- Spain is one of the EU countries that the Great Recession has most affected. Unemployment rates above 20 percent, brain drain, unchecked corruption, and a fractured society have led to an increasingly risky scenario for activists across movements.
- Recent trends include increasing criminalization of social movements and violence against activists.
- Environmentalists face added pressure from a citizenry under severe economic duress with little tolerance for attitudes that may endanger much-needed jobs.
Isla Mayor is a village of about 6,000 in the Spanish province of Seville. It stands just a few miles away from Doñana National Park and Natural Reserve, one of the most biodiverse areas in Europe, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.
Nestled in the wetlands that constitute the park’s most recognizable landscape, Isla Mayor has traditionally survived by commercializing fish and crustaceans present in the surrounding habitat.
On March 18, the Spanish Supreme Court banned all commercial activities related to the crayfish species Procambarus clarkii. The news was received with dismay in Isla Mayor. According to the town’s mayor, around 400 families make a living by fishing and processing the “red crab,” as the species is known locally.
“This is an absolute disaster,” Valentín Murillo, president of the county’s Association of Crab Businesses, told online newspaper eldiario.es. Murillo declared that 70 percent of Isla Mayor’s economy depends on the red crab.
The backlash was immediately directed toward Ecologistas en Acción and SEO Birdlife, the two environmental groups that had been campaigning to include P. clarkii on the list of invasive pests. The ensuing Supreme Court ruling meant authorities must come up with a strategy to eradicate the species, not continue its commercialization. Isla Mayor’s mayor blamed the groups for the loss of local livelihoods in the public media, and the village officially declared Ecologistas en Acción an “unwelcome organization.”
Both groups report recieving threats from the public, as well.
“Several messages have appeared in forums and social networks claiming that they would burn down the cars of any environmentalists that dare to go the area,” Juan Carlos Atienza, conservation director at SEO Birdlife (the Spanish arm of Birdlife International), told Mongabay. “We already contacted our people on the ground and asked them to be careful.”
No economic alternatives
The fierce reaction from both the government and the public in Isla Mayor is emblematic of the situation facing environmentalists across Spain.
“You can’t compare Spain to countries in Central America or Africa, where environmentalists put their lives on the line, but there have always been attacks,” Jaime Doreste, a leading lawyer for Ecologistas en Acción, told Mongabay. The organization is one of the largest and most active environmental groups in Spain.
According to Doreste, “it’s an undeniable truth that there is a general trend of increasing criminalization of social movements, including environmentalist ones. But there is also a worrisome number of cases of threats and plain physical aggressions against individual activists.”
Atienza of SEO Birdlife said he understands the difficulties that some people in Isla Mayor are going to face as a direct consequence of the red-crab ruling. “We know that this decision is going to affect people, and we have asked the government to provide a solution for them, but our job is to defend the environment and biodiversity,” he said.
However, Atienza shrugged off the most serious threats as par for the course in Spanish environmental work. “I have received death threats, even face to face. A few years ago, somebody told me to check my car’s underside, but I never gave him much credit, because it’s not usual for local businessmen to use car bombs. I would have been more concerned if he had threatened to send some thugs to beat me,” he said.
It’s the economy, stupid
Spain is one of the countries in the European Union that the Great Recession has most affected. Unemployment rates above 20 percent, brain drain, unchecked corruption, and a fractured society have led to an increasingly risky scenario for activists.
Environmentalists face a two-pronged attack. On one side, there is a citizenry under severe economic duress with little tolerance for attitudes that may endanger much-needed jobs. On the other side is a government that has adopted a harder stance against protests, peaceful or otherwise.
Although the macro data for the last year is heralding recovery for Spain’s economy, national unemployment rates are still above 20 percent for the 22nd straight quarter. Rural regions are the most affected. Andalusia in the south, where Isla Mayor is located, has a rate of nearly 30 percent — the highest in the country.
The western region of Extremadura comes in second, at more than 28 percent. Paca Blanco used to be the coordinator of Ecologistas en Acción in Extremadura. In 2013, she left her town of El Gordo after six years of harassment. “People would do anything for a job. They cheat, they lie, they hurt each other,” Blanco told Mongabay.
Blanco’s nightmare started in 2007, when she first opposed a luxury residential complex being built in a protected area next to the town. The construction site is on the banks of the Tagus River, which is part of the European Commission’s Natura 2000 project that links threatened habitats into the world’s largest network of protected natural sites.
Blanco’s house was attacked with Molotov cocktails and other explosive devices and she said she feared for her life. “Every time a court ruled in our favor, I would get a call from my lawyer, who would tell me to stay away from El Gordo. But I didn’t do that,” she said. “Instead, I contacted the regional government and told them my life was in danger. I had police protecting my house all around the clock.”
Blanco’s case became famous in Spain. Several media outlets featured her story and there was even a related Parliamentary inquiry questioning the president himself, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, as to how it could have come to pass. However, Blanco thinks there are many more cases in other areas of the country that have never come to light.
