Ben White Yucatan Diary
Progreso, Yucatan (January 3, 2005).
Things are beginning to heat up on the Mexican seismic front. Today journalists bounced from back to back press conferences across the 16th century city of Merida, the capital of the Yucatan province. First, they heard from the government that the seismic experiment slated to begin this Saturday out from Progreso represents a huge leap forward for humankind's knowledge of the Chicxulub Crater, combining the intelligence of five countries of scientists. They were also told that even though the tests do indeed involve pumping almost unbelievably loud sounds (up to 255 db) every 20 seconds during daytime across over 3,000 kilometers for almost two months directly into the living oceans, the experiment will do absolutely no harm.
As for the whales, dolphins, turtles, fish and countless other creatures, the scientists say they will just move on.
Only since actually putting my feet on the ground here have I come to understand a little of the human tragedy involved in this venture.
Here come scientists from around the world in a ship owned by Columbia University through the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory—the Research Vessel Maurice Ewing. With bills paid by US citizens through the National Science Foundation, they come here to the northern coast of the Yucatan to make sounds so loud that they can penetrate many miles down into the earth's crust. Never mind the fear people have here that this kind of repetitive shock waves could trigger another horrific earthquake across this delicate peninsula of porous rock honeycombed with caves.
And never mind that almost everyone along this coast fishes for a living, except for the few who eke out a living from a struggling tourist trade. Twenty to 25 thousand fishing folk along this coast. All of the little villages along the coast are fishing villages, or trying to be. Catches have been down by more than half over the last two years. Catches of the preferred fish are down more than that. One thing is for sure about these seismic airguns- they do not benefit struggling fisheries.
One of the main sources of fish is Scorpion Reef just offshore from Progreso. The other source of almost everything small and essential are the endless mangroves that separate the true mainland of Mexico from the barrier beach strip where Progreso is located on the northern coast of Yucatan. This vast experiment will affect both.
When I have talked with people involved with seismic work about the consequences of their work with local fisheries, they elbow me in the side, give a wink and say, well it's actually good for fish and bad for fisheries- we just move them along. The fishermen shouldn't be whining anyway because they are the main source of decline of the fisheries, they say.
I wonder if they would be so cavalier if they actually met these people. I come into a little town absolutely raw—an old gringo in a jeep who speaks barely acceptable Spanish—putting my flyers up on telephone poles and talking to whoever will listen. A couple of old guys drinking beer in the cool of a Sunday evening. I come over, greet them and hand the oldest one my flyer with the big "ALERTA" across the top, telling of this killer ship coming to the Yucatan. I tell them about it. More people gather around us. Soon there are over a dozen. All the men are fishermen. They have heard of this, a little. They have no doubt that the seismic test is really for oil, not just scientific knowledge. They ask me how the scientists know it won't cause a tectonic shift like in Asia. I tell them I don't know how the scientists can apparently be so smart and so stupid the same time. I show them the number on the bottom of the sheet where they can call if they see anything strange- lots of dead fish or a stranded turtle, whale or dolphin. I say we really need them to be our eyes along the coast. At this they smile big toothless grins and promise to help. These folks have a visceral sense of environmental awareness and kindness. They pray to the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Christian counterpart of the Mayan goddess of the Mother Earth. Unlike trying to curry support on an issue in the United States, they instantly get it and are eager for information and connection.
Now that we have a date when the blasting is slated to begin—this Saturday—a million strategic details must be ironed out, despite lacking large chunks of information. According to press leaks, the Maurice Ewing is not even planning on touching Progeso as planned and will be supplied totally by helicopter or launch. Hmm, I wonder why? Too bad. I was looking forward to the crew seeing all of the telephone poles along the little tourist strip in Progreso papered with our alertas.
So now we have to prepare a fisherman's boat to take us out and find them. Food, fuel, water, batteries, film. I went ahead and told the press today that I am planning on jumping in the water next to the ship to force them to turn their earth shaker off. Now a bunch of them would like to join us. Looks like there will be a couple of Mexican lunatic volunteers and myself to keep a human body in the water, one local fisherman driving his boat with a son or two to help, and the rest filled up with seasick journalists out on a mission to find the barco asesino, as it is called here in Mexico, after killing two beaked whales in Baja in 2002. I have arranged a small plane to fly out to find the ship and relay to us the coordinates.
After this journal entry is sent, I will go east along the coast road for a hundred miles or so to paper the poles of as many little villages as I can find. The sun is blasting, the iguanas and tarantulas are out, and the noreaster still flaps the flags and shudders the palapas on the beach. And this old activist is jazzed to be gearing up to battle again and happy to be getting such a warm reception. Win or lose in this fight, the argument will not be the same.
Thanks for everyone's good wishes. I wear them like magic amulets of protection.
Love and Revolution,
Yucatan Diary Day 2
Long day. Fifteen hours on the road. Yesterday I drove as far east as is possible along the coast road that runs intermittently across the top of the Yucatan peninsula, from Progreso to De Colores, stopping at each little fishing village to put up my alertas and talk to fishermen.
