Greenpeace names activists behind a failed stunt at Peru climate talks

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Marco Werman: The environmental group Greenpeace, it’s known for its commitment but also known for its stunts. Its members have strung signs across the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, they’ve dressed up as polar bears and have been arrested by Russian police, they scaled London’s Big Ben to hang banners, and perhaps their best known tactic, they disrupt whaling ships. It’s all part of what some call the world’s greatest public relations machine. But last month during a climate conference in Peru, a Greenpeace stunt backfired in a spectacular way after activists were accused of damaging an ancient Peruvian heritage site. Mark Hertsgaard is a journalist with BusinessWeek.com. He’s been writing about the fallout from the failed stunt. Mark, remind us what happened in Peru.

 

Mark Hertsgaard: In Peru, a number of activists connected with Greenpeace, put letters very close to the iconic hummingbird, which is a national symbol in Peru, and it was basically to try to send a message to the world leaders who were gathered in Lima for the climate talks, to say “Climate change is real. We need to move to renewable energy.” Then they took a picture of it from up above, from a drone actually, and broadcast that around the world. The idea, of course, as you mentioned in their previous stunts has been to draw attention to the urgency of climate change. But, in fact, many, many people reacted very badly to this, starting with the public and the government of Peru, who felt offended and outraged that their national heritage had been desecrated like this. Somebody said it would be a little bit like if there were foreigners who were irritated about US government spying and they came to the United States and spraypainted slogans over the Lincoln Memorial or the Grand Canyon. That’s kind of what it felt like to Peruvians.

 

Werman: Right, and so these Nazca Lines create the image from way up above of a hummingbird that’s a representation. So, was the hummingbird, that’s perhaps a mile long, harmed in any way?

 

Hertsgaard: There’s dispute about that. The archeologists hired by the Peruvian government say yes, that there was damage. Greenpeace initially said that there wasn’t damage but has backtracked significantly from that and has expressed their profound apologies and now has entered into a cooperative relationship with the Peruvian government to send an archeological team down there not only to assess the damage, but more importantly going forward, to talk about how to protect the Nazca Lines.

 

Werman: And that cooperation is somewhat different in this particular case because I gather Greenpeace typically tries to protect their activists from prosecution. Now the group is essentially ratting its members out. Why the change?

 

Hertsgaard: What’s different this time is that it seems like this was a rogue operation from within Greenpeace Germany. It was not approved by higher ups--at least this is what Greenpeace is saying now in its report to Peruvian authorities. So, therefore Greenpeace is acting differently. The theory of social change that Greenpeace engages in with civil disobediences, you do these protests and then you stand up and face the music, you get arrested and you use that occasion to then try to ignite a public conversation about the morality of the deeper issue being protested, whether it be climate change or whaling or what have you. In this case, at the Nazca Lines in Peru, I’m told by Greenpeace insiders that this is the very first time in the history of Greenpeace that the activists responsible for such an action did not stand up and sort of take their punishment. Instead, they left the country and, indeed, the so-called mastermind of this operation, a German Greenpeace activist by the name of Wolfgang Sadik, he still hasn’t spoken to the press, he’s been in hiding for over a month now.

 

Werman: Greenpeace also has a lawyer in Lima who’s offering contrition to a Peruvian judge. If this is an attempt to regain some of their credibility as a responsible activist organization, will it work?

 

Hertsgaard: That’s the big question. The person I spoke to at Greenpeace said “Look, we know that this was a mistake; we’ve said from the beginning that it was a mistake and the only thing that we can do now is to try and move forward and get back and do our kinds of actions with integrity and show the world that what happened in Lima was an aberration, it’s not who we are, and get back to protecting this precious planet.”

 

Werman: Yeah, try and move forward, but how much damage has this done to the Greenpeace brand?

 

Hertsgaard: It’s done a huge amount of damage to the brand and they, themselves, recognize that. Their PR spokesman, Mike Townsley, did not dispute my suggestion that this was the biggest public relations black eye in the 40-year history of Greenpeace. So, they’ve got some recovering to do.

 

Werman: Mark Hertsgaard with BusinessWeek.com. Thank you very much.

 

Hertsgaard: My pleasure Marco.