Italian activist Matilde Brunetti suffered serious injuries when she was cut by a propeller following an assault by several boats from the Spanish navy. Brunetti and a group of Greenpeace activists were in a small boat attempting to ward off the beginning of a controversial oil exploration initiative in an area about 60 km off the Canary islands of Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, which has been officially recognized by UNESCO for its ecological value. Two other activists, Paco del Toro and Francesco Diplomatico, were also injured in the scuffle.
The Spanish Government has authorized Spanish oil company Repsol to conduct explorations in three areas near the Canary Islands: Sandía, Chirimoya, and Zanahoria. The oil company's activities have met with opposition from environmentalists, citizens, and the regional government of the Canary Island, which sees them as a serious threat to tourism, the main source of income in the islands. In fact, the local government has waged a fierce legal battle to try and stop the prospecting. In addition to concerns about protecting the pristine landscapes, there is also the issue of access to fresh water. A significant percentage of the water consumed by island inhabitants is desalinated seawater, so any scenario involving a potential oil spill would have serious consequences.
Although on its website Repsol affirms that “our environmental protection standards are among the highest in the industry: on par with Norway, which is the country with the most exacting requirements,” environmental groups are not so sure:
Las prospecciones petrolíferas afectan a la fauna marina, como cetáceos y tortugas y a los recursos pesqueros. Pero también es un riesgo grave por la posibilidad de vertidos (…).
Otro de las grandes claves de este caso es el Estudio de Impacto Ambiental, que ha estado lleno de irregularidades (…).
Oil exploration affects marine wildlife such as whales and turtles and fish stocks. But it is also a serious risk for oil spills (…)
Another key element in this case is the Environmental Impact Study, which was full of irregularities (…).
The weak points in the environmental studies of this particular proposal have been reported to the European Commission's Directorate General for the Environment, which has initiated “a thorough investigation of the authorizations granted to Repsol by the government of Spain.”
Against this backdrop, Repsol moved its ship Rowam Renaissance into the waters of the archipelago, where it is planning to begin exploration activities in the coming days. On Saturday, November 15, Greenpeace activists attempted to board the ship with the intention of deploying various protest banners, but they were surprised by a violent attack on the part of the Spanish navy, which sent out two boats to prevent them from boarding. The video shot by activists—which later went viral—clearly shows the navy's boats ramming the Greenpeace vessel on multiple occasions, which resulted in one of the activists falling into the water and getting her leg sliced open by a propeller.
The video also shows how one of the sailors jumped into the water to rescue the activist, who was later evacuated to a hospital in a military helicopter. The Ministry of Defence took advantage of the incident and tweeted the following comment:
— Ministerio Defensa (@Defensagob) November 15, 2014
The tweet caused indignation among netizens, and although #CanariasDiceNo[Canaries say no], Armada, and Greenpeace became trending topics in Spain, several dozen people denounced the navy officials as shameless, lying, cynical, manipulating, hypocritical, and even traitors and demagogues.
— iugatore (@iugatore) November 17, 2014
— Kikiño (@_kikelt) November 16, 2014
— El Obtu (@elobturador) November 17, 2014
One of the Greenpeace boats was skippered by Brazilian activist Ana Maciel, who had spent spent two months in a Siberian jail in 2013 after being arrested by the Russian army in another attempt against the organization. She commented on the incident on arriving in the harbour:
Ni en Rusia fueron tan violentos; nos amenazaban con cuchillos y armas pero nunca nos embistieron así. Podríamos haber salido heridas seis o siete personas
Even the Russians weren't that violent; they threatened us with knives and weapons but never attacked us this way. Six or seven people could have been injured.
In the Spanish Congress, socialist member from the Canary Islands Patricia Hernández blamed the Spanish government for the navy's actions:
El ejército no está para defender los intereses particulares de una multinacional del petróleo, mucho menos poniendo en riesgo la integridad de civiles desarmados.
The armed forces do not exist to defend the special interests of a multinational oil company, much less when it puts the physical integrity of unarmed civilians at risk.
Minister of Defence Pedro Morenés justified the incident in the following way:
La armada estaba ahí cumpliendo órdenes en su condición legal de agente de la autoridad. (…)
En cuanto al incidente de la caída a la mar de la activista italiana, (…) fue rescatada, atendida y evacuada por la armada española, lo que agradeció expresamente el patrón de la embarcación de Greenpeace.
The navy was following orders in its capacity as a legal agent of the authority of the state (…) As for the incident in which the Italian activist fell into the sea, (…) she was rescued, attended to, and evacuated by the Spanish navy, for which the skipper of the Greenpeace vessel specifically expressed his gratitude.
However, Joel Stewart, captain of the Greenpeace ship the Artic Sunrise, condemned the violence of the attack:
En 25 años con Greenpeace, nunca había tenido una acción con una persona herida grave (…). Ha sido una reacción agresiva, muy violenta. (…) ahora la protesta sigue en las calles, y si el Gobierno no escucha habrá que echar a este Gobierno.
In 25 years with Greenpeace, there has never been an action against us causing a person to be gravely injured (…) It was an aggressive, very violent reaction (…) now the protest will continue in the streets, and if the government does not listen, then it will have to be thrown out.
Undeterred, the Spanish government has kept up its aggressive campaign against Greenpeace, initiating proceedings to sanction the organization and impounding the Arctic Sunrise in the port of Arrecife (Lanzarote), demanding a 50,000 € bond before it will release it. The Office of the Merchant Marine accuses Greenpeace of an “infraction against maritime traffic,” which is considered a serious offense punishable with fines of up to 300,000 €.