From Drug Trafficking to Environmental Education

In memory of seven women who died in a boat trying to reach the coast of Melilla, seven life jackets were launched to the sea from the sailing ship ‘Diosa Maat’.  ECOLOGISTS IN ACTION

The ‘Diosa Maat’ sailboat was seized with 2,700 kilos of cocaine. Ecologists in Action has recycled it to raise awareness about the environmental problems of the planet.

The sailboat Diosa Maat rests until next season. They have been a long way and many stories that have left behind in each scale. This boat of Ecologists in Action is one of the tools that the NGO, which this year celebrates its twentieth anniversary, uses to raise awareness and show the environmental problems that affect the planet. Considered a symbol, Maat is an Egyptian deity that represents balance, universal justice and order. “It’s a more than an adequate name for a boat with an ecological banner,” they say from the organization.

The boat has travelled more than 30,000 nautical miles and has carried out a dozen campaigns of awareness, education, volunteering, actions of denunciation and scientific research. However, it keeps a dark past due to the use that its former owners gave it. In 2004, the ship was seized in the waters of Cape Verde with 2,700 kilos of cocaine thanks to a coordinated operation of the customs surveillance units of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and Huelva. His luck changed in 2007 when the National Audience gave it for educational purposes to Ecologists in Action.

Taking advantage of the overcrowding in certain points of the Spanish coast during the summer, the activists considered to have a boat “as a point of attraction,” says Theo Oberhuber, campaign coordinator of the NGO. In this way, activities aimed at “not only residents but also tourists” could be carried out and have a physical space for this.

That objective coincided with the work on marine biodiversity and conservation of the coast developed for years by the environmental group that, since 2000, began the search for a boat that would allow them to combine all these objectives. “It was slow to identify the one we wanted and until we got it, we were not clear,” Oberhuber recalls. It took four years. “On the website of boats of different authorities there were some confiscated and there was a sailboat that matched the characteristics we wanted: that it was not too big and that it was accessible,” he says.

A New Life for the Goddess

The boat had numerous holes in the compartments due to the search for narcotics. Despite this, and taking into account that he had a “more powerful than usual” engine, the NGO kept it. However, they could not start navigating immediately; first, it took a year to achieve the concession of the ship. Then, it had to be conditioned. “The restoration work was slow: fixing the roof, doing work inside the cabin … The best thing I had was the engine”, underlines Oberhuber, who at that time was the state coordinator of the organization and was responsible for monitoring.

A fortnight of volunteers from the Canary Islands and the Peninsula, coordinated by the gaditano Jorge Sáiz, took care of adapting it for almost a year. They installed a solar panel and a generator to produce electrical energy inside the ship.

Sailing the Seas

At the end of 2016, the vessel carried out its first awareness campaign on the aggression to the Mediterranean from the port of Cádiz. This was the beginning of an environmental education project during July, August and September of 2017. “We have covered all the coastal stretches of Spain, a bit of Morocco and North Africa since then,” says Oberhuber.

A monitoring committee evaluates each year the difficulties and threats to the vessel that are produced, mostly in the Mediterranean, and determines the thematic of the actions based on current events. Thus, campaigns have been carried out on the protection of sharks and bluefin tuna, pollution by plastic, the urban development of the Canary coast, the fisheries policy in Cantabria, the impacts of climate change and Mediterranean biodiversity, among others. . For this summer it is expected that the fishing and the Atlantic coast will concentrate the attention of the next campaign, the coordinator advances.

In addition, the sailboat has also hosted training courses in navigation and sports diving, research and conservation tasks in the National Park of Cabrera, the identification of biotopes and marine species in the park of Alhucemas or the documentation of the state of health of the posidónea Mediterranean “In 2013, we turned the ship into a floating laboratory. Two groups of seven volunteers dived in the Cies Islands, in the Atlantic National Park, to analyze invasive algae species, “Oberhuber recalls.

The study consisted in the mapping of three species of allochthonous algae – Asparagopsis armata, Undaria pinnatifida and Sargasum muticum – and in the evaluation of the effect they have on the environment. Likewise, the volunteers collaborated in the sampling carried out by CSIC technicians in the waters of the Cies Islands with the cephalopods Octopus vulgaris, Sepia officinalis and Loligo vulgaris

The best local speaker

For Paco Segura, coordinator of Ecologists in Action, the vessel plays an important role of visibility in unconventional environments and situations. “The task of raising awareness from the sailboat is an important complement to the one that is developed with other tools,” he says.

In Melilla they know it well. The Goddess visited the autonomous city for the third time in the summer of 2017 and stayed for three weeks. “Local problems occupy almost the attention of citizens,” says Manuel Tapia, spokesperson for Guelaya-Ecologistas en Acción Melilla, the local section of the NGO. However, “special occasions such as the arrival of the Goddess Maat manage to capture the attention of the Melillenses towards environmental issues that, in principle, seem distant to them”.

Tapia aims to the dumping of plastic waste to the sea as one of the most serious problems of the autonomous city. “It is causing the destruction of the marine ecosystems and they are happening to the trophic chain, and, therefore, to the fish with which we feed ourselves,” he warns. For this reason, in addition to a symbolic collection of plastics in an area of difficult access to the coast, a conference was held on the effects of marine debris in the ecosystem with the expert Sara Acuña.


The participation of experts of the organization is key to support the campaigns of local groups. “We are a relatively small NGO and the arrival of the sailboat and its support to our demand, with the organization of a conference on infrastructures given by a specialist like Paco Segura, represented a very important qualitative leap for our cause,” says Tapia.

The Melilla refers to the project of expansion of the port of the city that “has undergone a lot of modifications to try to justify the millions of euros needed to carry it out,” he criticizes. The spokesman of the environmental group argues that it is a work more “in line with the ruinous mega-infrastructure policy economically and environmentally for our country.” Likewise, he assures that following a census of Patella ferruginea, the presence of other marine protected species, such as Astroides calycularis and Dendropoma petraeum, was found in the northern breakwater of the port. “It is one of the reasons we use against the realization of the expansion of the port,” he adds.

The group also took advantage of the visit of Samuel Sosa, responsible for the area of International Organization, to make visible the task carried out by the Pro-Rights Association for Children (Prodein), led by José Palazón, which protects the rights of minors migrants, and demand that the European Union accept the status of a climate refugee. “Many Melillenses see these immigrants as a threat. A priority objective is to explain the reasons why these people flee their countries of origin, and how the social inequalities that cause these displacements have an environmental background when environmental disasters are not the direct cause of migration, “he explains.

During the scale of the boat in the autonomous city, seven women died drowned in a boat that was trying to reach the coast. For this reason, and to denounce “the tragedy that we are experiencing today with the crisis of shipwrecks in the Mediterranean”, the sailboat dedicated a tribute to them by sending seven lifeguards to the sea.