Bigger than some governments

  • 30/04/1994

Bigger than some governments REBEL activists in tiny inflatable dinghies stopping major polluters from using the ocean as a waste dump. The image of David against Goliath.

Since the early "70s, a group of people has "showed the world there is something wrong with the planet". Greenpeace began when a small group of people set out on a fishing boat from Vancouver, Canada, to express their opposition to US nuclear weapons testing on a small Alaskan island. At that time, the people called themselves Make A Wave. The small group also protested against the killing of seals and whales. Soon, Greenpeace grew into a campaign against all nuclear weapons and nuclear power.

To be appointed a member of Greenpeace, you don"t need just commitment and the Dutch courage to fix warning signs on nuclear-powered warships and submarines. The director of Greenpeace Holland, Hans van Rooij, a former official of the fleetowner Smit Vloot Beheer, got the job in 1991 because of his management qualities.

Supporters are kept informed through information bulletins and receive the Greenpeace magazine every three months. Many subscribers respond with written reports, which are useful feedback. Volunteers can inform schools and other groups about Greenpeace and its work for the environment. However, the involvement of the majority of the supporters is confined to writing a yearly cheque.

Using simple messages, non-violent, direct action and maximum media impact, Greenpeace has grown from a small group of activists into an influential, international, environmetal organisation with a multi-million dollar budget. Greenpeace has offices in 30 countries and support has been strongest in Germany, Holland, the US and Britain. The opening of new offices and the appointment of representatives are strictly controlled by the Stichting Greenpeace Council and the International Board of Directors. All national offices allot a percentage of their revenues to the council. In 1993, Greenpeace International employed about 85 people, including scientists, biologists, researchers and journalists.

As new environmental threats -- the ozone hole and global warming -- came to light, Greenpeace broadened its activities. In 1987, Greenpeace established a base in Antarctica, "the last unspoilt continent", which was under siege from the mining industry. In 1991, 50 countries signed a protocol not to dig for oil, gas or any other minerals at the South Pole in the next 50 years. Many view this success as Greenpeace"s crowning achievement in its 20-year history.

The way Greenpeace expressed its concern struck a chord with millions of people. In 1981, Canadian director David McTaggert, speaking in Amsterdam, said, "The main principle of Greenpeace is that it will never become allied with any political organisation. I have seen numerous environmental groups who place themselves politically. I think that"s wrong. In that way, you just border your own activities."

Greenpeace has also become well known for putting new issues on the agenda, such as the chloride industry as a major polluter or the huge transfer of toxic waste from the North to the South. Greenpeace divides its campaigns into five areas: nuclear issues, atmosphere and energy, ocean ecology, toxics and tropical rainforests.

As many campaigns had to do with water, the Greenpeace fleet has always played a major role. At the moment, there are eight vessels for different purposes. The best known ship, Rainbow Warrior, was blown up by the French secret service in Auckland, New Zealand in 1985, just before it set sail to Moruroa, a small island in the Pacific where the French tested nuclear bombs. One photographer died.

Campaigns are aimed at governments and industries that don"t do enough for the environment. Although Greenpeace campaigns are not always instant successes, they influence changes in policy and environmental laws.

Greenpeace is also seen as a serious advisor. The organisation participates directly or as an observer in many international organisations and conventions, including the United Nations Environment Programme, the European Community and the International Whaling Commission.

In propagating messages on environmental behaviour, it is the national offices which decide how far to go. In 1990, for instance, Greenpeace Germany cancelled a campaign against car use fearing a drastic reduction in supporters who own cars. Contrarily, an increasing amount of information to Greenpeace subscribers is about what individuals can do on their own.

At annual meetings, all party directors -- regional, national as well international -- are represented and decisions are taken about international campaigns. Paul Hohnen, director at Greenpeace International who is responsible for campaigns on toxic trade and rainforests, says, "We have never pretended to have all the answers. It"s a very confusing scene over there. Greenpeace has a continuous debate about where the emphasis shoud be. We are looking for the maximum amount of positive change."

Sometimes, national offices and the Greenpeace Council differ on how to deal with environmental problems. In June 1987, some activists blocked a pipe of the Thorp reprocessing plant at Sellafield in Britain, ignoring a police warning. In a short cause, the advocate of the Greenpeace Council called the men "activists who have run wild" and condemned the action "also because of the physical risks for the people involved".

Decisions on cooperating with other NGOs are taken at different levels. At an international level, Greenpeace works with other NGOs "where we have a common interest", says Hohnen. "Cooperation has been particularly strong on the UN climate negotiations with UNCED with tens or hundreds of NGOs. We are a member of the Climate Action Network," he said.

At national levels, Greenpeace interacts with other NGOs only when "it is politically the best thing for Greenpeace to do." In practice, this often means Greenpeace takes its own line. Three years ago, the Dutch Stichting Natuur en Milieu (Nature and Environment Foundation), a sort of government watchdog, proposed forming a federation of environmental groups to have a greater impact on governments. Greenpeace Holland was not interested.

According to Hohnen, part of the appeal of Greenpeace is its independence -- "to go and do something without having to consult hundreds of different players." He adds, "Many NGOs don"t want to work with Greenpeace because they are uncomfortable with the fact that we might sail a ship up their front door and say STOP."

Greenpeace is now emphasising more information on the magnitute of environmental risks and precautionary principles. The research wing will be strengthened. Greenpeace is increasingly trying to find solutions: promoting safe alternative programmes and urging less industrial pollution.

Says Hohnen, "A new way is to draw attention to alternatives. What you do need are appliances that use less electricity -- it might be better insulation or it might be an increased renewable energy. It might be simply less consumption."

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