“When someone suffers an attack, he or she usually retires fast, because it’s not only about the activists. People have families,” Blanco said. “What I was more concerned about was that my partner or my children would get into a fight in the town. I think that’s what my attackers were looking for.”
Blanco isn’t convinced sacrificing the environment for economic concerns is paying off for workers. “It’s a case of blackmail. When a company can’t get its way, they just go to the media and say they will be pushed to cut so many jobs, and get the citizens on their side,” Blanco said. “But it’s all a lie. At the end, unemployment is still a scourge.”
Blanco has now moved to Madrid, where she lives with her children. At 67, she’s still in the fight. “I would like the complex to be demolished, because it’s illegal and because it would create much needed jurisprudence. And I’m not afraid. I’m ready to die with my boots on,” she said.
A controversial new law
Spain’s stark economic situation has prompted an increase in protests over a variety of issues, and the government is taking measures to quell them. One of its most controversial steps is the Law of Public Security, widely known among its detractors as the “Gag Law,” which came into force in July 2015.
The law restricts the rights of assembly and demonstration and has faced fierce opposition both in Spain and abroad, with institutions including the United Nations and the Council of Europe joining the ranks of the critics. The New York Times called it “ominous” in an April 2015 editorial.
Parliament approved the Law of Public Security after three years of increasing activity among social and grassroots movements in the country. But the economic crisis, combined with an unprecedented number of reported cases of corruption, provoked protests and demonstrations that have since crystallized in a radical transformation of Spain’s political life. In December elections, voters ousted members of parliament supporting the law and brought in two new political parties to end three decades of two-party rule in the Spanish parliament.
The governing People’s Party, the only party in Parliament that currently supports the law, did not respond to requests for comment.
According to Doreste, one of the intentions of the Law for Public Security was for the crimes of battery against an officer and disobedience to be punished administratively (like a traffic infraction), instead of via the courts. “This change makes the process much slower, demands that any economic sanctions be payed in advance, and drastically reduces the chances of acquittal,” explained the environmental lawyer.
Jorge Luis, a member of parliament with the anti-austerity Podemos party, agrees with Doreste.
“From 2012 we saw lots of protests, and there were legal actions against them. However, the judges usually saw no grounds for punishment and dismissed most cases,” Luis told Mongabay. “The strategy of the government was to change the law to leave the magistrates aside.”
However, the left-wing MP thinks that the law is not achieving its intended results. “There has been an increase in mobilization by all groups. Environmentalist groups, political parties, everyone except the governing party has made an alliance to ban the gag law. People have gotten more aware and politicized, not less,” he said.
The Yesa Eight
Clashes with the law are something Luis has experience with. He and seven other activists face possible prison time after a peaceful protest against the expansion of a dam ended in clashes with the police. Their case is one of the most famous threats to Spanish environmentalists since the economic crisis started.
On October 10, 2012, a small group of residents from the village of Artieda, along with sympathizers and activists, came together on an isolated road near their town in the Pyrenees.
The group had gathered to protest against work to increase the capacity of the nearby Yesa dam, the largest in the Pyrenees mountain range that separates Spain from France. They had periodically shown their discontent with the project since it was approved in 1985, with no legal consequences.
That day, however, anti-riot police squads showed up in Artieda in full gear. The officers charged against the demonstrators and clashes ensued. There were at least a dozen injured protestors, as well as two police officers. Videos recorded by both demonstrators and the police appear to show there were no violent actions prior to the charge, and that the following clashes were short and never posed any great danger to either side.
A few weeks after the demonstration, eight of the activists received arrest warrants. One of them was Luis, at that time the coordinator of the Green Party in the region. He has now been indicted on charges of assaulting and injuring an officer and the Spanish government’s attorney is requesting a two year and eight month jail sentence. Altogether, the activists known as the Yesa Eight face a collective maximum sentence of more than 36 years.
But Luis is confident that they will be acquitted. “I trust the judges. All this happened before the Gag Law, and we trust there will be common sense,” he said.
The Yesa Eight have drawn wide support in Spain. The regional Parliament of Aragon has officially requested their acquittal, supported by 26 city halls, three counties, and one provincial authority.
Luis believes politics are behind the legal case. He says he would like to know the reason behind the police operation that day. “I can’t explain why they sent a full anti-riot police squad, with weapons, with rubber bullets, to a tiny village in the middle of nowhere in the Pyrenees,” he said.
The Delegation of the Government in Aragon, responsible for the police operation and the accusation against the Yesa Eight, did not respond to requests for comment.
The crisis as a tool
Atienza of SEO Birdlife Spain thinks that under economic stress, environmentally risky projects are more common and receive less public opposition than they otherwise would. “It’s not the same to become unemployed if it’s easy to find another job as opposed to the situation we’re in,” he said.
Blanco took the argument a step further, saying that commercial abuse of this situation is going unchecked and environmentalists who fight for the country’s natural wealth are bearing the brunt. The choices and attitudes that Spanish society takes in the coming years will decide the fate of some of the country’s most vital and biodiverse protected environments.
“The real wealth is what we already have,” she said.