Vineyard Protests

The year was 1988 and Slobodan Milošević, then little known outside Yugoslavia, was President of Serbia. “Spontaneous” protests started to arise outside parliaments of other Yugoslavian republics. The protests were mostly peaceful but clearly intended to bully and intimidate and some criminal damage was caused. Milošević professed commitment to peaceful action. He accused Kosovo’s Albanian minority of harassment and intimidation of the Serb majority and blamed them for the tensions. Milošević enjoyed the support of the international community and the media, and the British government in particular, who wanted Yugoslavia to remain whole, to the frustration of those of us who saw him as little more than a demagogue and a thug.

In a completely different part of the world, in Zimbabwe, a man called Robert Mugabe was in charge. Having overthrown the earlier regime led by the white landowners, he championed democratic reforms and was seen as a hero in the minds of many Africans. And in the eyes of Britain who had been trying to undermine the regime of the white landowners and was so enamoured with Mugabe that at one point gave him a knighthood. One of the first of Mugabe’s reforms was a so-called “willing-buyer-willing-seller” land reform which was intended to permit the black tenants to own their own land. When the country’s economy declined, Mugabe blamed the difficulties on the white minority which “exerted a disproportionate control over the economy”. “Peaceful” protests broke out in which criminal damage was caused to the whites’ property and some whites were subjected to intimidation and murder threats. Mugabe, of course condemned violence — at least initially. I suppose it did damage to the protesters’ cause.

I have no doubt that Jo Birch will wonder what this has got to do with anything and will find my arguments “obtuse” and my point “difficult to follow” again.

The Voice of Islanders in the Guernsey Press on 5 November 2012 wrote that the violent criminal damage caused to SEM’s vineyards last week has done “damage to the protesters’ cause.” Others have echoed that sentiment.

But what cause do the protesters have that has any legitimacy?

The protesters claim that vineyards are bad for the environment, that they cause pollution of the soil and water table with copper due to copper sulphate sprays being used to spray vineyards, and that the spray also kills bees.

Vineyards, an environmental hazard? Not a coal burning power plant; not a nuclear power plant; not a plastic-burning incinerator which releases dioxins, which are probably the cause of the very high incidence of brain cancer we have on Sark, but — wait for it — … vineyards!

Here is a multiple choice quiz for my readers:

Do people in the world generally consider vineyards to be

A) A serious environmental problem?
B) An environmental problem but not a serious one?
C) A millenia-old agricultural practice which is not an environmental problem at all?

I am not an expert on agriculture (nor are, as far as I am aware, any of the protesters, whose leader is an artist, a painter I understand), so I have asked two colleagues who are.

The first one owns a small organic farm on which he grows all kinds of vegetables, and he also has a vineyard. His farming methods are fully organic. He grows food only for his own consumption, he does not sell any, and his reason for having his own farm is so that he can eat organic, clean, home-grown produce because he does not trust the stuff from the supermarkets. He uses no pesticides or herbicides on his fields, but he does spray his vineyards. “We wouldn’t get any grapes otherwise,” he says. I did not tell him why I was asking, but when I asked if spraying vineyards was a major environmental problem. He thought my question was strange but said that water and soil pollution were not an issue at all (the second colleague had already advised me that copper sulphate was a naturally occurring substance and that, to his knowledge, organic farmers used to use it for spraying on potatoes to kill blight spores). He said some people might say that the sprays kill bees (I had not told him that this had been mentioned as a potential issue) but that this is not the case at all with modern sprays, that old-tech sprays which did kill bees have been banned in most places and that you might still perhaps be able to buy the old-tech sprays in some highly undeveloped parts of the world, but that he did not know where to get them.

The question of copper pollution of groundwater has to be considered in context. I understand that a number of blonde people on Sark have seen their hair turning green after washing because of the green copper oxide in the groundwater. Now I’m not sure what sort of concentration of copper in water is required for one’s hair to turn green by washing, but I guess it must be in the parts per ten thousand, whereas the amount of water pollution with copper caused by copper sulphate sprays (if there is any at all) must surely be measured in parts per billion.

Quite apart from the violence detracting from the protesters’ point, the violence is the point. It is representative of who and what the protesters are, and what is their mindset and their methods.

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