Voices in the Basin

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
27 March, 2018
Editorial: 188
Fecha de publicación original: 9 noviembre, 1999

Don’t tread on the tail of an animal you don’t know

Over the next 50 years, the population of the Mediterranean basin will grow by 150 million new inhabitants. To which we can add the influx of those that move from other parts of Europe in search of sunny climes. Meanwhile, emigration from south to north will have reached biblical proportions with the added factor, non-existent at the moment, of a progressively ageing population both in the north and south of this area. All this, and much more, will put the area under unimaginable stress, impossible to quantify at present, especially as far as the environment and natural, food and energy resources are concerned. If we carry on trying to resolve relations in the Mediterranean using the logic of the rich North versus a progressively impoverished South, security will become the main credo to the detriment of cooperation. Will this really be the fate of the cradle of three present-day civilisations –Judaism, Christianity and Islam– and the cultures that gave birth to the concepts of democracy and the humanist tradition? Can the Information Society open up new scenarios, unimaginable at present, that will noticeably alter present tendencies?

These were some of the questions posed at a Workshop on Cooperation and Environmental Security in the Mediterranean held last weekend in the port city of Cartagena. The meeting was sponsored by Carta Mediterránea, a private organisation whose objective is to act as intermediary between state and civil society via Debate Forums on issues such as the environment, demography, health, intercultural dialogue, education and, of course, economics. The meeting brought together by far the most varied group of experts I have come across at a meeting for quite some years. Seated around the table were geographers, engineers, sociologists, demographers, military personnel, educationalists, civil servants from local and central government, political scientists, desertification and energy experts and environmental and communication consultants (me). The aim of the meeting was to set in motion a process which will culminate in a conference at which 34 countries will have the opportunity to start explaining how they see development in the Mediterranean area over the years to come and what can be done about it.

The wealth of discussion and data supplied by those attending was impressive. However, in my opinion, the most important thing that came up was the idea that problems of environment and cooperation need to be viewed from a different perspective from those accepted at present without discussion. Reiteration of proposals unrelated to the real needs of those involved, the absence of suitable tools to allow the civil society to express its vision and make these issues the centre of the debate, are still the main obstacles we have to overcome. The North still hasn’t learned to listen to the South and this autism corrodes the best intentions and puts a dampener on the most sublime of declarations. If environmental policies remain confined to the area of “professional politics”, at all levels of the State, it is not difficult to imagine what part of the “Cooperation and Environmental Security” equation will be emphasised in the Mediterranean over the years to come. And, more security, more investment in security, is the safest way, for lack of a better expression, of encouraging conflict and desperation.

The problem is that this tendency might even get stronger despite foreseeable events developing on both sides of the basin over the next few years. To be considered amongst these is the progressive implantation of the Information Society. From an environmental perspective, this could mean, amongst other things, opening a serious breach in the autism of the North. The power of the media in the rich countries throws up a curtain of noise which obscures the real situation in developing nations. We only find out what is going on elsewhere through our own sensors, our own correspondents, our own media. We sometimes commit the “blunder” of inviting one of “their” representatives –generally someone educated in London, Paris or at Harvard — to explain how things are seen from the other side. But if there is one thing we have excelled at during the second half of this century, it has been in not allowing developing countries to express themselves personally in industrial countries.

How long can this wall of information last? And what will happen when it starts to come down? Our present vision of the environment will quite possibly change considerably when other voices, other realities, other perceptions are heard, above all if they are expressed through the feelings and spirit of the “other”. It seems to me that this is the only way that environmental cooperation will begin to make sense beyond formal declarations between States who break them before they are even signed. The Internet will allow individual societies themselves to explain how they view their problems and bring these views into their neighbours living rooms. In addition, at the same time, they will build up the basic resources for establishing sustainable environmental policies based on the transfer of technology and the dissemination of centres for training and research.

If we do not listen to them, if we do not develop the tools for listening to them, it will be difficult to accept that different societies coexist in the Mediterranean. That there are not common, standardised ideas on the environment in the Mediterranean because points of departure are too disparate. That the best scenery is not the green one because the geography is arid. That multiculturalism does not fit into a system with one political frame of reference. And that the challenges in terms of natural resources and food are inevitably related to the real possibilities of their exploitation, in the best possible conditions, for the local people. If their only imagined perspective is immigration or, failing that, becoming part of “industrial safety belts” based on activities that the rich countries do not want to host (processing dangerous waste, chemical manufacturing, etc.), as has been suggested in more than one forum as a way of “detaining” the human influx, then cooperation will just become a bad joke, something which we already have more than enough experience of.

We already know that developing countries have deficient telecommunications infrastructures. But, this should not only show us where the difficulties lie in spreading the Information Society and in allowing significant sectors of the population to share in the opportunities it provides, it also tells us where the priorities of the North should be orientated when they plan cooperation and environmental safety policies. Without the development of telecommunications networks and the guarantee of mass access via public libraries, universities, local administrations, etc., talk about cooperation will once again become just another card in the experts’ pack to be played by politicians in office. At the moment, this is the option. It is this that the Carta Mediterránea, or any other initiative of this kind for that matter, will have to transcend if they want to fulfil the objective of getting people to talk to each other and ensure that their messages contribute to the decision-making process.

​Translation: Bridget King​