If You Ran Greenpeace, How Would You Undo the Damage of the Nazca Lines Incident?

Print Share on LinkedIn More

Nazca Lines

An unbelievably counterproductive action conceived and conducted by Greenpeace activists has made political bedfellows of Fox News and Vladimir Putin.

Putin’s Russia Today (RT) news source has barely been able to contain its chortling in reporting about Greenpeace’s executive director, Kumi Naidoo, appearing before a Peruvian court to apologize for the intrusion of people associated with Greenpeace into a UNESCO World Heritage Site containing the fragile Nazca Lines, etchings made 1,500 to 2,000 years ago, to lay out cloth letters, visible by airplane, that read, “Time for change! The future is renewable! Greenpeace.” Unfortunately, the Nazca Lines are not renewable and may have been damaged irreparably. Putin has had a cold spot in his heart for Greenpeace for a long time, certainly since the Greenpeace icebreaker, Arctic Sunrise, deposited some Greenpeace activists on a Gazprom oil rig in the Pechora Sea, which resulted in Russia’s seizing the boat and arresting 30 onboard.

No friend of Putin’s regime, Fox News has also been intrepidly following the Greenpeace debacle in Peru, in contrast to the limited coverage the story has received from other sources. Fox has written about the Greenpeace “publicity stunt” and Greenpeace’s rather ham-handed efforts to explain and apologize, including Greenpeace’s initial response that its activists were “absolutely careful” not to disturb the Nazca geoglyphs, when it is well known that access to the area is restricted due to the inevitability of damage from people’s footprints, and its subsequent statement that the Greenpeace understands “that this looks bad.” Fox has been no less a critic of Greenpeace over the years, notably giving extensive airtime on Hannity and other shows to former Greenpeace member Patrick Moore (billing himself inaccurately as a co-founder of Greenpeace) who has become a public dissenter against the notion of manmade climate change.

Despite the new convergence of Fox and Putin, there is no question that Greenpeace stumbled badly in its protest at the United Nations Climate Change conference in Peru earlier this month. Despite Naidoo’s public apology and the removal of the Greenpeace lettering, the damage has been done. Aerial flights still show the outlines of the letter “c” from “Greenpeace” along with footprints in the fragile sand and rock, and Peruvian authorities say that there are no known techniques for fixing the damage Greenpeace caused. Naidoo’s offer that Greenpeace and Peru work together to protect the site may sound almost cynical, given that the damage was caused by Greenpeace itself and cannot be remedied.

What should be done now? What would you do if you were Naidoo, trying to handle a devastating crisis for the organization?

