This episode of FRICTIONS explores the on-going socio-spatial conflict at the Port of Piraeus, Greece, where local citizens are contesting the plan for port expansion.
[Sound of the march against COSCO expansion, recorded in Piraeus, June 25, 2020]
In June 2020, citizens of Piraeus – a port city near Athens – marched loudly towards its maritime edge. Already the largest port in Greece, Piraeus is now scheduled for expansion. These people got together to reject it.
In 2016, following austerity policies, the port was sold to the corporation COSCO. It is now planned to be an important transit hub between Asia and Europe – one more node along the new Maritime Silk Road. The expansion of the port, in such a densely populated area, is creating multiple conflicts.
Dimitra Vini: “We are protesting against the pollution, atmospheric pollution, pollution of the sea, for the noise, visual pollution, because we see all the time cruise ships and ships.”
Dimitra Vini is a paediatrician and expert in public health.
Dimitra Vini: “We are protesting about our environment, about our sea, about our town, about our health, and our life in our city. Especially, we are protesting against a new port.
It is a very big port – to construct six new positions for cruise ships, a new generation of cruise ships, and this port is constructed on our coast, not in the harbour, in the port that already exist, but in a new place. So this is the biggest problem we have, we don’t want another harbour in our town.”
Dimitra is also a local counsellor for Piraiki peninsula, representing the group Όχι λιμάνι στην Πειραϊκή (OHI LIMANI STIN PIRAIKI), or, “no harbour in Piraiki coast”. This is the largest municipality of the four that surround the port, with fifty five thousand inhabitants.
Dimitra Vini: “COSCO’s philosophy is expansion. It also wants now to expand also on the other part of the sea. In this moment, COSCO has in all Piraeus town - in all the municipalities of Piraeus - has the 55% of the coast, of the all coast of Piraeus. And COSCO wants to take more part of this coast. COSCO asks [for] more part in Piraiki, on our beach. This beach is the only part we have to relax, to drink a coffee, to swim, to walk; we don’t have parks in Piraeus, we don’t have trees in Piraeus. The percentage of green is 0,45 squared metres per person! This part of the coast where COSCO wants to expand is very beautiful, it is protected, because it is picturesque, there are monuments there, and it is crazy to construct a port in this beautiful part and to destroy this.
We have in this moment 11 sites for cruise ships. Every summer we have every day seven or eight cruise ships here, in the town! Near our houses, our schools, near, near, a hundred meters from the elementary schools. All this terminal for cruise ships will provoke a very big traffic problem, because every day 100/120 touristic buses will cross all the city, to Acropolis and then from Acropolis, and again to Acropolis…Today we already have a big problem, imagine when we have all those tourists, we cannot live here. In this moment we are the most pollutant harbour in Europe.”
Many people in Piraiki and also in Athens consider the new cruise ship terminal unnecessary. As well as concerns about increased pollution, they fear losing their only real public space: the coast. This is only one of several spatial conflicts triggered by the new port project.
Dimitra Vini: “COSCO wants to take our sea and our coast. We need this coast, we need this coast! This is our big problem, but there are a lot of protests in the other municipalities of Piraeus. In Salamina about a shipyard in the ancient place of a battle and in Drapetsona the protests are against the logistics, and the other one is Perama, another municipality here in the port because of the shipyard, they don’t want the [new] shipyard. All the protests of residents are against the place that COSCO wants to take from us: our sea and our coast. When we speak about the resident. When we speak about the workers… They have very big problem with COSCO because they make contracts for one day, they don’t have security [safety], when they have accident they go to the hospital by private cars, yes… It is a port like Dubai or Singapore.”
The case of Piraeus is one of many ongoing citizen contestations against port expansion. At the port of Suape’, Brazil, a civic movement is fighting against evictions and community displacement caused by the expansion of a shipyard to hold giant tankers.
In Valencia, Spain, citizens are fighting against the expansion of the port and port-related activity on a site of particular ecological value. The local population of Lamu, a UNESCO heritage site in Kenya is resisting the construction of a deep-water port that would destroy the country’s oldest living town. And so on. Why are there so many port conflicts, and why are they happening now?
Thanos Pallis: “Ports are noisy, ports are dirty, ports do not exist without sacrifice: a piece of seaside where we could go swimming, in order to create economic activities. By default port creates problems. Even if we didn’t have growth, we would still have to sacrify a part of the land that would really distract our daily life somehow.”
Thanos Pallis is a professor of port economics and policy at the University of the Aegean, Greece, and co-director of PortEconomics. He regularly contributes to the work of governments and international organisations shaping the port sector.
Thanos Pallis: “Trade goes bigger so ports want to expand, to serve the activities, so that means there is a social license to operate and this is what is challenged - and that’s my approach.
