoughts of course also go to the beautiful Pussy Riot which to my mind is the most important music group/movement of the decade.

Friday, July 26, 2013

The mad man who thinks he owns the sun

Among many other memorabilia of the environmental movement, in the entrance to my office there is a poster in French called "Énergies Libres".  Dating back from around 1976 or 1977 and authored by Jean-Marc Reiser, one of Paris' leading underground artists of the time, the poster was made to promote one of the very first exhibitions displayed in the then brand new Pompidou Centre in the heart of Paris, dedicated to wind, solar and other alternative sources of energy -- pretty much a science fiction-like proposition at the time. Looking back nearly fourty years later, it was not only amazing that we, green pioneers, were already pointing to a future that has now become a reality, but also a daring sign that it was displayed in the museum named after President Pompidou, the very same who'd launched in 1973 (one year before his death) France's massive Tout Nucléaire programme. Of course, conventional wisdom at the time suggested that we were mad to believe that solar, wind and other alternative sources of energy would play a role in the future. But now, with France and the rest of the world desperately looking for the right energy transition path, we're paying a high price for the nuclear and fossil fuels addiction madness. Future generations will continue to pay forever for the decommissioning of nuclear installations, the storage of nuclear wastes, and the costs of climate change. As REN21, the global renewable energy multistakeholders platform points out in their Renewables Global Energy Futures report, "the future of renewables is a choice, not a foregone conclusion."

Looking at my old framed poster during a visit at my office this week, a Spanish University professor was interested to see that in the 1970s renewables were called "énergies libres"-- free energy. Free like in "good bye to the monthly invoice from your local electricity company", and also free like in "freedom, self-made, autonomy".  "That's why Rajoy has declared war against renewables!", he said, "he doesn't want people to be free!". The professor was referring to the latest of a series of measures taken or proposed by Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to dismantle Spain's renewable energy sector, once one of the most flourishing worldwide.

In a surprise move last week, Spain's Industry Ministry announced that people and businesses producing their own electricity with photovoltaic cells would have to pay a toll 27% higher than the tax consumers pay for conventional energy. In the country that attracts millions of tourists every year with the slogan "Everything under the Sun", the Spanish Government's attempt to privatize sun rays only benefits a handful of electricity corporations and castigates small entrepreneurs and individuals who have invested in good faith to boost clean energy. This is madness. It doesn't make any economic sense in a country where more than 80% of energy needs are covered by foreign imports (fossil fuels and uranium) despite a high tech domestic renewables sector that instead needs enhancing public policies. It doesn't make environmental sense either, in one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change according the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and with an increasingly obsolete and aging nuclear park. As Teresa Ribera, a former Secretary of State for Climate Change Policy puts it, "charging a toll for self production doesn't make sense; it's like charging for lightening firewood."

I don't know if it's because he's caught a sun burn, but it looks like Prime Minister Mariano Fossil Rajoy has gone mad this summer.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

News from Zaraland

When I read a few weeks ago that the local "government" of the Madrid region in Spain had signed a contract with a telecom company to change the name of Madrid's "kilometre zero" Puerta del Sol metro station, I thought it could only be a joke. It was near the time of April fools day I'd read the news, after all. For weeks I did not see any change at Puerta del Sol, so I'd got convinced that it was only a social media urban legend...Until I took this photo this week! I guess the contract between the government and Vodafone was becoming effective at 1st June.

So, if in Spain a local government can decide to change for money the name of its most famous metro station, what's the next step? Change the street names for brand names? [Avenida del GAP] The cities' names? [Toyota-City] And -- why not? -- the name of Spain? [ZaralandPepsi-Country, or Kingdom of Bankia].

Meanwhile, Madrid's public transport, and Spain's public health and education systems continue to deteriorate...

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Hoovering the seabed

We'd heard about seabed mining plans and operations in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Namibia, the Arctic and elsewhere before. We also heard this week that Japan was developping technology to trap methane hydrate near its coast. And now it looks like the deepsea mining race will soon become a reality. Lookheed Martin UK and the UK Government want a licence to hoover the seabed of a large area in the Pacific Ocean to grab valuable minerals. Russia, China and other countries are also on the go for what the British Prime Minister David Cameron describes as the new "global race".

We need a strong watchdog in place before it starts and irreversible damage could begin. 

Look at the social and environmental damage the mining industry has done on landDo you think they will "behave" under the sea if no-one's watching and if there's no proper monitoring and accountability?