  1. Would you cooperate with the authorities and turn over the perpetrators? Naidoo has said that the action by the activists, whom various reports have counted as between seven and 20, was not organized by or even known by him and top Greenpeace brass. Given that the action was well planned and organized, however, including having recruited an aerial flyover for photographs, this denial is a little hard to believe. Still, it’s what Greenpeace has said. Naidoo has also said, however, that Greenpeace would cooperate with Peruvian authorities in the investigation of the incident, which could result in prison time for those found guilty of desecrating an archeological site. However, Naidoo so far apparently hasn’t been willing to turn over the names of the activists. In a meeting with Peruvian authorities, Greenpeace executives actually said that they didn’t know the names of the activists involved, which Luis Jaime Castillo, Peru’s vice minister for cultural heritage, described as a “joke.” According to Minister of Culture Diana Alvarez, the Greenpeace activists were from other South American countries and from Europe and might be subject to extradition. Even though the Greenpeace perpetrators have departed, some are well known to have participated, either by their own public statements or having been caught on videotape, including the leader of the effort, Mauro Fernandez, who heads Greenpeace’s Andean Climate and Energy Campaign (in an interview after the incident, Fernandez reportedly tried to justify the action and denied that any damage had been caused). If you were Naidoo and Greenpeace, given the extraordinary damage your associates might have caused to a unique and fragile site, would you turn over the names of the activists for prosecution? Or would you decline to do so, perhaps because they were working to raise the issue of renewable energy for the awareness of the politicians meeting in Lima?
  2. How would you make reparations? Regardless of the prosecution of the people involved, Greenpeace has damaged a site with more than 70 zoomorphic designs, including the hummingbird where Greenpeace activists mounted their display, and other designs of plant life and flowers. The site was already suffering problems from environmental changes, deforestation, and squatters. Greenpeace has offered to pay for the restoration of the Nazca Lines site, at least the part where Greenpeace mounted the action, but if there are no known techniques for restoring the site, what would Greenpeace pay for—and how much could it possibly pay? Given the lack of restorative technology, is there anything that Greenpeace can affirmatively do in response to the damage its people have caused?
  3. How would you deal with the implications for developing nations?One of the serious implications of this action is that largely foreign environmentalists flew to Peru to conduct this action and flew out, without much or any consideration of Peruvians themselves. It feeds a narrative that environmentalists are at the minimum tone deaf to the developing world, impervious to what peoples and countries in the global South really want and value. By causing damage to a Peruvian archeological site, Greenpeace has added to the perception that developed world environmentalists are insensitive to the developing world’s needs, values, and priorities. Greenpeace has damaged its own “brand,” so to speak, but damaged that of other environmentalists as well. Is there a corrective action that Greenpeace can take, not only on its own behalf, but to help the image and reputation of the other environmentalists who might be aghast about what Greenpeace activists did in Peru?
  4. How would you proceed with future public relations–oriented advocacy actions? Had Greenpeace not happened upon a UNESCO World Heritage Site where it caused clear damage, the idea of having its climate change message spelled out in large letters to be seen from the air (for delegates from the 190 nations attending the conference to see as they flew into Peru) might have gotten a lot of attention. Its damage to the Nazca Lines has gotten Greenpeace attention, but not the kind it wanted. Has the trend toward symbolic, attention-getting advocacy actions aimed at making a splash and getting headlines and social media circulation turned counterproductive in itself? Are too many groups trying to find more and more outrageous or outlandish advocacy actions—ice bucket challenges, Kony “paint the town red” campaigns, and now Greenpeace lettering on an archeological site—where the point is being lost as the effort to get attention is overtaking the meaning? Greenpeace was not trying to marry Putin and Fox News in an anti-Greenpeace campaign, but it has managed to achieve that unlikely pairing. Would you alter Greenpeace’s attention-getting advocacy approaches, especially now that donors and supporters are expressing reservations about Greenpeace in the wake of the Nazca Lines incident?

Greenpeace is a long-admired organization whose activists have risked not only imprisonment, as in Russia with the Arctic Sunrise, but physical harm, with the French navy’s sinking of the Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand before it joined a protest against French nuclear weapons tests in the Pacific. It has been admirably persistent and courageous in its activism on climate change, nuclear power, genetically modified foods, and much more. The Nazca Lines incident threatens to reverse much of Greenpeace’s trajectory of accomplishments and perhaps inalterably damage its organizational credibility and trust. What would you do if you ran Greenpeace?—Rick Cohen

Disclosure: Rick Cohen once served on an advisory board with Greenpeace CEO Kumi Naidoo when Naidoo was head of Civicus

  • Lisa Haderlein

    First off, if I were their Director and I knew anything about the stunt before it happened, I would resign. There is no excuse for allowing something like this to happen, and there is nothing Naidoo could do to make it right.

    If I didn’t know, but one or more of my senior people knew, I would dismiss them and then I would resign. 1. those who knew and did not tell the director are not fit to continue working for the organization, and 2. if I were running an organization where my senior people did things like that without my knowledge, then I certainly would consider myself unfit to continue. Who knows what else is going on?

    They also need to turn over the names of the perpetrators – if known – and to make sure Greenpeace “activists” know that their actions in this case caused more harm than good.

