XX Century: the Mediterranean comes out of its traditional agrarian economy and heavy industry booms thanks to its crucial cushioning position between East and West. The Marshal Plan sparkles an industrial revolution on the seashores. Iron factories, boatyards, petrochemical compounds are a promise of wealth for generations.
XXI Century: the Mediterranean area is the frontier between the North and the South of the world, the bastions around Fortress Europe. A new Iron Curtain that contains people on one side, whilst goods travel freely. Goods travel without restriction in colorful iron boxes, piled over floating iron cities, marked with a code that tells their past and their destiny and works as a permission of free circulation. They enter the inner sea through the Strait of Gibraltar and the port of Algeciras, the main door. With the progressive standardization in the measurements of containers people are not needed anymore to manage them. In the Korean owned TTI Terminal a software recognizes the code on the container, reads its origin, content and destination and sends orders to the huge cranes. Massive bulks are moving, but the deck is deserted. In the control tower a solitary employee surrounded by monitors is there just in case of 2% software inaccuracy.
We are importing the labor standards of China, the country with the worst capitalistic system. The world is going in the opposite direction to the way I was used to looking at it.
Yorgos Nukutidis, President of the Dockers Union of Piraeus Port
The industrial production model is unable to renovate itself and compete in a globalized scenario. In the port of Athens, once the launch pad for Greek supremacy, the dockers of the glorious Piraeus Port Authority are not competitive anymore and remain without task. Their colleagues of the Pier 2, owned by the Chinese state company Cosco, are working on a temporary basis, with no benefits, earning around half their salary.
My letter is to you, the one who runs the factory. Taranto is surrounded by pollution, the rivers and the sea are poisoned, there are few trees left in the woods and fish are dying. I request that you clean the whole city and throw out all the criminals that soil and destroy nature. Taranto is already a sewer, even cleaning it will be very strenuous, but it needs to be done!
Patrik, primary school student in Taranto
Sooner or later heavy industry will abandon these lands, leaving ecological damages and social inequality. That's what's happening in the city of Taranto, where environmental and social fabric have been poisoned by the emissions of the iron factory ILVA. For decades the population of this depressed area had to barter the health with the chance of an employment, the cancer rate in the area being the highest in Europe. An area covering twenty kilometers starting from the industrial zone is prohibited to graze in; animal breeding is diminishing. Even the sea is at risk after discovering that the famed mussels of Mar Piccolo, exported all across the world, were filled with dioxin.
This is what we call progress: first we mess things up, then we desperately find a solution to get rid of inconveniences and finally, though our lives have been complicated, we proudly show the solution invented and we call it progress. Well, this progress consisted in inventing agriculture and livestock.
Lluís Ferrés Gurt, Secretos del Mediterráneo
Sometimes technology intervenes to fix the problems originated by the same industrial progress. The stock of Atlantic Bluefin tuna – currently known as red tuna - has reached alarming levels because of overfishing, with technological means increasingly advanced. Therefore breeding red tuna has been considered a sustainable option to supply the world's hunger for sushi and sashimi without exhausting the fishing grounds. In the floating cages of the Bay of El Gorguel, Cartagena, Spain, lie the first generation of the species born and bred in captivity. In 2008 the project SELFDOTT began, involving the Spanish Institute for Oceanography (IEO), the University of Cartagena and the Ricardo Fuentes group. During the following years, researchers have been collecting the eggs that the tuna lay during the months of June and July. The program paid off: the microscopic larvae grew, but when the fry were released into the tank most of them died by crashing into the walls. In July 2010, the Japanese Manabu Seoka, an expert on larval rearing of Pacific bluefin tuna, joined the team and solved the problem, giving a boost to the project. However tuna breading requires 20 kg of sardines for a weight gain of 1 kg, causing the overfishing of sardines; and the vicious circle of progress goes on.
Every year, approximately sixty million people reach the Mediterranean shores attracted by the sun, sea and “dolce far niente”. The Mediterranean life-style seduces the visitor as a game, not as a reality. For the first time in its history the Mediterranean attracts its invaders without assimilating them and risks to be culturally assimilated and converted into an object.
Fernand Braudel, La Mediterranée, les hommes et l’heritage
Whilst the model of development based on manufacturing has been overcome by the times, the only industry prospering in the Mediterranean shores is tourism, an economy dependent on foreign money. Is becoming a tourist attraction going to be the only way of living for Mediterranean folks? The inhabitants of la Barceloneta, the traditional fishermen's neighborhood of Barcelona, face a real estate speculation that is turning their barrio into a fancy amusement park. The construction of the W Hotel, a tower of iron and glass dominating the boardwalk, triggered the gentrification process. The fishing dock, once the core of the local economy, is now squashed among malls and multiplexes, becoming another photo opportunity for passengers on cruise liners.
