Greenpeace Rocked by Peru Stunt Backlash

Joint by-line for Sunday Times published Dec 14

Twenty Greenpeace activists accused of damaging Peru’s ancient Nazca lines were last night said to have left the country amid calls for their arrest.

A Greenpeace spokesman said that the group had probably returned to their various home countries, thought to include Germany, Colombia and Argentina. Some are thought to be Peruvian and their whereabouts are unknown.

They left behind a growing wave of recriminations, both within Greenpeace over the bungling that led up to the incident, and among the Peruvian authorities and police, whose slowness in issuing any arrest warrants allowed the activists to leave the country legally.

John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK, made clear his disapproval of the stunt, which was apparently organised by Greenpeace Germany to highlight the slow progress of the United Nations climate talks in Lima.

He said:I personally would never approve such an activity. We shouldn’t encourage people to walk through such historic sites unless it’s for research. They need to be seen from the air or a safe distance. I can understand why the Peruvian authorities are pissed off with us.”

The incident began last week when activists went to the south Peru site of the Nazca lines — ancient geoglyphs created 1,500 years ago by stripping the top layer of red rock to expose the paler ground beneath. The Nazca people created several hundred shapes ranging from the abstract to images of animals and fish.

They have survived so far because the Nazca desert is so arid, windless and isolated, but the Unesco world heritage site is highly vulnerable to human intrusion — of exactly the kind caused by Greenpeace.

About a dozen activists on the ground laid out banners spelling out the group’s message, while five others were flown over the site in a hired light aircraft to take pictures to generate media coverage.

Greenpeace says the stunt caused no damage but aerial pictures of the site taken after the intrusion appear to show a scuffed white trail leading to the area where the activists laid out their message.

Peru’s culture ministry described the protest as a “serious violation” and asked the police to stop the protesters leaving the country.

In theory they could have been charged with “attacking archeological monuments of cultural heritage”, an offence that could have given them jail sentences of up to six years.

A Greenpeace spokesman in Lima said yesterday that the activists had flown out. “Immigration had given them the green light to leave . . . they left by plane,” he said.

“I’m assuming they went to their home countries. They definitely did not cause damage to the lines.”

Greenpeace has semi-independent organisations in 40 countries and a global head office in Amsterdam. It has a long history of non-violent direct actions, followed by government reprisals.

In 2008 six activists were prosecuted for causing criminal damage worth £30,000 to Kingsnorth coal-fired power station in Kent over plans to build a new power station on the same site.

They were acquitted by a jury after arguing that such actions were legally justified by the threat from climate change. Plans for the new power station were dropped.

Last week eight US activists pleaded guilty to trespass in March over a stunt at Procter & Gamble’s headquarters in Cincinnati involving scaling the building and unfurling a banner. The pleas, to minor charges, were part of a deal that also saw P&G announce it would work with Greenpeace to reduce deforestation in its palm oil supply chain: another victory for the campaigners.

Perhaps the most dramatic incident occurred in 1985 when, increasingly infuriated by Greenpeace’s protests over its nuclear testing programme, the French government sent spies to plant a bomb on its ship, the Rainbow Warrior, when it was in Auckland harbour, New Zealand, killing a crew member.

This weekend Greenpeace leaders issued an apology to the people of Peru.

Kumi Naidoo, its international executive director, said: “We take personal responsibility and are committed to non-violence. Greenpeace is accountable and willing to face fair and reasonable consequences.”

(Photo credit: Sunday Times)

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