    Finally, the organization needs to institute some policies and training for all staff and volunteers regarding what is acceptable and what is not. For instance, breaking the law to stop an environmental problem is one thing, but breaking the law – and damaging a cultural monument – to send a message is unacceptable.

  • Martin Robbins

    If Naidoo is the leader he believes he is then it’s time for him to step up and lead. If he doesn’t believe it is right for him to reveal the names of the perpetrators (which I agree with) then he should step forward and take the fall. Leadership requires responsibility and accountability.

    You can’t claim to be a leader by saying “it wasn’t me who spit on the floor.” Right now they are acting like cowards. I have spent a goodly portion of my career managing PR operations and learned early on that you must start in crisis management by taking responsibility. It’s time for Greenpeace leadership to accept responsibility by holding themselves accountable.

    If they want Greenpeace to survive, then they should step forward and publicly hold themselves responsible for this vandalism and be prepared to face the consequences. Unfortunately, I don’t think this will happen.

  • Bob

    First of all:
    hats off to Kumi! Knowing GP a bit, he is probably not close to decisions on these activities.

    I would admit the mistake. But also draw the attention that it was not uniquely Greenpeace activists changing the surroundings around the lines, but many-many others before. (please, upload a real arial photo from before the activity). I would communicate that as strongly as the apologies.

    Climate change will destroy the Nacza-lines, I am certain. The cause of the action is really important for Nacza-lines, too, I am convinced.

    All Greenpeace opponents are jumping on the issue, not surprisingly. All whale-huntes, nuclear industry, forest killers, climate-killers, Big PEsticide Producers, GMO-industry are all now doing a lot to make this story as BIG as possible to damage GP reputation. That You all should see as well. Do we win anything with a lot weaker Greenpeace? The common people not, Corporations: yes, a lot. Know that. Criticism is valid, but mind the level of seriousness, please!


  • Tobias

    You should not say Patrick Moore is “billing himself inaccurately as a co-founder of Greenpeace” when Greenpeace in 2005 named him as one of its founders.

    This screenshot shows this:


    This means when FoxNews called him that, they weren’t wrong.

  • Frank

    I believe GP is giving too much credence to critics and the significance of these allegations. While it is probably part of the progressive DNA to accept responsibility and feel it is your duty to feel guilty. Don’t bite that hook. Ignore them, get a PR help like that of BP or Exon. Don’t be bullied into anything. Stand strong even to the point of turning it around that you are the victim like so many others do. That is why you have to deny your DNA of accepting guilt. Your represent a lot of people who stand for your cause, Not just your self. You represent the progressive conscious of many environmentally concerned people. These ruins are not the important. In the big scheme of things, your message is more important and keep that first and foremost in the spotlight.

  • Arni Frank

    This was a major political statement by greenpeace of which the entire board woukdhave been aware. This gies to the cire if corporate governance. A topic wh I ch greenpeace has mentioned many times.

    Questiins for the board:

    1) when did the board go become aware of this?
    2) when did the executive become aware of this publicity stunt?
    3) what email correspondence is available regards the planning of the stunt?
    4) what was the first gp statement regards the stunt on gp website?
    5) DID GP HQ put out a press release regards the stunt
    6) How was the stunt funded? Where did tge funds conme from? Gp to provide all accounting records.

    If gp was fully aware of this stunt before the execution of the stunt then the board of gp is complicit in this criminal act and should be charged, The government of peru should seek extradition of the board and the perps inthus case

    If the funds came from Ģp HQ then see above.

    If this act was conduucted without the knowledge of gp HQ but by local elements and management in Peru t h en these should be briught before the courts and prosecuted.

    In latter case there is major corporate governance failure and the entire board should resign.

    In any event gp shoukd fave judicial sanction and massive fine.

    If this had been bp go would have demandedno less.

