An Economic and Ecological Disaster for the Whole Region?

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Container Harbour in Timbaki:

an Economic and Ecological Disaster for the Whole Region?

From available in German, English, Greek

For more than a year, Greek newspapers have occasionally carried reports on plans for a container harbour in the Messara region. Meantime things have advanced beyond the rumour stage. Outline agreements already exist between the Greek government and investor groups from China, South Korea and the Emirates. According to information from serious newspapers in Europe, especially in Germany, the construction of the container harbour already seems definite. According to the European parliamentarian Jorgos Chatzimarkakis from Crete, the project is “unstoppable”.

In the course of numerous discussions with local people I have realised that the level of information about the size and impact of such a harbour is not very high. No detailed information is available form the government, inquiries and petitions remain unanswered.

Some of the advocates of the new container harbour are dreaming of a dynamic upswing for the region, an economic boom, many new jobs and new sources of income. But is that not an illusion?

Facts and Problems:

1. New Jobs?

The planned container harbour is not a new medium-sized harbour for cruisers, cargo ships exporting Greek products, or fishing boats, it is a large-scale transit harbour for the distribution of containers! In all the known outline agreements, reference is made exclusively to a “transit harbour” and nothing else. This means that containers on their way from Asia to Europe or vice versa (as long as Europe still has something to export to Asia – meantime, more and more ships are returning to Asia from the USA empty) are loaded from one container ship onto another and stored here for only a short time. Local products as tomatoes, cucumbers and olive oil will certainly not be exported from this harbour. The kind of transit container harbour envisaged is a huge ghetto with strict access limitations.

The dream of many new jobs seems to be a short dream. Only in the construction phase would there be additional jobs and several contracts from the operators, assuming Greek companies are given such contracts at all. As is evident from existing modern container harbours, they are like huge ghost towns. Enormous un-manned cranes steered by computers and GPS systems move the containers at great speed; the fully-automated modern container harbours are computer-supported, digitized places. These activities require only a few highly-qualified employees. In addition there will be some badly paid work for unskilled employees on the ground. It is known that people from Albania, Moldavia, the Ukraine, Poland etc. are employed for such simple jobs in Crete, not locals. It is fallacious therefore to hope for many new jobs for the local labour market.

The security experts from the “US Customs and Border Protection” assess 9% of such containers as high risk (weapons, drugs, materials for terrorists, illegal commodities, etc.). Experts examine the contains with isotope detectors. It is doubtful that these security measures will be required in a purely transit harbour, where nothing is imported. However, there will be guards on the high walls and on the few access routes to this ghetto. Dream jobs?

2. Taverns and Shops at the Container Harbour?

Container ships are huge monsters the likes of which have not been seen so far in this region. The site of the military airport would never be sufficient for such a large-scale project. Large sections of the sea in the direction of Kommos Beach and Matala would have to be accessed and deep channels dug along the coast. These big container ships are 200 – 300 metre long and have capacity for 1,500 to 8,000 containers, stacked nine below and seven above deck, meaning up to 16 containers one on top of the other! The Greek Mercantile Marine Ministry assumes that 50 container ships would be loaded and unloaded in Timbaki or would sail across the bay daily. This would mean incredible noise around the clock, both in the harbour and in the bay.

As a rule, container ships are chartered for five years at a fixed guaranteed sum of US $ 10,000 to 30,000 per day– depending on the size. Here the general rule internationally is that “lying at anchor costs – sailing earns”. It is in the interests of the operators to keep docking times extremely short. So the ships are loaded and unloaded simultaneously and dock for much less than 24 hours.

Some of the locals are dreaming of new shops, restaurants and nightclubs around the harbour. But that also seems to be illusory. The small crews, between 11 and 25 maximum (usually Philippinos), are unlikely to leave the ships given such short docking times – and if they do, they would not have much money due to bad pay and the fact that they save it for their families at home. There will certainly be no seamen with striped pullovers, kitbags and a parrot on their shoulders spending a week in Timbaki for their amusement.

The currently largest container ship “Emma Maerks” is 398 metres (!) long – four times as large as the football field in Timbaki, and when loaded, it is higher than the highest building in the region; the big ferry to Piraeus would look like a small pleasure steamer beside it. What is more, it can hold over 11,000 containers. Only 17 people work on such a modern ship! When this monster ship wanted to dock in the new container harbour in Bremerhaven recently, an additional 425,000 cubic metres of sand had to be dredged out of the sea by special international contractors so that the ship could dock and turn.

