Black storks migrating over the Strait of Gibraltar. (Photo credit: F Barrios)
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Special Feature

Booted eagles and Barbary macaques: how Gibraltar balances green with growth

Managing nature conservation and economic development in one of the smallest and most biodiverse spots in Europe is no mean feat, says environmental minister Dr John Cortes.

For a territory tiny by most standards, a springtime walk high on the Rock of Gibraltar is fascinating. By any comparison, the diversity of plants and animals – and the uniqueness of its natural community – is truly amazing.

The top of the Rock is a special place too.  Almost 400 metres shear up from the deep blue Mediterranean, the Rif mountains of Morocco look almost at arm’s reach to the south, while the hillsides of Andalusia stretch north and then east to the Sierra Nevada. The city of Gibraltar buzzes below, at the foot of a slope of Mediterranean scrubland scented with rosemary, lavender and a very special Gibraltar thyme.  In spring, the shrubs shelter resting migrating songbirds, not persecuted on this patch of British soil, while overhead groups of birds of prey, black kites, honey buzzards, Egyptian vultures, booted eagles and many more soar lazily before gliding off over the hinterland and towards their European nesting grounds.

As they move north, they overfly a nature reserve that covers 50 per cent of Gibraltar and holds a rich diversity of plants (including at least five found nowhere else in Europe) and hundreds of species of beetles and other invertebrates (some indigenous to the Rock), before gliding over a city with one of the strongest per capita economies anywhere.

The uninitiated visitor likely knows more about Gibraltar’s economy than its biodiversity. The business man might not notice the thousands of birds of prey and hundreds of storks overhead, or the monarch butterfly gliding by as he shops in Main Street, or sips a cool drink in Ocean Village marina.  The businesswoman who works in one of the Europort offices may think that Gibraltar has little more than Barbary macaques on the hillside, although she will know that Gibraltar had a record budget surplus if £65m last year.

A look around Gibraltar today shows a dynamic world of contrast; of the old and the new.  It will show construction projects: most of the housing estates are being extensively renovated for the first time since they were built decades ago, and three new affordable housing estates are being built to slash the housing waiting list. There is a new World Trade Centre under construction, and plans have been approved for a hotel, and office and residential accommodation near the city centre. New tourist and residential complexes, to be built on reclaimed land on the east side, are also being considered.  Amid all this you will see a botanic garden, and a brand new city park, complete with grass, plane trees, ponds, weeping willow and bandstand, with another park planned for next year.  And of course there is the picturesque old town, currently seeing an unprecedented spate of renewal, such as the historic stretch of defensive wall along the Wellington Front currently being restored as a north-south walk and cycle lane along the town.

However, none of these major projects will destroy wildlife or their habitats. For instance, all are required to provide nest sites for swifts and roosts for bats, while some – like the new park – will actually enhance the natural environment. Quite how Gibraltar has been able to develop as it has, with unemployment now dropped to about 1 per cent, and yet keep its biodiversity and protected areas intact may seem miraculous, and has certainly been no mean feat.  The present government, elected in December 2011, is ensuring that this remains so.  It set up a “green filter” for all Government projects, and converted a formerly in-camera planning system into an open, public process, where all are welcome to express their views.

Gibraltar is also revolutionising how it looks at energy.  A key decision to change plans to replace our creaking diesel power plants with more diesel generators, and instead to develop a natural gas-fired plant in the industrialised port area, proved Gibraltar’s new-found commitment to tackle pollution and energy needs and to work towards a sustainable future. Solar power is at last being tapped, with pilot projects to use energy from the sea and other renewable sources also being encouraged.  The aim is to produce at least 20 per cent of power from renewables by 2020, and 40 per cent or more by 2030.  All new buildings now comply with European energy efficiency standards, and many are being fitted with solar panels and smart meters.  Combined with the new power station and a shift to low energy devices in both public and private lighting, as well as an aggressive energy-efficiency strategy, these policies will give Gibraltar responsible, low-polluting power resilience that will be an example to the world.