  • Arni Franks

    Impossible to believe that gp knew nothing about stunt. Not possible to believe. The Peruvian courts should demand access to the email servers of gp to evaluate the complicity of gp hq in this matter. The “ACTIVISTS” who did this would have had no reason to keep this secret from others within gp and from gp management and board members. Prima facie this is untrue. It is up to gp to prove there was no knowledge of this and that it was executed by an unauthorized rogue element in secret. gp should surrenderthe names of the activists who should receive prison terms for this. Failure to do so would be clear evidence of their direct involvment and they should be prosecuted. Apology is absurd like British Petroleum being allowed off for the Gulf spill after a humble SORRY on national tv. There needs to be a real penalty for this stunt. If this is not done we will see more of the same in the future. Corporate governance applies no ngos as well as for-profit corporations. Do the crime – do the time.

  • MarkB

    The only way for Greenpeace to ‘undo the damage’ would be for Greenpeace to stop being Greenpeace. This episode was a ‘mistake’ in the sense that it was a mistake for the Wizard of Oz to allow Toto to pull back the curtain. There was no rogue element here, and no agent provocateur’s making Greenpeace look bad. These individuals were acting in good faith, working for the cause that they all believe in. If any damage was done, it would certainly be less (in their minds) than the effects of climate change. Ends justify means. If you don’t like it, you don’t like Greenpeace.

  • Bonnie McEwan

    I agree with those who said Mr. Naidoo should resign and that the names of the perpetrators should be released. I also think that the leaders of the action should resign or be fired (e.g., Mauro Fernandez). There is a deeper issue, however, and that is the poor oversight of the governing board. Clearly, the board either needs to put better policies in place or, if they are already on the books, start following them. Perhaps the board chair needs to go too.

    The International organization should give some fast attention to shoring up support among its national affiliates. The statement from Annie Leonard on the Greenpeace USA site makes it clear that this colossal blunder by Naidoo and staff is having serious fallout on the affiliates. Several of those, notably the US one, are in a position to defect or overthrow the entire international structure. (That may not be such a bad thing, given their utter inability to manage a valuable brand.)

    Peru’s Ministry of Culture has hired archeologists to assess the damage to the Lines and recommend remedial action. As far as I can tell from some cursory research, it is not certain that nothing can be done to help fix any damage that occurred. In fact, it is not yet certain that Greenpeace personnel actually damaged the Lines themselves, although that does not make their behavior any less egregious. In any case, the point is that Greenpeace Intl. should bear financial responsibility.

    Apparently, there is a long-standing belief among environmentalists in the developing world that anviro activists in the developed world ignore their concerns and devalue their cultures. This crisis presents an opportunity for GP Intl. to address that. They should establish a multicultural review board that includes activists from developing nations, as well as those from the richer, developed countries. This group should review and approve (or not) any major action that GP Intl. plans to undertake, somewhat the way that hospital or university review boards vet major projects for ethical considerations.

    I also think that GP Intl. should rigorously investigate how an action that runs counter to its own statement of values (see: http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/about/our-core-values/) could have come about and write it up as a “lessons learned” report. That publication could be useful to personnel throughout Greenpeace, as well as other federated nonprofits. It would also demonstrate that GP is taking responsibility for its error and being transparent about its operations.

    Finally, it may be time for Greenpeace to revisit its own theory of change to assess its viability for the 21st century. It seems to me that the organization relies on generating media attention by creating controversy, apparently under the assumption that media coverage will drive change. For a host of reasons, particularly the fracturing of corporate media monoliths and rise of social media and other digital communication venues, this way of work probably needs updating. This does, I believe, get to your point about the quality of GP Intl’s visibility. It’s not enough to be merely visible. A nonprofit like Greenpeace, with an iconic brand and a string of successes in its history, is held to a higher standard, and that means they must communicate substantive messages that move people to action, not ridicule.

