By Robin Boardman, first published by Writers Rebel
Fresh-water springs come up through bitter brine.
Arriving in Portugal in the spring I met a painfully familiar challenge – Covid. The once ubiquitous, now furtive flu hurled me into isolation and despair. I have chronic migraines and fatigue from the last time I caught Covid, so I was seized with the dread of what this second iteration would bring. And sure enough, my first weeks in a beloved country became clouded by illness. Then a ray of light broke through. Ocean Rebellion was coming to town.
Last year, Ocean Rebellion had protested outside the UN Oceans Conference in Lisbon, decrying the wanton destruction of the world’s largest ecosystem. Now, its star Portuguese activist, Rita Cruz, was continuing the legacy of Water Day. So when my fever cleared, I called her to offer my services as a mermaid corpse for the upcoming performance by the Merpeople who state:
“All life is connected to, and by, the Ocean. The death of the Ocean is the death of magic, the magic of our imaginations. The Merpeople represent the ‘death of magic’ by their entanglement in our cruel industrial fishing methods. They help reconnect us to our childhood wonder of the Ocean and warn us this wonder will soon be lost.”
In Portugal, the struggle for water is fought on multiple fronts. At sea, one of the most disastrous practices is bottom trawling. Across the seven seas, boats drag jumbo jet-sized nets along the seabed to catch fish. This heavily subsided fishing is estimated to emit more CO2 than global aviation and waste 50kg of fish for every kg that arrives on land.
On land, they face the largest open pit mine in Europe. Planned in the World Heritage Site, Covas de Barroso, the Lithium mine will use 510 million litres of water every year. The Iberian peninsula is already suffering from its driest climate for 1,200 years. In April it broke the record by hitting 39C. In the arid Alentejo region, agro-industry sucks 90% of water to export fruits and flowers. The current forecast is that regional water reserves will run out in 3 to 5 years.
Let that sink in.
The fate of the Ocean depends on us all.
Our interventions depend on your support.
Food and water security are failing. Droughts and desertification are rising. This is the beginning of a nation’s collapse.
It was against this bleak backdrop that my partner and I joined the Merpeople’s performance. On the busy shores of Lisbon’s urban beach, torsos bared, we were coated thinly with blue and white paint, and my partner’s face lit up as a fellow-mermaid transformed her appearance. That feeling of being in the rebel community is one of the sweetest in life, and it struck me that when you’re surrounded by caring, free spirits, you’re at home – no matter where.
We transitioned to our positions, squirmed into flippers, donned crowns of washed-up plastic waste and flopped on the beach steps while nets were cast over us. Transformed into a captive human fish, I drifted into a meditative gaze as the crimson sun waned into purple darkness. In my periphery, I could see the excited ogling of onlookers and the looming lens of a camera.
But all protests are subject to hitches. After 20 minutes splayed out semi-nude, the cool chill of a feigned death began to sink in – and our Water March supporters were nowhere to be seen. We took a blanket and hot-drink break and waited anxiously for updates. All marches should be slow. It’s part of their power. Disruption and spectacle shouldn’t be rushed. But as I felt my nipples turn an even darker shade of blue, I hoped this one would speed up.
The purple sunset sank deeper into the night. The esplanade street lamps flickered on and the scene took on a new atmosphere. We were no longer just the cold, dead remnants of a polluted sea spread beneath the spotlight of the metropolis that killed us: we were an ecocide crime scene.The chill sank deeper into my bones and I began to shiver uncontrollably. Just then we heard the distant bang of drums – with each beat bringing us closer to the ceremony. And then warmth.
The marchers circled us with shanty songs and aquatic addresses. They declared our oceans as sacred spaces to be protected and honoured rather than egregiously exploited. The mood was soothing, spiritual and ancestral. As we closed with a minute of silence, the word saudade came to me. There is no equivalent in English, but in Portuguese it means the melancholic longing for home and loved ones.
Oh, how our seafaring ancestors would cry out to see what has become of their oceans. With their imagined cries echoing out in the silence, we rose, and my worries of a returning fever drifted away. The air had taken on a new weight. We hugged and paid final homage to the waveless expanse before us, taking a moment to cherish one another’s presence before heading back towards the city lights, ready to gather and rebel again for the source of all life, water.
Robin Boardman is a languages student and one of the co-founders of Extinction Rebellion. He helped to lead a successful campaign to get the University of Bristol to divest its portfolio of £2m from fossil fuels and has been an XR spokesperson on various outlets such as the BBC, LBC and Sky News. He writes a blog on social change and is currently editing a new book on designing nonviolent revolution. Join his email list if you’d like to accompany him on this mission at: robinboardman.com
The fate of the Ocean depends on us all.
We’ll let you know what we’re doing to help.