You Can’t Sink A Rainbow

There will come a time when the earth is sick and the animals and plants begin to die,

Then the Indians will regain their spirit… to gather people of all nations, colours and beliefs to join together in the fight to save the earth.

— `The Rainbow Warriors’, Native American legend.

The time of the warriors of the earth has come. And, in keeping with the prophecy, they have risen from every nation — leaving behind their nervous families and warm hearths, friendly cappuccino bars and swanky malls; waving goodbye to comfortable jobs in the corporate world to swab the deck and fight on the high seas, for the high seas.

Their mission? To save the world.

On board Greenpeace’s best-known and most flamboyant ship, the fiery Rainbow Warrior — which seems uncharacteristically demure, docked in the Chennai harbour — the boat mechanic, Mehdi Moujbani, from Tunisia, squints in the bright sunshine as he firmly says, “Our philosophy is bearing witness. To be the eyes and ears of everyone. After all, not everyone can go into the centre of the ocean, the middle of the Antarctic, the depths of the Amazon.”

The marine-based protest group, which has more than 20,000 activists in nearly 215 countries and gains supporters every day, has spent the past three decades working to save the seas they travel every day. “Because what happens everywhere concerns everyone.”

However, bearing witness comes at a cost.

In 1985, when the original Rainbow Warrior protested against French nuclear testing, French agents bombed her when she was in the harbour, sinking the ship and killing Greenpeace photographer Fernando Pereira. “After the first blast, the crew realised the ship was going down and abandoned it. And, while everyone else was running out, he went back down to get his camera,” says Moujbani.

But, as time and events have proved: You can’t sink a rainbow.

So, while the original warrior was buried at sea in the deep blue waters of the Pacific at Matauri Bay, New Zealand, with a full Maori ceremony, Greenpeace used the $8.159 million the French Government paid them in damages (after two years of international arbitration) to support its ships campaigning for a nuclear and pollution-free Pacific — and to buy a new Rainbow Warrior.

“This was originally a fishing vessel,” says Mehdi, heading towards the centre of the diminutive ship. “It was first expanded, then sails were added to save fossil fuels. However, to keep up with speeding polluting vessels, and document what they are doing — for example, a ship dumping toxic waste — we also need motors. Unfortunately.”

Documentation isn’t all they do. Greenpeace activists firmly believe in what they call `direct action’ or `creative confrontation,’ which means putting themselves out there and physically stopping environment-unfriendly activity. “It’s not just about confrontation. But, we aren’t going to simply turn into a report-producing organisation,” says Sanjiv Gopal, campaigner, Greenpeace India. “We do it to prevent another Bhopal and the thousand other Bhopals happening across the country.”

“Sometimes the rules should not stop you from expressing yourself… from making a difference,” adds Moujbani, recalling how he and the other eco-warriors “stopped a factory in Sweden from burning toxic waste by sleeping on the conveyer belt — with their masks on.”

“But before direct action we do lots of research. There’s learning, discussion, negotiation,” says Anant Padmanabhan, Executive Director of Greenpeace India. “Our reputation is the most important thing we have. We will stand up for our convictions, with all that we’ve got.”

At the helm of the Rainbow Warrior, a beautifully carved oak dolphin called `Dave’, the team’s mascot, looks out at the Indian sea of troubles. “It is human nature to protest… to respond to wanton, mindless destruction,” says Padmanabhan, leaning over the ship’s railing and pointing to pictures of dead marine life being put up at the Crocodile Bank stall at the port.

Their mission in India is to work as a platform to bring together conservationists, scientists, activists, fishermen and State representatives. Their targets this time? The proposed Sethu Samudram canal and the thermal power plant in Tuticorin, which are direct threats to the biologically rich Gulf of Mannar Biosphere reserve. They are also heading to Orissa to document the mass-nesting destination of the Olive Ridley Turtles, which are threatened by the new port at Dhamra, offshore drilling and illegal fishing.

Eco-warriors battle on

“This used to be the fish hold, now we call it the theatre,” laughs Moujbani, continuing his tour. “In Iceland, when we went to protest whaling, we weren’t allowed into port. So we brought all the journalists here by boat, and had the press conference here… Oh, and don’t touch anything or you’ll get grease all over you!”

The ship, which is almost five decades old, is creaky but compact with neatly packed and labelled sections holding everything a modern-day ecological warrior could possibly need: rows of bright neon jackets, fire equipment, lifting gear, bicycles, banners, tarps, eye shields, air tools, pliers, spanners, screwdrivers, twine and `ping pong stuff.’ “We also have a washing machine and drier because there are about 15 of us and (pause) sometimes, we need them,” grins Moujbani, leaning against a wall bearing a host of posters, including a picture of the earth with `Save it, don’t pave it,’ blazed across.

At the quietly dignified bridge, leaning against the Captain’s table, which is covered with a map of the Chennai harbour, pencils, glue sticks and three cheerful beady-eyed toy turtles, Helena, from Sydney, Australia, discusses her job. “I’m a deckhand and an activist. So I maintain the ship, cleaning in the morning, maintaining it, finding rust… It’s an old ship, so it needs a lot of maintenance… . It’s physical work, but because you care about it, it’s fun.”

The Warrior’s obviously been captivating imaginations from all over the world. The current crew has people from Holland, Russia, Spain, England, Germany, New Zealand, India, Australia, Argentina, Tunisia and Canada.

Oscar Macian Zorba, the ship’s Spanish First Mate, says he left the Merchant Navy to get on board. Leaning against the railing and looking out at the quietly restless waters of the harbour, he says he’s never been happier.

Taking on the heavyweights of the world, the governments and corporates with deep pockets might be a tough and sometimes intimidating battle, but, he says, “I’m happier trying than not. We DO change things. It’s slow, it’s difficult, but it happens… And if you believe in something, it’s not an effort.” And could he do this for the rest of his life? “This is what I want to do. I can’t say about the rest of my life, but for now… for sure.”

“Well, I suppose we will eventually go back to living our lives,” says Moujbani thoughtfully, “But other people will take our places. For, the war, the work… It must go on.”

Famous encounters

1978: Launches whaling campaigns against Iceland and Spain. Intercepts a British ship attempting to dump nuclear wastes. Prevents the massacre of 6,000 grey seals at Orkney Islands, Scotland.

1980: Blockades a ship disposing chemical waste in the North Sea. Continues its whale campaign in Spain. Authorities seize the ship and remove parts. Replacements are smuggled in, and the crew escapes.

1981: The seal campaign continues in Canada. Activists are arrested for spraying green dye on seal coats, making them useless for fur and, therefore, safe from hunters.

1985: The crew evacuates the Ronglep islanders after the island suffers from the nuclear fallout from French testing in the Pacific. During the campaign against the French nuclear testing, French secret agents bomb the ship. It sinks and a Greenpeace photographer dies.

1989: The Rainbow Warrior II is launched, specially fitted for campaigning, thanks to French government funds paid as compensation.

1995: When France ends a three-year moratorium on nuclear testing, the Rainbow Warrior races to Moruroa. As it enters the exclusion zone around the site, a French tug rams the ship, commandoes break in and the navy tows it away.

2003: When Iceland intends to resume commercial whaling, the Rainbow Warrior sails there to inform Icelanders about alternatives. Then, it heads to India to visit its toxic ship-breaking yards.

2004: Visits the tropical forests of Indonesia to document illegal logging. Heads to Chennai, from where it kicks off a mission to save the turtles and the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere reserve.

(Inputs from the Greenpeace Web site


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