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

The Coriander Club

The well-worn wooden cart piled high with piles of gleaming brinjals, bright chillies and fragrant coriander leaves might still pass by your window every day. But as more and more people choose to drive their trendy SUVs to one of the massive supermarkets — springing up all over every big city in India — to buy their fruits and vegetables, it could eventually become a thing of the past.

Fortunately, in the United Kingdom, farmers are fighting back. And, perhaps it is because of recent food scares and worries about genetically modified food. Or a mounting concern for the environment. Or, a more selfish quest for food that doesn’t taste travel-weary. But British consumers are now insisting on eating and buying local produce, as they now want to know where, and how, their food originated.

Emerging phenomenon

Which explains why farmers’ markets are getting increasingly popular across the United Kingdom. Started in London a little over 10 years ago, these (usually weekly) markets bring together groups of local farmers, with their produce.

The National Farmers’ Retail and Markets Association (FARMA) — which has approximately 7,000 members and 225 markets under its wings — stipulates that all this produce must be from within a radius of ideally 30 miles, but never more than 100 miles. Anything made by the stallholder, such as the bronzed crusty breads and moist carrot cakes displayed enticingly at these markets, has to contain fresh, local, seasonal ingredients. And the farmer or a direct representative must be present at every stall, to talk to customers and answer questions.

At the little Wednesday farmers’ market in Finchley, London, for example, Peter and Joan Clarke never leave their makeshift counter, set up in front of their van. As he unloads crate after crate of appealing vegetables — some plucked a few hours ago at their Kingcup Farm in Denham, which is about 16 miles away — he says their chats with customers are an essential part of their business. Besides urging them to try new, exotic vegetables, (“Baby leeks can be steamed. They’re delicious with a cheese sauce.”) the couple also get ideas about new crops to grow. “That’s how we have mooli and saag, suggested by Indians,” he grins. He grows 70 different varieties of vegetables, 30 of which were spread out in vibrant piles at the market that day.

Peter says that these markets are beneficial for both the farmers and the people who buy from them, as the food they supply is always fresh, and therefore both nutritious and tasty, with intense flavours and colours. For farmers, markets like this aren’t just a way to connect with customers. It also means they finally get to bypass the middlemen, and shun supermarket chains, notorious for their draconian rules.

Big supermarket chains place ridiculous conditions on farmers, such as insisting every apple has to have a uniform diameter of 2.5 inches. A report by “Friends of the earth”, called “Supermarkets and Great British Fruit” (2002), gives the results of a survey done with 100 apple and pear growers, who said any fruit with minor skin blemishes gets rejected, along with “apples that are either not red enough, or too red”. As a result, fruit is left on the orchard floor or simply dumped. More than half the farmers stated that they have to apply more pesticides to “meet cosmetic standards”. It’s not just fruit. Felicity Lawrence, journalist and author of Not on the Label says, that for every 30 tonnes of carrots harvested, just 10 tonnes are used.

More variety

At a farmers’ market, you see varieties of seasonal food you are unlikely to find anywhere else, especially at this price range. Peter Clarke, for instance, has five piles of carrots, each a different colour — creamy white, sunshine yellow and different shades of orange — in his stall.

“Since some fruits and vegetables don’t travel well, like some heritage varieties of tomatoes, which have thin skins, you won’t find them in supermarkets,” says Sue Thompson, Spokesperson and Certification Manager for FARMA. “So farmers’ markets around the world have been a lifeline to rare varieties of fruits and vegetables and breeds of meat.” For instance, there are more than 2,000 varieties of native U.K. apples. But in the world of supermarkets there are may be 20.

Organisers like Cheryl Cohen, director of London Farmer’s Markets (which sets up and administers London’s 15 certified farmers’ markets), actively search for farmers who offer more than the routine foods. “We have some Japanese farmers on the South Coast, who are growing lovely leafy Japanese vegetables,” she says, “And there are a group of Asian women growing Asian vegetables at the Spitalfields City Farm (at London’s East End) who call themselves the `Coriander club’, who we would love to include in our markets.” (These Bangladeshi women, who come from the surrounding borough of Tower Hamlets, grow traditional herbs and vegetables.)

Local sourcing of this sort reduces lorry and plane “food miles”. FARMA estimates that the ingredients for an air-freighted British Sunday lunch creates 37 kg of greenhouse gases. When bought from a local market, on the other hand, just 38.2 grams are released. That’s a dramatic reduction of 99.8 per cent.

But perhaps the best thing about a market of this sort is the chance to enjoy the oasis of warm “small town” community feeling that invariably springs up as farmers lay out their produce, and exchange recipes and storage tips with each other and passers-by.

Vibrant community

On a typical day, you’ll see a cyclist discussing routes with the baker, as he balances his helmet and a slice of spongy foccaccia on one side, while the feta cheese stall owner charms a wide-eyed tourist into tasting, then buying a hunk of his garlicky, crumbly cheese. Kids run between the rows of vegetables, pulling and poking at them in fascination, and in a corner the delicious smell of barbequed burgers rises, as a farmer in a striped apron works his fragrant grill.

And sales talk is both gentle and affectionate. “You can feel the difference here,” says Gina, a young graduate who moved from Australia to the Perry Court family farm in Kent (“because this is so much nicer than the office”) holding out a gang of plump onions for a customer. “It’s in the richness of the flavours… It just tastes so much more real.”


October 2022