Maybe someone should raise the issue (raise questions or raise hell?) in Sydney in the month of May when the Extractiive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) holds its Global Conference? I'm sure a lot of "reasonable" people will say "it's not on the agenda". Well, let's take over and set the agenda, then! [Ill send the link to this post to a few Sydney-based friends and colleagues -- like a bottle in the ocean which they might or might not pick up] 

I've just been confirmed as a "special guest" at the French Government conference The Hgh Seas, Our Future on 11 April in Paris. Another opportunity to bring up this issue maybe, don't you think?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Global Ocean Commission: Sexy and exciting?

I’m writing from London where I’m attending today the launch of the Global Ocean Commission, a project I’ve been working with in an advisory capacity since its inception more than two years ago.

Co-chaired by the former UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband, the former South African Finance Minister Trevor Manuel and the former President of Costa Rica José María Figueres, the Global Ocean Commission is made up of about a dozen former leaders from the five continents, augmented by business giants. Many are still active in national politics or branches of the UN system. At first sight it may not look like the most sexy international environmental initiative. It’s not the first commission to be set up when the international community faces obstacles in addressing an issue - one of the most pressing here being the sustainable use and conservation of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction. And the recommendations these commissions come up with are too often ignored, albeit politely. So, what’s the big deal here? What’s the added value?

Focused mandate:

We’ve seen that one weakness of many past international commissions was a mandate that was too broad, resulting in a message that’s hard to get. For example, some commissions come up with over a hundred recommendations, so it’s hard for a key message to come across (apples and oranges). In contrast, the mandate of the Global Ocean Commission is straightforward: the conservation and governance of biodiversity and a remedy for overfishing on the high seas. The high seas is a very large area (nearly 50% of the surface of the planet), but there are commonalities that impact and concern every single one of us on this planet. The international community can do something there if it wants, because the high seas do not belong to anyone. It’s a question of political will. Overfishing and food security; illegal fishing, piracy and other security issues; human trafficking and other forms of social and labour abuse; unsustainable exploitation of fisheries, mineral and genetic resources and the unfair repartition of the benefits... Hopefully the sharp mandate can lead to sharp recommendations, easy for all to understand and sufficiently practical to make a difference. 

Not the usual suspects:

Environmental activists like me, lawyers, marine biologists and climatologists have been drawing attention for years to the fate of the high seas. For example, a decade ago I helped to create the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC), and more recently I worked with the High Seas Alliance at the Rio+20 Earth Summit of June 2012. All that time (let alone previously in my 25 years in leadership positions within Greenpeace) we’ve done great work, and it’s true the state of the ocean and the rest of the planet would be much worse if we hadn’t taken action. But I think it’s meaningful that people such as Ratan Tata of India, Yoriko Kawaguchi of Japan and Pascal Lamy from France are willing to acknowledge the importance of the issues and lead an initiative to tackle them. These and the rest of the Global Ocean Commissioners are people who’ve had to deal with extremely complex issues throughout their careers, so it will be interesting to see what their collective expertise brings. People such as me who’ve  been “in that tunnel” since unmemorable times should be interested to see if and how the Global Ocean Commissioners  come up with new ideas that can bring a bit of fresh air to the debate. At the time of writing, the Commission hasn’t even been formally launched yet (it will take place at 1830 GMT on Tuesday), but already a glance at Google and Twitter indicates that that people are intrigued.

Independent and relevant:

As former leaders, all the members of the Global Ocean Commission have agreed to join in an independent capacity, regardless of other responsibilities they may hold within their government, parliament, party, organisation or corporation. This is important, because one lesson learned from past commissions and UN high level panels is that it’s important to be clear as to whether participants are there on their own behalf, as truly independent minds, or whether they’re just messengers. But even though many of the Commissioners are described as former, they’re still relevant: they’re people likely to continue to be active and influential in the future, which is important.


The Global Ocean Commission and its Secretariat, established at Somerville College, University of Oxford, have been set up for a short period of time. The Commission will meet four times between now and March/April 2014 when it is scheduled to issue its final report. In other words it’s a biodegradable commission. Thus, if the recommendations are good, it can empower governments, academics, civil society and private sector organisations to get in motion and come to grips with key high seas governance issues, both existing and emerging. As the Co-chairs are already acknowledging, the Commission will need the input of all these sectors if it is to make balanced, pragmatic recommendations, and the support of all these sectors to turn them into reality.

Right timing:

At the Rio+20 Summit last year, governments already agreed that the session of the UN General Assembly that will begin in September 2014 will consider the issues the Global Ocean Commission is set to address. As a result, the timing of the Commission’s final report is optimum, six months before the UN General Assembly. It can be the curtain-raiser that all important debates need, to help governments get the right focus. So, there’s a good chance that the Global Ocean Commission report doesn’t end up buried under a thick layer of dust.

All the ingredients are there, it seems.

This blogpiece is also available in español, HERE (AQUÍ) on the website of the Spanish news agency EFE.