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ENVIRONMENT: Greenpeace’s Glory Days ‘Are Not Over’

María Amparo Lasso* - Tierramérica

MEXICO CITY, Jun 13 2005 (IPS) - When German-born Gerd Leipold took over as executive director of the international environmental watchdog Greenpeace in 2001, there were some raised eyebrows.

Was he the right kind of person to head the world’s best known environmental organisation? Greenpeace was in dire need of fresh funds, new markets and a renewed image. The doubts were understandable. Leipold replaced Thilo Bode, an economist with experience in banking and industry who had gone so far as proposing to license the Greenpeace name.

Leipold, 54, is more an activist than an administrator. His most spectacular move was to fly over the Berlin Wall in a balloon in the middle of the Cold War to protest nuclear proliferation. His leadership of Greenpeace has promised a return to the legendary beginnings of the organisation in the 1970s. Who doesn’t feel at least a bit inspired when they see the group’s inflatable watercraft block the way of large whaling ships or nuclear vessels?

However, some critics consider radical activism the Aquilles heel of the organisation and the reason behind the decline in membership, which in Greenpeace’s glory days reached nearly five million people.

Leipold spoke with Tierramérica in an exclusive dialogue via telephone from Greece.

Q: When you assumed the executive director’s post, some critics thought you would place higher priority on protest actions than on managing the organisation. Has that been the case?

A: I think we have the right balance. Peaceful direct action is and will be at the core of Greenpeace, and we are very proud of it. But what is very key for me is that we do not see such actions only from Greenpeace activists, but from ordinary people. That is why we have put a lot of emphasis on cyber (Internet) activism. The environment is not a question of specialists; it is an issue for everybody.

Q: Greenpeace is reviewing its current policies. Do you think the public is tired of Greenpeace’s acts of protest?

A: The reactions differ from country to country and continent to continent. In Europe, for example, environmental problems are less visible than they used to be. When you looked at rivers in Europe 30 years ago you could see the pollution, then obviously a direct action was very visible. But in Latin America and Asia, where Greenpeace hasn’t been around for very long, our actions are still very new, very successful.

Q: Are those two regions the priority in your expansion strategy?

A: Absolutely, and it’s not only because environmental problems in Latin America and Asia are so prominent, but because economic development is becoming much stronger in those regions. If we want to have an impact, that is where we have to work.

Q: Why has the United States been such a difficult market for Greenpeace?

A: We indeed have substantially fewer supporters in the United States. One of the reasons is that in 1991 we spoke out against the first Gulf War and that cost us a lot of sympathy in the U.S. But we do the campaigns we believe in, even if that causes a (negative) reaction from the public.

Q: In 1991 Greenpeace membership reached its highest point with 4.8 million people. Today there are 2.8 million members. What happened?

A: I don’t have the 1991 numbers at hand; however I must say statistics at that time were not as good and strict as they are now. Back then, we counted as supporters people who gave us just a one-time donation. Now we only count as members those who give us continued support. We have grown for at least the last five years. We are especially proud of the growth of supporters we have in Latin America and Asia (69,074 and 41,522 members, respectively).

Q: Are Greenpeace’s glory days over?

A: No, certainly not. And if I look at the state of the planet, we definitely are needed, and required to be a strong organisation.

Q: What is Greenpeace’s current budget?

A: We haven’t conclude our audit, but our gross income in 2004 might be about 165 million euros (201.3 million dollars), which is lower than 2003, but you have to consider the fluctuations of currencies.

Q: Your predecessor Thilo Bode thought it was urgent to develop new fundraising methods, that the door-to-door approach was insufficient. Have you promoted new strategies?

A: We have diversified. Internet fundraising plays a bigger role, other means through advertisement are being tested, but our major tool is still door-to-door fundraising, what we call ”direct dialogue.”

Q: Another of Bode’s proposals was to license the Greenpeace name.

A: We are not Starbucks (a U.S.-based chain of coffee shops). We do not think we can easily license the name the same way as they do. Our good name is valued because it is not connected to money, because of our independence, because we are true to our values. If we tried to turn our name into a monetary asset, we surely would undermine it.

Q: For many years Greenpeace has faced criticism for its extremism and superficiality, for the lack of scientific bases in its campaigns. How do you respond to those criticisms?

A: For the last 15 years we’ve had a science unit that operates at the University of Exeter (Britain), which produces original research and performs reviews of research. The (scientific) contributions that we deliver to the United Nations are highly appreciated. Recently, for example, a prominent Japanese professor pointed out how valuable Greenpeace’s information on nuclear proliferation was in her work. And I can give lots of other examples.

(* María Amparo Lasso is Tierramérica’s editorial director. Originally published Jun. 4 by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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