The promotion of recycling, of electric and hybrid vehicles (including in the government’s own fleet), and a definite move towards non-polluting methods of waste treatment are now the way things are done in Gibraltar.  This in itself is encouraging the development of a whole new industry in the private sector. As the “green” sector expands exponentially worldwide, Gibraltar is ready to respond and welcome it.

The government’s department of the environment has grown from humble beginnings to include a dynamic team of young scientists, enforcement and support staff, who work closely with non-governmental organisations nationally and with professionals in other countries, mainly the United Kingdom and the other UK Overseas Territories. Gibraltar also promotes the message outwards, with an ever increasing presence in meetings and conferences around the world, including the United Nations Climate Summit in New York last September.

One major thrust of the department’s work is environmental education.  This is key not only in spreading the message, but also in ensuring that future generations have a solid grasp of sustainability.  Apart from reaching out to schools and youth groups, the department has developed a presence on social media, is working on a series of apps, and created and continuously expands its “Thinking Green” website.

The department also supports practical conservation projects.  For example, it directs vegetation management work within the Gibraltar Nature Reserve and is collaborating with the Gibraltar Ornithological and Natural History Society in a programme to stabilise and enhance the Rock’s population of the Barbary partridge, a species which on mainland Europe only occurs within this reserve.

It has also recently established a presence at sea, with new vessels to monitor marine life and assess conservation problems.  The seas around Gibraltar – British Gibraltar Territorial Waters extend three miles to the east and south and midway across the Bay of Gibraltar – are, like the mainland, a mix of human industry and rich marine life. Alongside bunkering and recreational vessels, hundreds of common and striped dolphins use the waters as feeding and breeding areas as well as large populations of migrating and wintering seabirds.

The Gibraltarians are a proud people.  And we take pride in everything that gives us an identity.  It may be the iconic limestone Rock, or our national football team, now a member of UEFA.  But increasingly our unique and diverse natural history is recognised as an asset of which to be proud.  The logic of developing in a sustainable way, of controlling how we produce and use energy so that we improve air quality and reduce unnecessary cost, tied with an unstoppable ambition to succeed as a community - socially and economically - make Gibraltar the place to watch.

About the author

Dr John Cortes MBE JP CBiol FLS is Minister for Health and the Environment in Her Majesty’s Government of Gibraltar.  He Graduated in Botany and Zoology in Royal Holloway College, London in 1979.  He became Doctor of Philosophy at Magdalen College, Oxford in 1983.  Between 1991 and 2011 he was Director of the Gibraltar Botanic Gardens and between 1976 and 2011 he was Genereal Secretary of the Gibraltar Ornithological & Natural history Society, the BirdLife Partner in Gibraltar.  He has published in the natural sciences, including botany, ornithology and macaque biology.


Dr John Cortes MBE JP CBiol FLS is Minister for Health and the Environment in Her Majesty’s Government of Gibraltar.  He Graduated in Botany and Zoology in Royal Holloway College, London in 1979.  He became Doctor of Philosophy at Magdalen College, Oxford in 1983.  Between 1991 and 2011 he was Director of the Gibraltar Botanic Gardens and between 1976 and 2011 he was Genereal Secretary of the Gibraltar Ornithological & Natural history Society, the BirdLife Partner in Gibraltar.  He has published in the natural sciences, including botany, ornithology and macaque biology.

Photo: Getty
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The disputed waters around Gibraltar: time for a judicial settlement?

 Incursions by Spanish state vessels into Gibraltar waters have increased in frequency during 2015 and, in the absence of an effective British naval deterrent in the area, the actions of the Spanish authorities are also becoming more brazen.

With Spanish elections due in December, the Partido Popular government has raised the stakes in the dispute over the waters around Gibraltar. Incursions by Spanish state vessels into Gibraltar waters have increased in frequency during 2015 and, in the absence of an effective British naval deterrent in the area, the actions of the Spanish authorities are also becoming more brazen.

