Greenpeace International is a fine organisation. It uniquely combined the aims of promoting “peace” – including enhancing human rights – and, as an element of that, protecting the green (and blue) environment. Remember the dove with the olive branch, and the campaigns against US atmospheric nuclear bomb tests in the north Pacific and French underwater ones in the south Pacific. When the French secret service sank the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbour, the ship had been engaged in a humanitarian action: helping move some Polynesians from their homes, where they felt threatened by pollution and explosions.
But Greenpeace seems to have mislaid the “peace” half of its mission. That has been evident for some time to anyone reading its current programme and priorities on its website. This grand drift was on show again at a conference organised by Amnesty International in Oxford last week, where Greenpeace International’s executive director, Kumi Naidoo – a man with a proud record of anti-apartheid campaigning – was to talk about human rights and protection of the environment. The context was a hot question about the possible return of the Chagos islanders to their home in mid-Indian Ocean, a British Overseas Territory from which they were all deported in 1971 to make way for a US military base on an atoll, Diego Garcia. That involved moving, it is said, several million tons of coral and destroying the quasi-pristine nature of the world’s biggest atoll, making it suitable for aircraft-carriers. The islanders are now dispersed around the Seychelles, Mauritius and England. Some of the islanders are happy with their UK/EU passports, others want to return home and have been seeking permission through the courts, the House of Lords, and – soon – the European court of human rights.
The mandarins of Whitehall have worked for decades to block their repatriation claim, arguing first that the archipelago was uninhabited, and only occasionally visited by migrant labourers to pick coconuts. Then someone in Whitehall had another brilliant idea: declare Chagos as a vast Marine Protected Area (MPA). Unlike nearly all the new MPAs in Britain it would be “no-take” zone – fishing would be largely prohibited.
This scheme was applauded by some influential non-governmental groups, in particular the Pew Foundation, the Royal Society of London and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). It is said that the RSPB’s former international director, Alistair Gammell, now with Pew, persuaded Greenpeace UK to join the ecologists’ cheers of support for a no-take MPA. Greenpeace International, to its shame, went along with this, only adding, tardily, “provided the rights of the Chagossians are respected”. The Foreign Office says they have no rights, so that’s hunky-dory.
As a matter of fact Greenpeace had already supported this idea long before – in 2005, writing: “The Chagos islands, which the [proposed] reserve bounds, are uninhabited and almost unpolluted and little affected by direct human impacts except fishing”. No mention, of course, of the several thousand military folks deployed there, whose main outdoor recreation is recreational marlin and tuna fishing.
The Greenpeace UK letter of support asserted that no-take MPAs are the accepted best way of saving world fisheries. But that’s nonsense. They are useful within comprehensive management systems, but control of fishing operations remains the basic way of saving fisheries and fishing communities.
The UK government has declared a circular no-take zone around Chagos, 200 miles in radius. But it has no formal standing in international law, and is contested by neighbouring states. Some people hoped that, in Oxford, Naidoo would tack away from Greenpeace’s promotion of the MPA scam. Instead, Naidoo asserted that the no-take MPA was the better of two options, the other being free-for-all fishing. The argument is totally unacceptable: fishing can both be allowed, and be controlled.
One can’t expect large organisations to publicly admit error, but Naidoo has a way out. He implied that the no-take rule would be good for the time being, but if and when the Chagossians return they could decide what should then be done. And how else would repatriated Chagossians make a living? They could not now rely on coconuts. Ecotourism requires big investments, imported skills and a substantial labour force; competition with the expert operators from neighbouring islands would be hard and possibly mutually destructive. There is only one way the repatriates could survive – by licensing commercial fishing. Greenpeace shouldn’t be choosing between peace and green and preferring the latter.
• Follow Comment is free on Twitter @commentisfree