Greenpeace May Have Permanently Damaged An Ancient, Sacred Site. Now What?

CREDIT: AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd

Greenpeace activists stand next to massive letters delivering the message "Time for Change: The Future is Renewable" next to the hummingbird geoglyph in Nazca in Peru, Monday, Dec. 8, 2014. The Nazca peoples' ancient geoglyphs are one of the country's cultural landmarks.

Greenpeace International set off a firestorm in Peru last week, and not the kind it had hoped for. After a few of its members damaged, perhaps irreparably, one of the most important cultural heritage sites in the country, a debate is beginning over how to interpret the environmental groups offensive actions.

Greenpeace’s intention was good, some argue. It’s not like the whole organization was in on it. Think of all the other important acts Greenpeace has done in the past, they say. The climate movement needs Greenpeace.

But others maintain Greenpeace International committed a grave offense. Its illegal actions illustrated the group’s willingness to disrespect cultural patrimony for the sake of making a headline. And in a way, its attempt to promote renewable energy may have actually set back that very cause, as political opponents jump on the story as indicative of a radical and crass organization with no real respect for the environment.

This is the dispute that has preoccupied climate and environmental advocates since it was discovered last week that Greenpeace had trespassed on to the world-renowned Nazca Lines to lay a bright yellow banner urging a switch to renewable energy. The combination of banner-plus-Peruvian World Heritage site was meant to draw attention to the U.N. climate talks being held in nearby Lima. But the stunt backfired, and Peruvian officials say the activists’ footprints permanently damaged the area surrounding the ancient hummingbird geoglyph.

Along with riling the Peruvian government (which has pledged to file criminal charges against the offending activists) and damaging the site, the situation has drawn a rift between environmentalists.

Greg Laden, an outspoken climate hawk, biological anthropologist, and archaeologist who studies historical sites like the Nazca lines, has seen it personally. “There are people that have contacted me privately and publicly who are allies in climate discussion who think we should not react too strongly because they want to preserve Greenpeace as a legitimate organization,” he said. “I don’t think they understand the significance of the situation.”

Laden himself has come out strongly against Greenpeace’s action. As an archaeologist, he emphasizes the importance of the geoglyphs, and his outrage over their disrespect — by an environmental conservation organization, no less.

“I’m an archaeologist, and this is a World Heritage Site,” he said. “I see the same thing as when a bunch of kids drive into the desert, find a grave, dig up artifacts, and sell them … They exploited the patrimony of the site for absolutely no reason.”

His outrage is shared by most, though in private, most environmental advocates — including many within Greenpeace USA — are shell-shocked. They are heartbroken at the damage to the Nazca Lines, humiliated about the fallout, and plagued with debilitating disbelief that the situation was allowed to occur. They want to know who the responsible parties were within Greenpeace International, and they want to remind people of all the good that Greenpeace has done for the climate and environment in the past.

And most everyone agrees on one thing: A simple apology is not going to be enough.

Greenpeace International has issued an apology for its action, though many, including Peru, considered inadequate — it apologized only for offense caused by the trespass, and not the damage done by the trespass itself. Two days later, Greenpeace USA issued its own apology, though it did not take part in the stunt, expressing “anger and frustration” toward the situation.

“For many years Greenpeace US has been making a concerted effort to reach out to and collaborate with diverse constituencies, many of whom share different cultures, values and priorities,” the apology from Greenpeace USA Executive Director Annie Leonard read. “The Nazca Lines situation has undermined the trust of many allies and supporters that we have been working so hard to build.”

The statement illustrates exactly why Greenpeace needs to do more than just apologize. Because even though the Nazca lines incident was performed by only a few Greenpeace members and seemingly not known by the U.S. branch, the repercussions could be organization-wide. Indigenous groups are often fierce supporters of the environment, and even with this incident committed by a few, Greenpeace may have lost their ability to collaborate with them on future projects. If one group of Greenpeace activists were willing to damage sacred cultural land for the benefit of publicity, then what’s to say it won’t happen again?

Greenpeace International’s media office did not immediately respond to ThinkProgress’ request for comment on what it would do to ensure an event like this wouldn’t happen in the future. To make sure it won’t, Laden said Greenpeace needs to incorporate a rule into the organization’s governing charter that states, in blatant terms, it will respect cultural heritage sites when performing any activist activity. And in developing that rule, Greenpeace needs to work with indigenous groups that oversee those sites to make sure it knows what constitutes harm.

“I can’t support Greenpeace as an organization because it damages cultural heritage sites,” Laden said. “But I’m willing to completely move on and go back to my previous position when it’s written down that they won’t.”