Things got a bit worse, or a lot worse because you have an industry that is increasingly governed by huge multinational corporations, and you have terminals that are managed by multinationals operators and corporations and this creates some digression between society and who is doing what.
If you have Piraeus and than you have the public sector, then you feel ok, it is me and the State. In this case you have the power or “the power” – ok, the power with brackets or no brackets to change the State, Government is my Greek society, my town hall, etc. my local town. But now it is very distant, they don't deal with the State, they deal with someone that is somewhere like in Copenhagen, or Hong Kong, and then you start to feel this distance with what is happening.”
While the port has always been both good and bad for its surroundings, what has changed is the ubiquity and frequency of protests against ports being built or expanded. This reflects new, more complex relationships between an increasingly corporative mega port infrastructure, and its local contexts. These relationships are becoming more conflictive.
Thanos Pallis: “Liberations process started in the 90s or 2000, by the mid 2000, even before the crisis, it was obvious that this model was to open the market to many privates has ended to limit the market to the few big ones and then, following the consolidation of the shipping industry, so you go to the port and you have less then 10 operators. Now with the OBOR initiatives you have even more concentration and more concentration is expected. COSCO was 10th and now is going to the top really speedily. The concentration is a problem, which will not be resolved. This is my feeling. We have ended up in few companies that really control the market, for good or for bad. This re-emphasizes the importance of port authorities. Port authorities are more important than how they were in the past, because you cannot be the operator as a public sector, but you could be the regulator. This is the only option that we have, because this trend will continue and this is very aggressive and we know that. This is not a Greek problem, it is not a COSCO problem; it could be Maersk...”
As global logistics develop within a non-regulated financial market, shipping corporations become more and more powerful in deciding on the spaces and rhythms of port life. This facilitates expansionistic and predatory behaviours towards the port’s surrounding, particularly when the port authority is privatised.
Thanos Pallis: “What COSCO did with the expansion is that they turned the project into a megaproject aimed at control the whole city, because their plan was to add hotels, malls, etc. They transformed a port project into a city project and for me this is one of the major problems. Because of this kind of privatisation they have the capacity of controlling everything, so they can change the project from A to B without any public control. And then in the implementation stage, with the environmental dimension they go as they like, because I am are powerful and I go as I like.”
Citizens of Piraeus are bringing COSCO to court over its lacking environmental impact assessment. Georgios Balias, is one of three lawyers working on the case.
Georgios Balias: “I have a case of the Council of State for the port of Piraeus, because there is a master-plan. It is a development plan for Piraeus port. The main problem is that the master plan has been signed without conducting an environmental impact assessment, especially a strategically EIA.
It is an unlawful default that there is not a strategical EIA because the European legislation, obliges authorities to conduct the strategical EIA, because the activities in the port provoke many environmental problems.
In my view the most important point of the legislation is the participation of public.
I think the great infrastructure like ports and airports must be public, because they are public goods. Without that there isn’t a normal life. I think that these infrastructures must be public, without the market. But this is a political option.”
It isn’t clear if the privatisation process led to the plan being approved without an environmental assessment. What is clear is the need for a better culture of transparency and consultation; here in Piraeus, local communities are keen to participate in the decisions that affect their space and daily life. Differing groups in Piraeus are uniting, despite their varied demographic and political alliances. Over the last three years, they have built up pressure with events, marches and an awareness campaign. They have also created an observatory. Citizens are documenting the environmental damage resulting from on-going construction at the port.
Dimitra Vini: “We were very constant in these public spaces like cafes, on the sea… everywhere. And we organised manifestations (demonstrations) so many people started to believe that something like this is possible. And we went to the elections and we had a very good proportion of votes, we elected to persons: me and another one. So after, we made more manifestations, we went a lot of times to meet the shipping minister and the environmental minister and we went in congresses, many, many activities to inform. It was very difficult to inform, why? Because no one in newspapers, no one on TV, no one on radio wanted to tell anything about this.
I am very glad for this resistance, people can resists. We are a movement that wants everyone, we don’t [are not] interested in what people vote, if one vote in conservative, the other in communist, we don’t [are not] interested in this.
I expect something very good from this, because we discussed with the people from the other communities, the other municipalities. And I expect that very soon we will have a common voice.”
Global logistics strongly determine a port city’s geography, its dynamics producing space inside and outside the port itself. But resistance also produces space, through new social formations.
Community perspectives on port expansion, their subversive capacity for imagining alternatives, and their organisation around it, are fundamental tools for building a critical spatial sensibility – much needed for a multi-scalar thinking of port cities.
[Song sang by a feminist choir, recorded at the march against COSCO plan of expansion. Piraeus, June 25, 2020]