Imagine it—on my left is a narrow beach strip, first with fancy homes, then poor villages. On my right are endless mangroves. The perpetual ocean wind rolls across the road, thick with the smell of the swamp—salt, rot and fecundity. Frigate birds sail above, stark narrow commas with nary a flap. At one point I notice a pink smear against the dark trees above the water, stop the car and pull out my binoculars. Sure enough, hundreds of conch-pink flamingos, plus great white herons, cara cara birds overhead, white pelicans and clusters of ibises in the trees. The whole area looks like the Everglades did once long ago. Absolutely precious and irreplaceable. And it runs the entire length of the top of the Yucatan.
This time out I refined my sales technique a little. Coming into a village, I hit the little markets and chatted up the storekeepers, the nerve centers of the communities. Then I posted some of the alertas on the telephone poles. Worked like a charm. I realized that one of the reasons I am enjoying this most basic of grassroots activism so much is that it gives me a legitimate reason to approach these people who would normally be a little reserved being approached by the likes of me.
I walked into one place as a man was reading today's Por Esto. When I started telling him about the brochure, he lit up and said, "Oh, I was just reading about this," and turned the paper over to the picture of our Monday press conference with Rosario, my colleague in Merida, and myself pontificating from behind a table. Thus enshrined by the press, I was suddenly a rock star.
In another place, a tough old man sits in a dark corner of his store, his fisherman's face all sun leathered and wrinkled. I shake his gnarled fisherman's hand and give him a flyer. And he jumps up, tells me to wait for a minute, walks into a back room and brings back a very tidy manila file and opens it against the counter. Inside appears to be every article written about the Maurice Ewing in Mexican papers for the last year or so. You could have knocked me over with a feather. He then thanked me profusely for standing up for the pueblos in fighting this monster, grabbed my hand with both of his and asked for a bunch more of the flyers that he could pass out to everyone.
Unbelievably, the next stop was even better. I was working a zocalo, a village square, passing out the sheet and talking to fishermen. With one sheet left, I spied the local cop leaning against a pole talking to a middle-aged man. Thinking that I should give him one of the papers to let him know what I was up to, I approached the two of them and started my spiel. The middle-aged man introduced himself as Victor, the local school superintendent. "Would I be willing to talk to the kids at school?" he asked. "Sure," I said. "When?," he said. "Anytime you say," I replied. "How about right now?" he asked. "Vamanos, y mucho gracias a usted," I answered.
Minutes later we were at the school. Victor introduces me to the principal and calls all of the kids to crowd into one classroom. The teacher looks less than thrilled about Victor taking over his class, but the kids are happy about something new happening. About a hundred packed the room, with about 50 more giggling and shoving at the windows looking in.
I gave my speech, which was then elaborated on by Victor, who primarily seemed to be interested that anyone could actually make a living doing what I was doing. Indeed, I, too, am surprised and thank my lucky stars that it is so. Turns out the kids are the children of fishermen. All of them were especially interested that we were asking for their help to let us know if any stranded creatures wash up; that we need them to be "our eyes" along the coast.
Now just about every single fishing village from Celestun on the west coast of the top of the Yucatan all the way to De Colores has been papered by the flyers, and at least some of the people have eagerly taken the flyers. Every single person I talked to thinks this seismic test is a bad idea being pushed by arrogant scientists with the collusion of bought-off governments.
Much of this coast is an ecological preserve. The villages of De Colores and Rio Lagartos are smack in the middle of the mangroves and a big biosphere preserve with signs up everywhere to not dump oil or cut trees or shoot birds (and on how to avoid Dengue fever by controlling the mosquitoes). Many make parts of their living taking tourists out in their little boats to see the crocodiles, flamingoes and other swamp life. But all agree the fishing is just not what it was, and often the boats go out and return with only a handful of fish.
Now for the news, the rumors and the baloney flying about the imminent arrival of the Maurice Ewing. It appears that there are now serious concerns about this seismic study within the Yucatan government, at a time when the federal government is increasingly considered out of step with the states. Turns out there is one more stamped document remaining that the ship does not have. There may in fact be a way to stop this legally through the maze of Mexican courts. So today we scurry to do whatever we might on that front.
Now it is said that the testing may not begin Saturday after all. Apparently there is substantial concern that with an alerted coastal population, there will most likely be bodies found that will make the whole thing very embarrassing. The attempt is being made to pretend that this is all a study by Mexican scientists, but the truth about the heavy US involvement in the ownership and financing of the ship and the cruise is coming out.
Today we meet in Merida to plan strategy, see if we can find a volunteer pilot who won't charge us $700 for two hours of arial surveillance, see if any local Mexican folks want to jump in the water in front of the ship with me and make sure the fishing boat we are renting is ready to go when necessary.
If any of you good people know anyone who might like to help finance this effort, we could use it. Any donation to AWI is tax-deductible. I estimate that it will take about $15,000 to pull off this campaign, if we are lucky. That comes out to less than a dollar per whale and dolphin that the ship has a permit to "take."
Thanks to all for your help, for your prayers and for giving a damn.