3. Ecological Problems

The ecological threat to the whole region is obvious. Not only the Caretta Caretta sea turtles and their nesting places directly beside the planned channel would be effected, but also many other endangered animals and plants. Local and international biologists and environmentalists have finally begun to assess the expected size of these impacts and threats and to initiate the corresponding legal injunction procedures.

It is inevitable that not only the bay in question, but also the open sea and the beaches will be polluted! In addition to the continuously higher waves along the whole coast, the often underestimated proximity to the ships' huge undertow is destined to be a danger for swimmers and small boats. It is also a known fact that these ships bring microbes and various animals with them from foreign harbours. It will be another ten years before such large ships to obliged to exchange the ballast water (to stabilise the ship) which they take in from foreign harbours on the high seas and not in their harbour of arrival. There will, however, always be cases of alien sea organisms from distant waters being introduced. Biologists have indicated more than 1,000 different species of animal and plant that travel the world as stowaways with large ships. In the Thames in England an Asian giant crab is meantime thriving; in the USA the zebra mussel was imported in this way and is known to clog anything that is apparently tubular; in the Baltic Sea ship worms brought in from the tropics are causing great damage to wooden harbour installations and wooden ships.

The noise and light emissions will be enormous and an unbearable burden on the whole region. Not only will the different throbbing sounds of the monster ships be clearly audible far and wide, the huge diesel engines will be constantly running to produce energy during loading and unloading. This acoustic environmental pollution will be created day and night.

Thousands of strong floodlights will cause a visible cone of light 365 nights a year. The clear view of the starry sky, which is particularly brilliant here, will be a thing of the past. And all of this at the birthplace of Zeus, the God of Gods (Zeus means the radiant one; dyaus = glow, sky, brightness). The Greeks named their highest god after the clear sky. Henry Miller was also attracted to this region. It was here on Crete's southern coast that he came to the conclusion that this seductive experience of the close night sky can unleash an intoxicating search for cosmic breadth. He wanted to bathe in the sky here, throw himself into the blue of the heavens, hover in the clear air like an angel.

We spend much of our time here because of the high quality of life. This includes the stillness, the clear air and the feeling of being closer to the sky. In view of the threatening container harbour, the Cretan lyre player and singer Psarantonis high up on Psiloritis would never think of throwing rocks at the moon, he would angrily throw them at the persistently loud Moloch with its artificial light.

Serious and fair feasibility studies would quickly show that the container harbour's enormous energy and water requirements could never be satisfied by the available resources. This is a region that, given the ground erosion (deforestation, over grazing, fires), tends to suffer from a water shortage. People are of course initially bound to make negative remarks: Of all people you in the Messara region are suddenly concerned with environmental protection! Is it not the region where intensive agriculture means pesticides and a rising cancer rate? Is your sea not on the point of dying, with the layer of plastic on its bed? Do you not have an open smouldering rubbish tip? Are you not lacking modern sewage and water recycling plants?

But would a shift in thinking not be possible in the context of the justified rejection of the container harbour? The whole region is ideally suited, for example, for a new focal point: “organic fruit, vegetables and olive products from southern Crete”.

In the coming years the demand for organic products in Europe is sure to increase, especially given the number of food scandals everywhere. Even discounters like Lidl and Aldi have now decided to stock at least 20% healthy products; other supermarkets are sure to follow suit.

The building industry and its suppliers in the whole region could receive a new boost if the region's gentle tourism reaches a qualitatively new level: the renovation of hotels, guesthouses and taverns.

If modern sewage plants were installed, this would also promote the local building industry and its local suppliers.

EU subsidies are conceivable for such activities, but not for a transit harbour in an agricultural landscape with beaches and gentle tourism!

4. Container Harbour and Tourism

Should the container transit harbour and all the anticipated ecological impacts on the region become a reality, then tourism could disappear completely in the shortest possible time. The region, currently described in travel guides as idyllic and suitable for individual tourists, would then be designated in the same books as a horror region to be avoided at all costs. Thousands of families who have built up a living for themselves here would lose their income. This would effect not only the owners and employees of hotels, guesthouses and taverns, but also the many small business and shops who owe part of their income to tourists: local travel agents, car rentals, vegetable traders, larger and smaller supermarkets, bakers, butchers, newsstands, petrol station operators, etc.

The number of people who would have no more income or a smaller income as a result of the container harbour would definitely be larger than the very small number who might profit in the long-term, economically at least, from the harbour project. Just from the point of view of a collapsing tourist industry, the container harbour project would be an economic disaster for many people in the region.

