Photo by Ama Koralage

In 1971, a group of activists set sail from Canada in an old fishing boat to protest against the underground nuclear testing by the US military at Amchitka, an island off Alaska. Although they were eventually stopped, the activists went on to form an organisation called Greenpeace to promote individual, non-violent action to create change.

Throughout the 1970s, Greenpeace spread to several countries and began campaigning on environmental issues including commercial whaling and toxic waste. In 1979, Greenpeace International was formed. Based in the Netherlands, Greenpeace now has three million supporters worldwide and offices in 40 countries.

Greenpeace activists have disrupted whaling by placing themselves between the harpoons and the whales, had their boat Rainbow Warrior bombed by the French government, been brutally beaten up and labelled as eco-terrorists. They opposed governments and risked jail and even death to change people’s attitudes and international politics forever.

While they no longer carry out much direct action or create shocking images that make headlines, Greenpeace is a powerful force on the world stage as an international organisation that carries out global environmental campaigns. It uses non-violent, creative confrontation to campaign on issues such as climate change, deforestation, overfishing, commercial whaling, genetic engineering, anti-war and anti-nuclear issues. It does not accept funding from governments, corporations or political parties.

Despite the increased awareness of the need to protect the planet, the earth in not more sustainable now than it was in 1971. There is less biodiversity, more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, more toxins in soils, less carbon in soils, more dry rivers and dead lakes, more ocean dead zones, less forest, more desert, more humans, a billion people living on the edge of starvation and increasing human demands on dwindling resources.

South Asia is home to over a billion and a half people in eight countries that contain to some of the most ecologically sensitive regions in the world. It has the second largest share of the global poor. The multidimensional poverty, dependency on natural resources and weather patterns make people vulnerable to the instability that comes with the climate crisis. According to a World Bank report over 800 million South Asians are living in future climate change hotspots, meaning these regions will be unliveable. The region is experiencing an environmental crisis with climate change disrupting agriculture and livelihoods. Despite its minimal role in contributing to climate change, South Asia is disproportionately impacted.

In order to create regional cooperation in combatting climate change, Greenpeace has opened a South Asia office in Colombo, marking the event with a visit by its iconic ship, Rainbow Warrior. Groundviews spoke to Executive Director of Greenpeace South Asia, Binu Jacob, about the climate challenges facing the region and the role of Greenpeace in combatting climate injustice.

Although Greenpeace has been in existence for over 50 years, the same battles are still being fought. What difference has it made?

We have been campaigning fearlessly for over 50 years when it was not fashionable. We are supported by individuals so we can take an independent stand. We have made an impact over the generations When we were in school and in collage, we were motivated by organisations such as Greenpeace to work for sustainability and climate justice. Greenpeace has contributed to system change.

In the 1980s and 1990s Greenpeace was a more vocal and visible organisation. Has its strategy changed?

There are different kinds of campaigns now that are culturally relevant to a region or society. They are more creative; different regions have their own methods of campaigning. The media has also changed and become segmented so the way the message is put across has also changed with more regional campaigns. The issues are intersectional so it’s not just one area such pollution but we have to look at climate justice as well.

Do you think people throwing substances at art work to highlight fossil fuel use is acceptable?

Young people think that nobody listens to them although it’s their planet. Such action comes out of helplessness. The world only listens to dramatic things. But youth icons such as Greta Thunberg can inspire other young people to take action.

What are the major environmental issues facing the region? 

There are many issues that connect South Asia but we are focussing on climate change because the region is the second most affected after Sub Saharan Africa. South Asia is densely populated and polluted and has great economic disparity. The people who are most affected by climate change are farmers, fishermen, factory workers and other poor and marginalised communities. Climate events such as droughts and floods are increasing in number and intensity. While the rich can isolate themselves from the effects of climate change, frontline people are greatly impacted; although they have not contributed to climate change, they are the ones who pay the most. The Indian ocean is common to the region. It is threatened by over fishing, infrastructure development and plastics. Countries in the region have the opportunity to show leadership. Although we may be poorer or smaller, we still have a responsibility to the planet. But at the same time governments must be mindful of the needs of the poor. We can say to ban single use plastic, which is mainly used by poorer people, but then governments needs to provide alternatives.

How can citizens fight against environmental destruction?

Activists and individuals are taking action; some have the calling. They are writing to authorities, going to the media and getting communities to come to together. Because of their actions, leaders can change their behaviour. The challenge is how to do it creatively and get across the message that it’s for the good of everyone and that it is not anti-development. While development can get short term gains, the impacts on quality of life and the mental health of future generations will be severe. We need to invent new value systems because we can’t continue with greed.

Developing countries say it’s unfair for them to have to slow down development for environmental concerns when the West is already developed and can afford to make the changes. How can you make countries comply?

Some leaders in West still think it’s alright to destroy planet but their citizens are opposing this. People can act and oppose adverse actions successfully. The same environmental standards applied in the West should be applied to developing countries as well. Development should not be at the cost of the environment. Corporations as well as governments must be held responsible for their actions that damage the environment. What we do in one part of the planet impacts all of us. While everyone has the right to basic material needs such as water, food and housing, immense and wasteful access can’t continue.