Love and revolution,
Yucatan Diary Day 3
Back to the big city of Merida. Like going from the pine barrens of New Jersey to the Big Apple. A turmoiled day full of good news, promises of breakthroughs, collapses and sobering news.
First, though, for the travelers among you, my hot hotel recommendations in Merida. My requirements are simple. Ancient yet serviceable. An open inside courtyard with lots of big tropical plants but no caged birds is a big plus. Cheap is good. Ability to get phone calls and access to the Internet is the holy grail.
Two places. The first is the Casa Mexilio, a several-centuries-old home restored by its North Carolinian owner to what it might have looked like then, with the addition of lots more plants and winding stairways and rooms tucked away on rooftops enwrapped with vines full of flowers. Very cool. But what convinced me to book it on the Internet was the names of three of their eight rooms: Chico Mendez, Rigoberto Minchu and Frida Kahlo. I figured that this owner might just be a kindred spirit, and he is. My only small complaint was the failure of the staff to notify me of the large cat opera planned for the middle of the night with lots of singers taking part in great emotional arias to lust and unrequited love, or something.
But now I have found a true jewel. The Gran Hotel downtown Merida, for about $55 a night. A hundred years old, ceilings about 18 feet high, original tile floors everywhere, a balcony facing the park where I can step outside and pretend to be a dictator hoodwinking the peasants, big inside courtyard, water warmer than tepid and even a reading light above the bed—and a phone!
Okay, before anyone gets worried that I am having too much fun, on to the scary stuff…
The good news from yesterday was that there might be a way to file a certain type of legal paper called a recurso in Mexico courts to stop the Ewing from beginning. This angle is being pursued thanks to Juan Carlos Cantu of Defenders of Wildlife de Mexico and my friends in Cancun with Grupo Ecologica Mayab. But then I was told that the price of such a paper would be for us to put up the cost of what the Ewing costs each day to run, with no guarantee of getting the money back even if we win. The cost would be prohibitive.
Speaking of high costs, I also got a revised estimate of what it will cost to hire a boat and hire a plane. The boat will run about $340 per day with crew—$3400 for ten days. Even though it is more than I thought, I can't say it is unfair, especially considering the pressure the captain is under not to help me. Then I was told that the price I was quoted of $700 for two hours of flight time in a Cessna to find the Ewing was a good price!
To rub it in, I spent the afternoon doing print and TV interviews in the lobby of my new fancypants hotel. With every single Mexican interviewer that I have ever talked to, including those during the Solomon dolphin capture struggle and the WTO meeting in Cancun last year, their primary curiosity is how much our effort is costing, and who is paying for it. They are so accustomed to looking for the graft that it has become instinctive, I think. You have heard of this famous scam, haven't you? Environmental and animal activists, especially those who do direct action, are just in it for the money. All that passion and stuff is just a smokescreen.
Today Rosario, the excellent animal activist here in Merida who I am working with, told me that from everything she is reading, even though the Ewing lacks one final official approval of their daily agenda, it looks like they plan on beginning the blasting on this Sunday, the 9th. So, we are laying the groundwork to leave with the boat on Saturday, take a boatload of journalists along, go do an action and then bring the press back to land. Then we will return for as long as it takes, or until the money is gone.
The press has given me a new title that I considered using today when I returned my rent-a-jeep and had to fill out a form that asked for my occupation—escudo human, human shield. I like it. Sounds like a useful purpose for a body.
I realize that in a way I am playing a game with the universe. If I act like I am not worried about dying, if I can love this life and defend this world as flat out as I can without worrying all that much about consequences, maybe just to be perverse, the universe will choose to let me live long. Sort of like interviews with guys 108-years-old or so who give their secret to longevity: their cigars and whiskey.
Then I got another call from a good friend down here saying that a wonderful thing had happened and that someone important whose name she couldn't say on the phone was going to help us and that the Yucatan government was starting to rethink their approval and that she was sure that we are going to win. Yeah, well maybe. I take more stock in the prayers raining down somehow making a difference.
It does appear that the presence of the journalists and the publicity that we are getting right now will prevent an exclusion zone from being imposed around the boat. That means it is likely that I will actually have to pull this thing off and get ready to jump in the water next to the boat and stay there for as long as I can. If that transpires, and I am able to stop it for the time I am in the water, I will be putting out the plea far and wide for more people and more funding so we can last until the Ewing gives up and, like good Yanquis, go home.
I hope one good thing that might come out of the attention we are getting here is the power of small groups of unarmed individuals to stand up to big governments that have lots of money and still fight the right fight. From talking to all of the incredibly warm fishermen and their families over the last couple of days and observing how they treated me, they seemed to like most that what I was doing was opposed by their government (remember, there were small groups of Mayans still fighting the federal government of Mexico into the 20th century). I may have stepped into hot water on TV today when I was asked what I thought about the governor of the Yucatan saying a few days ago that he could do nothing to stop the Ewing. Stealing a line from my own Green campaign for commissioner I said that I couldn't see any purpose for a government except to protect the people and the earth. And if they were not doing that, what were they doing? The interviewer smiled at that one.
