Arriving in Venice at the road terminal of Piazzale Roma, I am struck by the towering hulks of several ocean-going cruise ships, moored at a port quayside that seems dilapidated and without proper services. Taking the ferry round the back brings me to the embarcadero known as Zattere, where I see police launches bobbing on the water.
Something is happening. A demonstration. A protest against those big cruise ships that plough their polluting way through the middle of the city, dwarfing its waterside houses and churches. Venice is built to a very human scale; it lies low on its waterline. These monstrosities are an insult to its humane values. And they reconfigure the delicate ecology of the Venice lagoon, bringing noise, smoke and pollution. Today their presence is particularly insulting because the authorities have licensed the passage of twelve of them past the cathedral of San Marco and the Grand Canal.
Local people are up in arms. Their demonstration is billed as a presidio rumoroso (a noisy picket), and they have set up a big sound system, pumping out 1960s dance hits (the twist is newly fashionable among young Italians) and Jamaican reggae — “Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights”. Their slogan is simple: No grandi navi! (No big ships!). In their view new policies are needed — to impose a limit on the number of big ships; to find alternative berthing facilities, away from the centre of Venice; and to develop a rational waterways policy to preserve the city’s crumbling fabric. They call on the world’s tourists to boycott cruise ships that start from Venice.
This June they organised a big national and international mobilisation. Activists launched inflatable rubber dinghies in a successful blockade of the cruise ships, to prevent them passing (1). In September, 50 protestors dived into the waters of the Giudecca canal, and blocked the passage of the ships for a while.
The operability of these cruise ships — and also of the large container ships and oil tankers — depend on continuous and ever-deeper dredging of the Venice lagoon. This is among many large-scale projects that fundamentally alter the ecology of the lagoon — including the MOSE (Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico) (2) system of flood defences supposed to defend Venice from its acque alte, the regular flooding of its streets and infrastructures. (Newsstands at Piazzale Roma sell blue plastic galoshes.)
MOSE serves the interests of the construction barons — il partito del cemento (the cement party), as they are known locally. The dyke works were scheduled, according to the funding law of 1984, to be “experimental, gradual and reversible”, but in reality, thousands of concrete pillars, up to 9-12 metres in length, have been sunk into the lagoon bed. The 1984 worst estimate for the expected rise in sea levels was 31.4cm, yet figures released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for 2100 range between 50 and 140cm, with 80cm the most likely. In Athens in September 2012 Paolo Pirazzoli, a marine engineer with the French CNRS, presented a paper at an international conference on urban flooding (3). He argued that the MOSE system will already be obsolete by the time of its (possible and late) opening in 2016. Radical solutions are required. One, proposed by local environmental organisations, would entail pumping seawater into the sub-urban geological strata, at a depth of 700-900 metres, making it “possible, indeed certain, to raise the whole city by up to 35cm over a 5-year period.”
The smoke and particulate emissions from a big cruise ship have been calculated as equivalent to the emissions of 14,000 cars a day, and this in a city without cars. This air pollution increases during the summer, with up to 12 “floating condominiums” moored in the port, their engines running permanently, despite their proximity to the working-class neighbourhood of Santa Marta. Campaigners protest about electromagnetic waves being directed through people’s homes and bodies from the ships’ permanently operational radar systems. There is audio pollution from disembodied public address announcements for the transiting passengers.
Palliative measures have been proposed. All ships moving in the waterways of Venice should use only fuels with a sulphur content of less than 0.1%. When moored, they should be provided with external electricity supplies to avoid using diesel engines to power their facilities. Their use of radar should be reduced to a minimum. The day-to-day running of the passenger terminal should be taken out of the hands of the autonomous VTP (Venice Terminal Passegieri) and put under the control of the mayor and citizens of Venice. There should be a commitment to principles of sustainable development, defence of the lagoon as a “common good”, and democracy in its management.
But most of all, the protestors want to get the big ships out of the waterways. They don’t trust the ships. The shipwreck of the Costa Concordia off the island of Giglio in January 2012, which killed 32 — and the subsequent sentencing of five of its crew for manslaughter — made world headlines (4).
Since the country has such a long coastline, it is inevitable that maritime matters feature large in Italy’s political life. Illegal migrants arriving by sea are at the top of government agendas. According to UN statistics, some 7,800 migrants arrived in Italy in the first half of 2013 — more than double the figure for the first six months of 2012.
When Italians watch the TV footage of hundreds of migrants arriving in overloaded makeshift craft with a high risk of death in transit (5) — or when they see footage of young migrants smashing up the centres where they are detained — they react with horror, sympathy and indignation. Some react with racism. Cecile Kyenge, Italy’s first black woman minister, said last year that all children born to immigrants in Italy should have automatic rights to Italian citizenship. There was an outcry: notes called on her to resign; a Euro MP likened her to an orang-utan; people threw bananas at her.
The Bossi-Fini law passed in 2002 has divided Italian society (6). It introduced a regime of forced detention for migrants. By law, all illegal/irregular immigrants found by police on Italian territory without documentation must be deported to their countries of origin. Migrants can be detained for up to 60 days. Helping an illegal immigrant to come to Italy, or housing undocumented migrants is a prosecutable crime, punishable with up to three years in prison. Italian teachers must report undocumented children. And the law now allows for the formation of unarmed citizen patrol groups. The result is a society in which migrants become non-persons, unable to access even the most basic public services (health, education, etc).
Not so long ago, Italians were themselves the victims of forced migrations, driven by poverty to migrate to other countries in Europe and the Americas. That history is told in tragic songs of emigration. One of the best known is Il Naufragio Tragico del Sirio (The Tragic Shipwreck of the Sirio), which commemorates the deaths of several hundred poor migrants in a shipwreck off the coast of Spain in August 1906 (7).
From Genova the Sirio set sail,
Leaving Italian waters for the journey to America. _On board you could hear the people singing,
All happy with their destiny.
Then the Sirio hit a terrible rock,
And that was the wretched end of so many, many people…”
Today’s migrants from Africa and the Arab countries also have their songs, about the miseries of life in the homeland, of hopes for a better future, and mourning for those who have died en route. Fast-forward to the end of the song about harragas posted recently on YouTube (8), and you’ll find a video of migrants crossing the Mediterranean. They’re in a little fishing boat, filmed on a mobile phone, the soundtrack is a man singing. A dolphin swims alongside them.
Back on the Rialto, my friends are chuckling about a mega-scandal in the MOSE project. A rich and powerful figure in Veneto politics, Giovanni Mazzacurati, has been put under house arrest, as part of a police operation with raids on over a hundred offices. Mazzacurati was Magistrate for Water and Waterways in the Veneto for decades, and more powerful than the governor of the province. When the magistracy was privatised he remained its president. He promoted the MOSE flood defence project, initiated under Silvio Berlusconi’s government. There were suspicions of a stink at institutional level, and now the suspicions are confirmed: there are charges of price rigging and corruption in the tendering process. Investigations are ongoing.
And the government (in place in September) now says it will act on the big cruise ships in Venice. The city is a Unesco world heritage site, and they feel the need to protect this common heritage. According to transport minister Maurizio Lupi, the government is fully agreed on the need to apply the Passera-Clini decree, with a ban on cruise ships passing through the Giudecca canal and the San Marco basin. No big ships.
Ed Emery is a writer and researcher. He is working on a PhD on the Arabic and Hebrew poetry of Al-Andalus.