5. Macro and Micro-Economic Aspects

In the past decade, there has been a dramatic shift in the centres of the world economy from West to Far East. Never in the history of mankind has there been an industrial explosion as swift as that in China. No longer does China only produce toys and cheap clothes, but also the largest portion of technological devices, such as computers, television sets, mobile phones etc. Under pressure from the Chinese, the West also provided the technical know-how. The threat for the West now is a labour-market and buying-power catastrophe. While the Chinese raise high protective customs on the import of certain goods, the local markets here are being inundated with products of all kinds from cheap-labour countries in the Far East. Is Europe on the way to becoming a purely de-industrialised bazaar economy? But even here there is a danger: initially whole factories in the West were bought up by China, dismantled and reconstructed at home, today the Chinese economy insists on taking the distribution and sales locations in the West into their own hands as well: the result of a globalisation that finally needs clear rules!

Meantime the servile attitude of western ministers and captains of industry towards their Chinese negotiating and contract partners is taking on grotesque forms. Problems to do with human rights (millions of Chinese migrant workers do not have the right to sue for their wages; lately censorship in China has been intensified), with patent theft and piracy and criminal pollution in China (whole areas are deserted, the water is highly poisonous and the air polluted) may well be being addressed, but the Chinese simply say that they are taking these problems seriously, smile, and carry on as before.

The prevention of the transit container harbour would not alter these problems in the short-term, but new messages could be sent from Europe, from a population that says it not longer wants to be the plaything of short-term international profiteering. More and more economic experts are warning about the disastrous consequences for Europe of “import penetration”.

The microeconomic aspects of the container harbour would impact Greece's economy. It is difficult to see what large and lasting economic advantages the Greek economy might have from a transit container harbour operated by a foreign consortium. The Greek state has to provide infrastructure – with EU loans. The operators of the transit harbour will be foreign investors – i.e., it will be a harbour under the control of Chinese or South Korean business people. It will be up to them what organisations they cooperate with, be they from Dubai or from Shanghai. The Greek state could gain licence revenues – but what are these compared to the above-mentioned local economic and ecological disadvantages for the population in the effected area?

Untrammelled capital interests on a globalised market without rules are focused on short-term gains only. In China we see whole industrial plants in the east of the country being shut down, dismantled and rebuilt in the west of the country simply because there, workers earn 30 instead of 50 cents per hour.

What would happen if after several years the transit harbour were no longer profitable because its capacity was too small or it was cheaper elsewhere? The valuable installations, cranes and technological apparatus would be taken away, the scrap metal would remain. Perhaps not even that – China is the world's largest importer of scrap metal. All that would remain would be a worthless ruin.

6. The Protest


- emerging groups in all the effected areas opposed to the container harbour,

- expressions of protest on different websites and in Internet forums in several languages,

- petitions against the project

the opposition is still uncoordinated and ineffective

The foreigners (still) living here are all against the container harbour, however, they can only support the protest of the citizens of Crete, they cannot act on their behalf.

What is more, the protest must be impartial – we are all equal in the face of nature and the general fundamentals of our quality of life. The sea does not ask the swimmers what political party they support, yet in one place it is crystal clear and in another it is polluted with oil and germs.

At the moment, scandalous faits accomplis are being created. As I write these lines, the media are indicating that a delegation from South Korea is in Timbaki. This is happing without the local people being properly informed!

But there is one big possibility. If the Greek Minister of the Mercantile Marine, Manolis Kefaloyiannis – who is from the northern coast of Crete – has actually said several times that the project will not be carried out against the will of the population, then he has to be taken at his word! This chance must not be missed.

The minister and other decision-makers and their wire-pullers must be publicly confronted with all the questions and problems addressed here. The widespread strategy in Greece of leaving the general populace uninformed and confronting them with faits accomplis has to be challenged. Local elections are scheduled for mid-October: What is the attitude of the respective political candidates to this problem?

Any protest action will remain ineffective without imaginative and media-effective actions locally, in Heraklion and in Athens. This can only be successful if local groups form who then gather for a large protest forum. The arguments and thrust of such a protest seem clear enough

At the legal level, experts must immediately list all the infringements of nature conservation laws – the laws on the environmental sustainability of large industrial projects in the EU! These must be established and corresponding suits prepared for the responsible courts, including the possibility of an immediate halt to building!

Then it would no longer be possible to find the following kind of article in large foreign daily newspapers: recently under the heading "Umweltschutz im Kriechgang (Environmental Protection at Snail's Pace)", the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung asked the implicit question: Is the local population actually unaware of the obvious problems?

On the contrary, the successful avoidance of the economically and ecologically unacceptable transit container harbour would be an enormous and worldwide boost to the image of the whole region and its enlightened and courageous population.

Christos Scholzakis, September 2006

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