Well, that's how things are down here in Merida on this cool darkening evening just off the town square, where some kind of long tailed crow-like bird screeches in the treetops, where the sad horses stand in front of the dolled up carriages waiting for tourists, where the Indians spread tiny plastic sheets for displaying their kaleidoscopically colored shirts, sashes and little hippy purses, where the guy with the little stand twirls his orange peeler and fills the little plastic bags with the sections, and the bums take up residence on pieces of cardboard across the hard stone benches.
Keep them prayers and good thoughts coming. Many thanks to all.
Love and revolution,
Yucatan Diary Day 4
Today is both Three Kings' Day and the 463rd anniversary of Merida's founding, so the main square is gearing up for a major shindig. Kids are walking around with cheap glittery paper crowns and costumes to represent the three "bad" kings that, I am told, skedaddled when Jesus was born (somehow we missed that part of the Christmas story when I was growing up). A sound stage is up and they are testing big fuzzy bass notes now, sort of like having one of those boom box cars the size of a church go by, or hearing the Maurice Ewing ramping up.
Speaking of my looming nemesis, rumors abound. The press has caught fire with the subject now and apparently they just can't get enough. The front page story of the Yucatan papers sold at one of the innumerable corner stands features a long article and picture of the Maurice Ewing (peaking out from all of the rows of bags of chips and lottery tickets). The article in the Por Esto from a couple of days ago has four pages in the middle on what the scientists say, what the government says, what our side says. It even carried the complete lists of dozens of international groups that have signed onto our statement opposing this seismic blasting of the Yucatan coast. Today they carried a picture of one of our alerta fliers (designed and rushed by Bryn Barnard) tacked to a telephone pole. Mexican activists have long accused the press of being bought, and indeed there was a time when reporters routinely collected checks from politicians and labor union leaders for favorable treatment. But I find the Mexican press 10 times more interested in environmental struggles than the North American press (you don't refer to the "United States" down here because this is the United States of Mexico).
Some heavy hitters weighed in on our side in today's Tribuna de Yucatan (you know, the side of the earth, of life, of the good red road, the side of the greatest superpower on earth—the people not aligned with Bush). First was the Director of Fish for the Government of the State of Yucatan saying that the fishing activity for the entire fleet could be affected by the activities of the Ewing. Then, believe it or not, they asked Archbishop Emilio Carlos Berlie Balunzaran what he thought of the big tussle over the Ewing. He said that the position of the church was that all is well forever when we don't cause harm to the natural eternal. He ended with, "Great is the importance of preserving the animals, and all that has life." Couldn't have said it better on behalf of the Church of the Earth.
So the effect that all of this press attention is having is to make those opposing the test speak up while those who have had the unfortunate position of approving it within both the United States and Mexican governments appear to be scurrying for cover. The idea that we are all being asked to swallow by these really smart geophysicists and officials is that even though this is admittedly a huge amount of sound being pumped out for a long time into a living system, it will cause no damage. Just today, I got through to a friend of mine who works for Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the Columbia University research arm that owns and operates the Ewing. She said that the difference between my position and theirs is that I think that there could very likely be severe damage and they don't. So I asked if they think that there will even be light damage. They will not answer this one because they must keep the consistent line that it is harmless.
Today I went shopping—an activity I usually despise, connecting the thought of it with the dreaded mall. The back narrow market streets of Merida are like an ancient grimy open air run down mall with 10 times more people, color, passion and real life: orange slice in plastic bags covered with chili sauce with a lime to squeeze over, carts full of dulces—flat pralines, rainbow colored blocks of coconut and fruits made of marzipan. Oh, I guess I am just mentioning the food. There was also the lady with the beautifully (and expensively) embroidered huipil dress, flowers across the yoke against pure white cotton, who also had a baseball size goiter growing from her eyebrow that has closed one eye. She hit me up when I first got here and I gave her 10 pesos. Now I see she is quite successful with gringos, going up to them and leaning in real close with a kindly grandmother's smile. People can't dig money out of their pockets fast enough. Then there is the skinny scruffy guy who appears to be either enlightened or totally nuts. He sports a pair of crimson sunglasses, a huge grin and a double-A battery protruding from each hairy ear.
I went shopping for a big picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe made of wood that might hold up for a little while in the water. Took me about four blocks to find it. I am going to make sure with my Mexican colleagues that I am unlikely to offend folks by using her picture as my own shield and protection when I jump into the water in front of the Ewing. As the Mexican equivalent of Saint Francis or Quan Yin, the protector of all sentient life, it would seem appropriate. The power of the image in arousing powerful emotions of allegiance among those I am trying to reach is also not lost on me.
Usually when I travel, I try to cram my reading with stuff on the history of the country I am visiting. Right now I am reading two very opposite books. One is the History of the Alluxes, the mischievous gnomes of the Mayan who apparently loved to cause havoc among the Spanish in the 17th century here in Merida and across the Yucatan. They are all male, little guys made of mud, and really clever. You need to put crosses into your windows made of wood and huano (the palm fronds the old houses are thatched with) and blessed with holy water to keep the little devils away when your town gets infested. Keep that in mind.