Ah! What the will of man can achieve is limitless! He planted his tent one day in the bare sand and to the whole world he said: ‘Trust me. There’s not a blade of grass here, the sun blazes down, the desert breaks everything down, thirst is everywhere. Here, where everything dies I shall sow life. On this wasteland there will be fields, gardens, palaces and towns. And ships from every nation will pass along these banks’.
Empress Eugenie, during her voyage to Suez in 1869
Tourism used to be the main source of income for Egypt's economy. With the political instability originated by the Arab springs the Suez canal, the other door of the Mediterranean Sea, regain supremacy. In 2012 the revenue from the canal, thanks to a tariff of 5 dollars on every ton passing through, totaled $5.2 billion. The cash flow hasn't even been affected by the effects of the global economic crisis, compensated by the increase of China's exports. The industrial revolution never really caught on along the shores of the inner sea; tourism may be an easy option but risks to dissolve our identity. Living on custom taxes over business managed elsewhere may be considered the last resort for Mediterranean people.
Here we are, after 35 years of working: with no way out, facing a wall. If I think thatin the 70's the chemical plant where we were working was going to be engine of the local economy... We were all young, enthusiastic and eager to lift Sardinia, fulfilling the promises made by government... today those young men are 56 years old and without a penny in their pocket.
Salvatore, laid-off worker
After the fall of the Berlin wall the Mediterranean basin looses its strategic position and struggles to find a new economic vocation. However it's globalization that inflicts the deathblow to manufacturing, a promise of wealth for generations in disadvantaged areas like Sardinia. The competition of the emerging countries in sectors like mineral extraction, chemical production and oil refining is unmatchable. This far-reaching process causes the redundancy of 400 workers laid-off by the chemical industry ENI of Porto Torres. After having performed more classical protests, the workers self-exiled to the deserted Asinara Island. Besides claiming their jobs back, they focused public attention on the island - a natural reserve in a state of wilderness - as a possible source of employment in tourism. With the contribution of their sons, mostly I.T. temporary workers, they started the first labour protest entirely online, creating the v-log Laid-off Island, a parody of the reality show Famous Island, which reached a hundred thousand followers. After two years of self-isolation the protesters came back to the main land. The ENI factory has been definitely closed, just the 10% of them have been recycled to a green industrial project.
Why are we still on board? Because we can't leave without our payment, and nobody is taking care of us. So many salaries have not being paid for such a long time. We contacted the shipowner and said: we want our payment first, and then we want to go home. But there was no answer at first. This is not life. Every morning cruise liners come in and every night they go out the port, passengers wave their hands to us. For us it´s like looking at a dream, but unfortunately it's just somebody else's life.....
Ruslan, captain of the MV Silver 1, abandoned in Civitavecchia
Globalization has come earlier and tougher on the seas than on land. 84% of the million sea workers are recruited by international agencies from undeveloped countries. The use of flag of convenience of countries like Liberia and Panama is a common shortcut to avoid the application of advanced labour regulations. With the world economic crisis causing the bankruptcy of many naval companies, there has been a rise of cases of abandoned seamen all over the Mediterranean Sea. The International Transport Federation defines the crew as abandoned when they do not receive a salary for over 3 months and the shipowner has disappeared and can no longer be found. The seamen remain on board for months, sometimes years, waiting for the long process that leads to the ship's sale; hoping that the revenue will pay their overdue salaries. The frustration of not being able to provide for their families at home leads to depression and, in some cases, suicide.
I will never forget the first time I conducted my vessel into Nemrut Bay to be demolished. From the shore they were yelling at the radio: full power captain! So I pushed the engines to the limit heading toward the beach. I was excited, I felt like God. When the vessel touched the sea bottom everything started to shake, making a monstrous noise. The vessel was crying for its imminent death. At that moment I realized that I had loved that boat as a woman.
Jamal, Lebanese captain
When ships are finally sold they end up in ship scraping yards like the one in Nemrut Bay, Turkey, the biggest of the Mediterranean sea, notorious for the disrespect of environmental regulation. Huge cargos and cruise liners are scraped into handleable pieces by an army of human termites; oil, paints and lubricants leaking out permanently contaminating the bay. The 80% of the iron obtained is bought by Chinese state-owned companies. Nemrut bay is one of the possible destinations for the Costa Concordia cruise liner, shipwrecked on the coast of the Giglio island in January 2011, causing 32 deaths. The ship hit the sea bottom a few meters from the coast as the captain, with a reckless maneuver, approached the island to give the passengers a better photo opportunity. The relic of the Concordia still lies beside the rocks as a monument to human stupidity.