In recent weeks the Foreign Office has protested at, amongst other things, attempts by a Spanish vessel to take soundings in Gibraltar waters ostensibly for research purposes, and a hot pursuit by air and sea of suspected smugglers within metres of the Gibraltar coast, during which the Spanish authorities failed to notify – let alone cooperate with – their Gibraltarian counterparts. One of the most troubling incidents of the year took place on 22 August. A Spanish customs vessel operating in Gibraltar waters attempted to board a local pleasure boat. When the two occupants of the boat tried to evade capture, the Spanish crew fired live rounds in their direction. The pleasure boat was then apprehended by a vessel of the Royal Gibraltar Police and towed ashore. The boat and its occupants were searched and no sign of illicit activity was found. Initially, the Spanish authorities denied that shots had been fired, but they later admitted firing shots ‘into the water’ after video footage of the incident emerged.   

Such incidents invariably draw a diplomatic protest from Britain. The Foreign Office recites the mantra that the incursions are a violation of British sovereignty but not a threat to it. The more serious transgressions sometimes result in the Spanish ambassador to London being summoned to Whitehall for a dressing-down. The recent shooting incident was something of a game-changer. Lives had been needlessly placed at risk, and this prompted a more robust response from Britain. Diplomatic exchanges reportedly took place behind the scenes at the ‘highest level’. This resulted in an agreement, pursuant to which Britain, Spain and Gibraltar, in separate written communiqués, declared their intention to ‘step up’ law enforcement cooperation in the waters around Gibraltar. In reality, Spanish and Gibraltarian law enforcement agencies usually co-operate quite effectively at sea. Operational co-operation only tends to break down when the sovereignty dispute heats up. The crux of the problem is certainly not operational, and while the underlying sovereignty dispute persists, the latest agreement is unlikely to achieve much.

Unfortunately, the questions of sovereignty and jurisdiction over the waters around Gibraltar are as contested today as they have ever been. Whenever Britain issues its standard protest that Spanish incursions are a violation of British sovereignty, but not a threat to it, this is met by an equally formulaic rebuttal from Spain. The waters around Gibraltar, according to Spain, are Spanish. Gibraltar is not entitled to any territorial waters because, other than the internal waters of the port, no waters were expressly ceded to Britain by Spain under the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713.

The Spanish Foreign Minister said recently that Spanish state vessels would continue to operate in the waters that Britain and Gibraltar call ‘British Gibraltar Territorial Waters’. He nevertheless acknowledged that there was a difference of legal opinion between the British and Spanish authorities. He explained that when Spain acceded to the 1982 UN Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) it made a declaration to the effect that it did not accept that Gibraltar was entitled to any territorial waters.

In legal terms, disputes between states over maritime space can be notoriously complex. Expert hydrographers are often enlisted and equitable principles applied in order to determine where a maritime boundary should lie, or what the extent of a state’s continental shelf should be. The question of whether Gibraltar is legally entitled to a band of territorial waters is different. For a start, it is a zero-sum game. There is no room for a negotiated compromise – either Gibraltar has territorial waters or it does not. Secondly, in legal terms at least, the dispute is as simple as they come.

One of the cardinal principles of the international law of the sea is that coastal territories are automatically entitled to a band of territorial sea. International courts and tribunals have repeatedly affirmed this principle. When Spain ceded Gibraltar to Britain in 1713, the extent of a coastal state’s jurisdiction depended on the reach of its cannons. The so-called ‘cannon-shot rule’ evolved over the centuries into a principle of international law, permitting states to assert three, and later up to twelve, nautical miles of territorial sea. The principle is today enshrined in Article 2 of UNCLOS, which states that ‘the sovereignty of a coastal State extends, beyond its land territory and internal waters … to an adjacent belt of sea, described as the territorial sea’. Relying on this principle, Britain currently asserts three nautical miles of territorial sea around Gibraltar. The declarations made by Spain when signing and ratifying UNCLOS, to the effect that it does not accept that Gibraltar is entitled to a territorial sea, change nothing. Article 310 of UNCLOS provides that such declarations cannot ‘purport to exclude or to modify the legal effect of the provisions of this Convention’.