The other book is called Distant Neighbors and was published way back in 1986 about the government, economics, and social structure in Mexico. Early in the book, discussing the national character of Mexican people, author Alan Riding has the following description:
"Mexico's mestizaje (racial mixture) began with the mating of Spanish men and Indian women, thus immediately injecting into the male-female relationship the concepts of betrayal by women and conquest, domination, force and even rape by men. Just as the conqueror could never fully trust the conquered, today's macho must therefore brace himself against betrayal. Combining the Spaniard's obsession with honor and the Indian's humiliation at seeing his woman taken by force, Mexico's peculiarly perverse form of machismo thus emerges: the Spaniard's defense of honor becomes the Mexican's defense of his fragile masculinity. In practice, this takes the form of worship of the female ideal, exemplified by the image of the long-suffering, abnegated and 'pure' Virgin of Guadalupe and personified by each Mexican's own mother, who is seen as the giver of life and therefore incapable of betrayal."
Now when I first read this, I thought that the writer must be awfully negatively prejudiced toward the Mexican people in general and I almost put the book aside. But the rest of it is so balanced and apparently compassionate to Mexicans it makes me wonder if his theory is correct.
Okay, here are the latest rumors:
-The expected start of the blasting appears to be pushed back at least two more days, from this Sunday the 9th to Tuesday the 11th (fine with me. If we get two days delay for each day that passes, we will be in great shape).
-The ship is stuck in Panama waiting for either permits or crew.
-Several more documents must be completed with the government before the blasting can begin (with the favorable press growing, so does the number of documents they need. When was the last time you felt served by bureaucracy?).
-All authorities quoted are saying that apparently they do not have the resources (or, I believe, the will) to stop this human shield guy. One article about Semarnat, the Mexican office of Environmental stewardship, is entitled "Lava Sus Manos," which means "Wash Their Hands"— that in the conflict between the Yanqui boat and the Yanqui human shield, they were just washing their hands of it and not getting involved.
-It may be that just the presence of the boat and a dive flag without someone actually in the water will keep the Maurice Ewing from turning on their airguns. Maybe, but it will certainly take an initial dive to get their attention. I was also told that the Lamont Doherty is well aware of what I have in mind and will turn off their noisemaker if I get anywhere close.
So we are still hoping for the best and preparing for the worst. I am feeling increasingly convinced that through the resonance of our arguments with the Yucatecan people, we are going to beat this sucker, one way or another.
Goodbye all. Hasta mañana.
Now Merida beckons. Think I will get a cab like a big shot across town and have a bowl of avocado soup at the Habichuela Restaurant. Hmm. Hope everyone sleeps well tonight knowing that the bad kings have split.
Love and revolution,
Yucatan Diary Day 5
Yucatan Diary Day 6
Executive Summary (for those of you without the time to wade through all the touchy feely stuff): The Seismic Vessel Maurice Ewing is en route, expected to round Cancun today or tomorrow. The government says all requirements are fulfilled, but fishermen, enviros and local police fight. We gear up for midweek confrontation.
Last night the kids took over the makeshift stage below my hotel room's third-floor dictator's window facing the park. Starting slowly, even quietly, with some kind of traditional call-and-response song to call the crowd in, the six drummers and the one guy with the shaker gourd, suddenly broke into a furious polyrhythmic assault too fast to follow. Behind them, up the marble steps and on the platform surrounding the pigeon spattered statue to Señor Peon, wiry boys competed in break dancing with impossible arm strength—handstand pushups with feet kicking wide, leaning all the way backwards until feet almost touch the ground behind their head and then being able to pull back into a vertical handstand. Wow.
The drumming intensifies. One by one solo dancers appear in the space between the crowd and the stage, some just with all legs and arms flying at once and some with those swinging fire slings. They danced with total abandon, as if they were gathering the world into their bellies and throwing it back out again. One of the lead drummers—shaved head, no shirt, brown and muscled with drum suspended from his neck with a wide sash—courts the dancers, male and female, drumming to their dance. Drum and dancer, sound and fury, they play off each other. Faster and faster the music spirals until the distinction of whether it is the musicians making the music or the other way around disappears. Drummers, break dance spinners, dancers in front, they are all riding the snake—Quetzalcoatl lives!—moving to life, to sex, to freedom, to eternal potential and to everything that isn't dead and cold and rigid.
I hope that force will be with us over the next few days, because we are coming down to the wire here. The bad ship, the Maurice Ewing seismic research vessel, is slowly chugging around from Panama with a whole slew of very important scientists from five different countries. Today or tomorrow, we expect a patrol vessel from the Mexican Environmental Agency Profepa to leave Cancun and meet the ship. when it comes into the waters of Quintana Roo. There they are expected to inspect the ship's papers to make sure all of the conditions of the Mexican permit have been met. It may be that all of the certification for their observers is not in order. It may be that a paper filed today from a Yucatan state representative asking for a delay might grab hold.
