The traffic island on the almost-island of Portland had become a temporary protest camp. Tents became billboards, “Food not Fuel”, and the Kelly Kettle was boiling water for a tea round. Twenty or so bikes were stacked against a landscaped flowerbed, and the bike-towed sound system competed with the noise of cars. Now the site had been set up, people milled about in the sun, organising the next day’s cycling, or prepared for workshops and meetings later in the day. I sat resting against a stone pillar set up in the centre of the roundabout, a monument to nothing but itself, listening to the conversation of local residents and activists.
“The new government are reviewing the subsides, we’re hoping we can block it there. It can’t run without subsides. There’s people with no jobs here, they’re cutting public services, and the government want to give money to this?”
The bike tour stopped by in Portland to support a local anti-biofuel campaign, No to Oil Palm Energy (NOPE). Planning permission has been granted for a 17MW palm oil-fired power station to be built, despite overwhelming opposition of the local population. Some people objected to the smoke that would pollute the local air. The plant would be at sea level, and even with a tall chimneystack, smoke would be emitted at a level lower than much of the residential area. Others were more concerned about the palm oil plantations that would need to be half the size of Dorset to keep the fuel supply coming, for the same amount of electricity that could be produced by about 18 wind turbines. The port authority stands to gain considerably from the development, and their profit comes at the expense of the islanders feeling disenfranchised about what goes on in their own back yard. The local council seems powerless to oppose the scheme, which feels like an imposition that no-one on the island will benefit from.
“It’s such a Victorian attitude. It’s like what they did with the prison – just stick it on Portland, out of the way. We’ve got big social problems here, and the planning system is just bonkers. People want to come here for the history, the extreme landscapes. We have rock climbers from all over Europe coming here because they can see the wrecks from the cliffs. But they’re determined to ruin it. They treat us like a dumping ground for things they don’t want in Weymouth.”
Later in the day, two councillors crossed the road to meet the protesters. The two grey-haired, well-dressed women were eager to talk, despite their repeated claims of how busy they were and how they really must dash soon. They told me about how a local green space that had been given to Portland by the Queen herself was being built over as part of a new housing development. The harbour is to be host to the 2012 sailing events, and local democratic voices have been overruled by the Olympic’s metropolitan interests. The same thing was happening with the power station. But she disagreed with the protesters’ alternative. “There was a plan to put wind turbines all along the causeway. But they were just too big. It was out of proportion. So no, I can’t agree with that. What we need here is wave power.”
Three protesters had positioned themselves on the central reservation leading up to the roundabout from the mainland. They had a banner that read “Beep Against Biofuels”, and the motorists’ support grew with the advancing rush-hour. When the stream of cars was reduced to a trickle, we packed up our panniers and trailers, and set off up the hill to the St George’s community centre, for dinner and a meeting.
The community centre was built like an upturned ship, the roof’s beams curved into a hull, and the oak joists as dark as pitched timber. But the walls of the centre were made of great blocks of hewn Portland stone, weighing a tonne each easily. It was as if, if it could, the whole island would pack itself up and sail away from the Victorian causeway mooring it to the mainland. After a short struggle to get the PA to work, and a large plate of curry followed by fruit salad had been consumed, the previous day’s journey was beginning to take its toll on the cyclists. The wind, rain and fog that had blanketed the route from Tinker’s Bubble to Portland had stayed with us overnight, disturbing our sleep in wind-tossed tents. It looked like tonight might be just as windy, and we had a long ride to look forward to the next day. The day of relative rest had given our muscles a chance to complain. Tiredness was kicking in.
But there was no time for relaxation yet. Local supporters had come together to share an internet link-up with activists in Columbia who had been driven off their land by palm oil companies, but had fought back and successfully retaken their village. It was a chance for the whole story of palm oil to be told, from plantation to power station. Using a translator, a Columbian activist told the story of his community, and answered questions from the Portland residents. At one point the hall full of people were listening so attentively that the Columbians worried that they were talking to an empty room. For about a minute afterwards we wouldn’t have been able to hear anything he said past the eruption cheering, clapping, stamping and table banging.