The Treaty of Utrecht does not define the extent of the ‘Port’ that was ceded, nor the extent of Gibraltar’s maritime jurisdiction more generally, but this is not unusual for a treaty of that period. The modern Spanish confection that jurisdiction over the waters was somehow excluded from the cession would have seemed ridiculous to those who sat around the negotiating table in Utrecht in 1713. Gibraltar and its surrounding sea have always been inseparably linked. The Rock’s strategic value stems precisely from its usefulness as a location from which to project maritime power. Britain has done this to good effect in the waters around Gibraltar for the past three centuries, with only occasional Spanish interference.

For most of the last 300 years, Britain exercised jurisdiction and control over a larger section of the waters around Gibraltar than it does today. Some of the waters under British control, in front of the Rock’s northern defences, washed onto several hundred metres of Spain’s south-eastern coastline. This particular stretch of water – and ‘dry coast’ – was the traditional focus of the Anglo-Spanish maritime dispute. Spain was understandably aggrieved that the waters off a section of its coastline were under the jurisdiction and control of another state, and made frequent complaints to Britain. In one piece of diplomatic correspondence, from 1878, Spain suggested that the waters should be divided ‘in a convenient manner and in such a way that no part of the coast should remain without jurisdictional waters’.

By the mid 20th century, the so-called ‘equidistance principle’ had become the internationally accepted standard, requiring adjacent territories to divide their territorial seas along a median line, in the absence of special circumstances or an agreement to the contrary. Britain maintained that it had special historic rights over the contested patch of waters adjoining the Spanish coast, but it eventually retreated to the median line in the late 1960s, at around the time that Franco’s government closed Spain’s border with Gibraltar. Spain was thus spared the humiliation of having a British anchorage directly off its coastline and, perhaps sensing that Britain was on the back foot, the Franco government decided to go on the offensive. Spain’s own ‘dry coast doctrine’ – the argument that in 1713 it ceded the town, castle, fortifications and port of Gibraltar, but not a jot of water around it – became the standard and regularly asserted Spanish position. The argument is practically absurd and legally indefensible.

The Spanish Foreign Ministry knows this. It employs a highly qualified team of legal advisors who are experts in international law. José Antonio de Yturriaga, a jurist who was formerly Spanish ambassador to Ireland, Iraq and Russia, and who for a time headed Spain’s special mission in Law of the Sea matters, has stated publicly that there is no legal basis to the claim that Gibraltar has no territorial waters. The current Spanish Foreign Minister – also legally qualified, and perhaps not expecting that his comments would be reported – acknowledged at a university seminar that the Spanish position regarding the waters around Gibraltar would be difficult to defend in court (while expressing greater confidence in the Spanish claim to Gibraltar’s disputed isthmus and its adjoining waters). In order for this issue to be settled in the International Court of Justice or an arbitral tribunal, Spain and Britain would both have to agree to submit to the proceedings. In 1966, Spain refused a proposal from Britain to settle the question of Gibraltar’s territorial waters, as well as other matters relating to the sovereignty of Gibraltar, in the International Court of Justice.

It is clear that Spain has no appetite for resolving the dispute over Gibraltar’s waters by judicial means. This is a shame, as an international court or tribunal would be the ideal forum in which to draw a line under this issue in a peaceful manner. The proceedings need not be complicated. Spain and Britain could agree to ask the court for an answer to a discrete legal question: ‘is Gibraltar entitled to a band of territorial waters under international law?’ In the absence of an authoritative judicial intervention, the waters around Gibraltar are likely to remain a flashpoint in the broader dispute over Gibraltar’s sovereignty.  

Dr A J Trinidad is a Gibraltarian barrister and a tutor at the University of Cambridge.