Customs agents used to scout the horizon for signs of smugglers trying to ply the tax-free liquor trade. In the 1940s, German bunkers consumed huge amounts of concrete in a futile quest to ward off Allied invaders. Their hulking presence is especially evident here on the watery approaches to Brest, where the Germans established an important U-Boat base.
Brest is still an important maritime center, home to France’s naval academy, and the Crozon Peninsula across the bay is reputed to be a nuclear site. But the French patrol vessels that ply these waters are probably as interested in preventing pollution than in warding off hostile ships.
Offshore, an astounding 40,000 ships a year travel the maritime highway en route to and from the English Channel. Most of them are good international citizens; some crash on the rocky outcroppings that dot the Mer d’Iroise; and some deliberately flush out their oily fuel tanks and pollute some of the most pristine waters in Europe, which have been given UNESCO protected status.
The threat is not only from offshore: industrial agriculture, especially intensive pork and chicken production, has resulted in massive nitrate pollution of Breton fresh water resources. As this wends its way to the sea, smelly (and potentially deadly) green algae creates a hideous sludge on some of the most beautiful coves and beaches in Western Europe. It’s a tragedy, but one that only comes to public attention when a horse or a dog succumbs to the toxic fumes. So far, humans have only had close calls.
Interestingly, Brittany was one of the three regions in last week’s first round of elections where Socialists and Ecologists failed to reach an agreement on joint lists for next Sunday’s second round. If any region needs more environmentalists to take on entrenched interests, it is Brittany.
Nowhere else is the contrast between differing economic models as drastic. Raise millions of pigs and chickens for our fast food, spread their waste over the fields, and scare off potential tourists who come to Brittany for its combination of rural charm and coastal adventure? If ever there was a challenge for sustainable development, it is here.