But I am expecting, one way or another, that the Maurice Ewing will be here tomorrow or Wednesday. Interesting timing. About a week ago, my friend, animal activist par excellence and Mayan high priestess Araceli Rodriguez, said that we would be helped by a big wind. Tonight a powerful noreaster is predicted to begin and blow for days. Hmmm.
Turns out one of the scientists from Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (the owners of the Maurice Ewing and part of Columbia University) has been visiting the fishermen of Progreso and telling them not to worry: they will go out first with a camera that looks below the ship and fire their smallest airgun one time. If there is any damage whatsoever, they will pack up their expensive guns and very important briefcases and go home. Sounds reasonable, right? Precautionary? Well, not exactly. There are twenty airguns measuring from 80 to 850 cubic inches. All together, whomping away in a deadly chorus, all twenty amount to over 8500 cubic inches of airgun volume. The little 80 decibel tweeter after one shot would show no damage, everything would be declared ready to go and then the array could go ahead and start smacking the surrounding water with over a hundred times more power and pressure every 20 seconds.
Even though I still expect a miracle (indeed there is little else), the ways that this seismic blasting of the Yucatan coast will be stopped by reasonable and legal and proper channels, are quickly slowing to a trickle. Academics at LDEO have the permission of two countries and the applause of their geophysical colleagues, so they will apparently get the chance find out exactly how the Chicxulub crater was made, no matter what the normal citizens or fishermen have to say about it. It seems to me they have laser-like tunnel vision to so adamantly seek information to salve their curiosity regardless of its effect on the living world.
Scientists seem to have become our modern equivalent to priests because they have shown they can, thorough medicine and technology, save and extend lives. So we have given them carte blanche to screw with the world however they wish as long as they find us a free pass- a way for us to avoid the consequences of our collective abuse of this place. It's a devils bargain. In exchange, they are above us, with more latitude and less responsibility for their actions than the rest of us mortals. You and I are not permitted to play with brutal toys the size of this one. Blessings on those scientist friends of ours with the courage to challenge this moral corruption of their profession and stand up for the whales at great professional jeopardy.
The boat is ready to go. We are making the dive flag to fly and the pole mount for the Virgin of Guadalupe. We may have other fishing boats along with us, especially the first day. My daughter Julia is flying in tomorrow to help hold the AWI video camera and drive away homesickness.
I know that this confrontation will come out just fine. But even in the contemplation of jumping in front of this boat, I start to see life as if it were finite, just a temporary gift. The little detail we all successfully forget. That makes ordinary color and movements and nuances stand in relief. Makes me grateful. Makes me wish I spent more time with my family.
Peace to all. Please send good thoughts or whatever else you have lying around.
Love and Revolution,
Yucatan Diary Day 7
Executive Summary: The Maurice Ewing is coming, but not here yet—thumpa thumpa thumpa—like the shark in Jaws, ever closer. It's expected tonight or tomorrow in test area north of Yucatan. Press coverage leaps international, thanks to this diary. Alert grandmothers and their contacts. Still looks like Thursday is Get Wet Day #1.
What is it about color in the tropics? Is it just me or does there seem to be twice the number of primary colors down here as in Washington state? Is it that there is just 10 times more light in the Yucatan than the northwest, and that it splinters into jillions of micro-colors upon striking the hard ground and flies into the eyes of artists?
At the market, some vendors sell nothing but habanero-almost-too-hot-to-eat peppers. They sort through a huge pile of both green and orange ones and then build these tall delicate pyramids of the fluorescent shiny orange ones, looking like a psychedelic version of that dripping cathedral in Barcelona.
All of the traditional women walk about awash in colors all the time—little pools of bright flowers across the front, back and shoulders of their white outfits, with just their kind brown lined faces floating there, graying hair back in tidy buns, tied with more bright colors.
I have been building and translating a chart to give an inkling of the depth of our global collective ignorance on the subject of what effect a pulse of sound the volume of 255 decibels (like the Ewing hopes to hit the ocean with every 20 seconds) would be expected to have on the creatures that live within the big rectangular test area across the top of the Yucatan.
Across the top of the graph, leaning to the right like dominoes about to fall, are the names of some of these creatures. There are, of course, hundreds of species. But lets say we pick 20: beaked whales, sperm whales, bottlenose dolphins, boquilete fish, sea turtles, benthic organisms, rays, sharks and on until we get 20.
Across the left side of the graph are horizontal columns with questions. Like, at what point does one hit with this sound cause a startle response? Injury? Death? How about multiple hits? How many times might one creature be hit by one airgun discharge as it bounces from the shallow bottom to the surface and back again? What are the synergistic effects between the seismic airguns and the two active sonar arrays the Ewing has also blasting away at more than 200db?
It will be easy to think of at least 50 of these questions. When you combine the questions with the particular answer for each species, that gives us a thousand things we don't know, just to begin with. And the answers to any of these questions might take years to figure out even if we are cruel enough to try.
But after this sad exercise, the question that jumps out to me is why is the burden of proof on us normal citizens of two countries and more to prove this thing is unsafe, long after the bodies have been washing up? Why isn't the burden of proof on the scientists to prove their big whomping toy is safe before being allowed to play with it outside of their sandbox?
In the realm of governmental controls, they are allowed to do this stuff through the smokescreen of the word mitigation. The same word is used for why it is ok to destroy 2,000 year old redwood forests in California as for why it is ok to put enough sound to permanently shiver your timbers into the living waters around Mexico. All they have to say is that we are going to do all this stuff to minimize the effects, we are going to do absolutely everything we can to be careful, except of course for limiting the amount, volume or distance covered by our blasting.
Their (the bad guys) entire claim to safety is based on a concept they know is wrong: that the onset of problems with sound and marine mammals is at a minimum 180 decibels. They figure, with perfect concentric spreading, their source diminishes to 180 after about a kilometer, and with marine mammal "experts" looking hard into the waters, they will be able to see any before they come into harms way. Baloney.
The US Navy and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) collaborated on a modeling of the sound that killed the beaked whales in the Bahamas a few years ago and came up with 138db as the median level of sound that hit those whales. Many stranded. Not one of the population was ever seen alive again. The sound the Ewing puts out is above 138db for far beyond the horizon from the bridge of the ship. Plus, the people in the world most expert about beaked whales say that with their inconspicuous blows and dorsals, the chances of spotting them on a perfect day is about 1 percent. It appears this detail didn't overly worry the permit givers in the United States (in the NMFS part of the Department of Commerce), who permitted the ship to work at night, too. At least the Mexican government stopped that.
You don't have to prove your mitigations work. You don't need to do any population studies before or after. You just state clearly your little fantasy of how easy it is to clean up your big mess, how you are going to try real hard to reduce mortalities (at least of the glamorous megafauna), then you can blast away until you learn what you want to, and then get your selves back to your nice homes in the States. Its the awesome arrogance of the thing that gets to me.
In 1971, my teacher Rolling Thunder told me that it would be okay to hang around him for a while. I stayed for 18 months. When I first got there we were sitting in ragged old overstuffed chairs in his living room. He made me nervous by looking at me in a piercing way from under his huge wild eyebrows, squinting against the tobacco smoke rising from his corncob. Finally he said,
"You have an inherited spiritual disease. Your people have already taken our land, our health, our sacred things, our ancestor's bodies, and now you want our knowledge. You are arrogant and all full up with yourself. You have to humble yourself and cure your arrogance before you will free up space to learn anything. See that hill? I want you to go up there and find the worst, ugliest, scraggliest bush you can find up there, whatever is ugly to you. Then I want you to sit there and look at it. Moving. In the wind. Drenched by thunderstorms, lit by lightning, and stung by sandstorms. I want you to stay there until you honestly believe that old bush is at least as good as you. See you later."
Like an addiction, I am still not healed. But one of my self-treatments is direct action. To try to serve, stand under: understand.
I think about the Mayans who live across this hard land. Many have lost their little chunks of barren limestone where they could at least plant corn and beans. Many have been forced into the cities to work at the lowest wages in lousy jobs (a new friend here works seven days a week at the fish market, 10 hours a day, for less than $50). But many still make their living from the sea. And almost all are held together by their rock steady devotion to the old ways, by the grandmothers and by the ceremonies that connect them to the land and the spirits.
The Maurice Ewing has every intention of coming and taking without asking or getting permission from the people who will be affected, much less the whale and dolphin or urchin nations. Then it leaves. With knowledge derived by raping a whole sea. No. Unh-unh. Not this time, Maurice. Go home. Call it a day. Figure out better ways to find out stuff.
We are all set, ready to go. Tomorrow we buy food, take it to the fisherman's boat that we are using, pack some blankets and a couple of towels. What else? A book, wetsuit, Virgin of Guadalupe, cameras, coat. Trailing all of your prayers like flowers on the waves.
Ready to load up the journalists early the next morning and head out. Anything can happen.
Love and revolution,
Yucatan Diary Day 8
Merida and Progreso, Yucatan.
Executive Summary: The Progreso port Captain changes his mind and declares Manuel Jimenez's boat, the Alacran Reef, prohibited to take human shields and reporters out to confront the Maurice Ewing. Further, he sends a message to all of the fishermen living along the entire northern coast ordering them not to assist us. Maurice Ewing is here, but as far as I know, not yet cleared for blasting. We explore alternative means.
This land has suffered such a long history of successful brutality, only a fool would think that the forces of life and beauty and wonder would triumph today over pure brute power and money. Yesterday I learned about the huge 16th century stone cathedral that dominates the main square in Merida about 50 feet from where I now sit typing. It was built on the same site as a destroyed Mayan temple. Using the same stones stacked by Mayan slaves.
Last night we got the word that Captain Alt Luis Isauro Contreras Garcia (email@example.com), the captain of the port of Progreso and all of the other ports in Yucatan state, had decided to just say no. He refuses to issue permission to fisherman Manuel Jimenez to take six journalists, three human shields and crew out in his boat, the Alacran Reef, to meet the vessel. Plus, he has ordered all of the collectives and fishermen along the coast not to help us.
Then this morning, gleaning the morning crop of newspapers, I discover that Captain Garcia also was quoted as saying that the Ewing was, for the moment, prevented in beginning experiments. So, for the moment, stalemate.
Except that I expect the Ewing will be cleared momentarily. And the threat I have had explained to me is formidable. The Mexican Navy is allegedly planning on "protecting" the Ewing from the likes of me and my other mojado (wet) brothers. If I jump into the water next to the Ewing, their plans are to immediately haul me away. "To deport?" I asked. "No," I was told, "Just take and keep."
I think about the time we were trying to stop the cutting of Rocky Brook old growth forest near the Dosewallips River in Washington, that last day when 200 of us broke through the police do-not-cross line to march to the little 55-acre forest in jeopardy. Rocky Brook was a refugia, the last area in the whole watershed with the original flora and fauna, to be left for all time to re-seed the surrounding clear-cut National Forest. This is what they were cutting, the seed bank of life, leaving no trees, right down to the salmon stream.
Once through the line, we started marching the five miles or so to the forest. Got just far enough, rounded a corner to find a line of police dogs and a hundred cops with bunches of those plastic handcuffs hanging like garlands from their wide leather belts. We scattered. Pursued, I climbed a tree, of course. They were able to cut Rocky Brook with the might of lots of guns and dogs and cops. The armed might of the state.
Fight like water. Water doesn't fight back, but it surrounds its obstacles. All those little drops of rain. Insignificant little things. One by one hitting the ground, or the old buildings here in Merida with the melting stone faces. Water perseveres. It never has to hurry. Water always wins. We are as water.
Sometimes we win by losing and our opponent loses by winning. If the Ewing and Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory pull off this assault on the seas over the objections of just about all of the Yucatan peninsula with the use of the Navy and multiple flyovers, with the world finally paying attention to the drama, they lose. They cannot put this particular genie back into the bottle now.
I leave Merida tomorrow to look for other boats we can use. I will go back to talk to the fishermen in the little ports along the north to see if they have been so pervasively intimidated as reported. I will not chose, however, any action that could lead to an even tougher life for any of them—if they or their boat is threatened. If anyone out there knows someone with a boat in the Caribbean or Florida that they would like used to protect the life of the Yucatan, please have them contact Susan at AWI in Virginia at 703-836-4300. If prevented from leaving a Yucatan port, maybe we can come in from somewhere else.
The news coverage is, perhaps predictably, rising to a fever pitch, just as I wish they would go away and let me figure out how to go around the obstacles and carry on. Agence France, London's Guardian, AP. Radio interview tonight. Big press conference tomorrow. My picture is in the Por Esto today with the headline, "BENJAMIN WHITE—YES I AM SCARED." I am weary of it all and just want to join this battle. But never before has a seismic test anywhere been so hard fought, with the din of battle being heard around the world. I see from the Lamont Doherty Web site that the amount of seismic shots has been reduced 38 percent from that "originally planned" in order to reduce the potential effects of their sound blasting. We have the seismic industry scrambling to clean up their act, which is highly in need of it.
I will do anything that I can think of to get out next to that blasted blasting ship. Even though I generally distrust true believers of any path, I have not the slightest doubt but that this seismic experiment is a really bad idea. But if I am unable to stop the ship with this mortal coil, I will start patrolling the northern coast for bodies of my brothers and sister critters who have no choice but to be too near to the ship. I will increase my canvassing of the fishermen for their help. My understanding is, with only an Incidental Harassment Authorization in hand, the death of one whale, dolphin or turtle would exceed the ship's permit from the United States and cause the "re-initiation of the public consultation process," meaning the jig would be up. I called the Office of Permits of the NMFS from Merida last week and asked for an explanation of exactly the things that could shut down this study. For example, if we find an endangered turtle dead from no apparent reason on the beach, is this enough? Or will there then be a big argument as to whether the Ewing caused it? I have learned not to trust the process. We'll get right back to you, they said. A week later still no answer.
I am in this for the long haul. After over 30 years of activism I shall not be daunted by a bad day. I want to stop the Ewing from blasting these waters. But I want more to get international regulation of the release of manmade sounds from seismic, sonar and ship traffic. Weirdly, a brutal victory of the Ewing here could generate such global antipathy for this antiquated method of obtaining information that it will serve the greater effort. I hope so. We will be going to the UN this year to make our argument. Of course, it hasn't escaped our notice that we are stepping on the toes of the oil and gas industry as well as the military industrial complex.
But what's the fun of going after easy targets?
Mexican culinary mysteries to close the page:
Why is it that Mexicans only eat sea animals (fish and shellfish) during the day, never at night?
What are those roots for sale that look like giant garlic?
How does the twirled leaf I bought from the Mayan grandmother cure nose and throat problems when swirled around the mouth (but not bitten) 9 times?
Why is lime and pepper put on everything, especially sweet things?
Like other tropical places, the curtain of night doesn't fall slowly but of a moment. It is light and then it isn't. I give thanks for the lessons of another day. Death has no struggle. Give this fool life.
Love and revolution,
Yucatan Diary Day 9