  • Amos Batto

    This issue touches me personally, since I have visited the Nazca lines several times, and am also a member of TierrActiva, which is a climate change activist group, which has members in Peru and Bolivia. I had a long conversation about this issue with a Peruvian friend, who had just spent a week watching Peruvian national TV, where there was universal criticism of the GP action. Comentary on Peruvian TV focused on the fact that these privileged foreignors were allowed to get away with damaging the national treasures of Peru and some comentators believed that the Peruvian government allowed the GP activists to escape the country. The most amazing thing was the fact that my friend and most Peruvians in general have no idea what the GP message was: “Time for Change: The Future is Renewable, Greenpeace”.

    Clearly, the message wasn’t geared toward Peru, since the message was written in English, not Spanish, but Greenpeace needs to make a concerted effort to say: “We are very sorry, in our effort to get out the message that the world need change to renewable energy as soon as possible, we didn’t realize that our action might damage a unique arqueological site.” Every apology by Greenpeace should mention the message of renewable energy.

    Frankly, the news coverage of the Nazca event has been atrocious, with no coverage of the message and no mention of its importance. As for Peru, the message is poorly worded, because Peru gets most of its electricity from hydroelectric dams which are “renewable,” but aren’t clean, since hydroelectic dams in tropical regions with large amounts of vegetation release more CO2 and methane per kilowatt-hour than any other form of electricity. I estimate that the 8 hydroelectric dams that Peru has already built, plus the 69 it is planning to build in the Amazonian basin will emit 369.7 megatons of CO2-equivalent per year, which is 241% more than its total greenhouse emissions in 2011 from all sectors. Every time Greenpeace talks to the Peruvian press, it should mention the fact that Peru is planning to double its national emissions using the dirtiest form of energy on the planet instead of investing in clean solar, wind, geothermal and tidal energy.

    As for turning over the names of the GP activists to the Peruvian government, it would destroy the trust of GP activists in their organization and probably harm the organization in the long term. If the Peruvian government gets the names, they will be obligated make an example of these activists and give them long jail sentences and Peruvian jails are not pleasant places. At this point I am not sure whether the Peruvian government really wants to get the names of the activists, since it would be a legal nightmare for them and might even harm their reputation in the green tourism industry in the Amazon. The Peruvian government would probably prefer to act indignant, and then throw up their hands and say, “There is nothing that we can do”. Refusing to turn over the names actually gets the Peruvian government out of a sticky situation. If Peru does manage to prosecute the GP activists, it could cause the press to start asking troublesome questions about Peru’s plans to build 69 new tropical hydroelectric dams and sell electricity to Brazil.

    From the point of public relations, Greenpeace might decide that someone important in the organization should resign, but I’m not sure that that is the correct response either, because it sends the message that climate activists can be cowed and will give up. Whether someone resigns or not, Greenpeace should say, “We were trying to communicate the message that we need renewable energy, but we chose the wrong way to do it.” Then, it should comment on the fact that the media only pay attention to this important issue when they do media-grabbing stunts, like putting messages on archeological sites.

  • Rashmir Balasubramaniam

    What happened is a tragedy. What happens next is a choice, and an opportunity or three.

    (1) It is an opportunity for the leaders of Greenpeace to live their values and to act in the way that demonstrates the level of transparency and responsibility we would like to see from companies.

    (2) Greenpeace is a complex global organization, and this incident presents a timely opportunity for internal change. However that is a strategic and operational matter for the board, leadership and members.

    (3) It is an opportunity to demonstrate the power of collaborative stakeholder engagement and action. If I were a leader of Greenpeace, I would actively explore with key stakeholders and leading experts whether and how the damage might be reversed. But I would not limit this to the damage caused by the protesters. There are a whole list of questions that could be explored that might leverage the power and strengths of Greenpeace to bring a net positive outcome to Peru – one that goes far beyond the question of blame or reparations that is currently being bandied about.

    Kumi Naidoo is an experienced and smart man, adept at international diplomacy. This may be his leadership crucible. But whatever the outcome, it would be unwise to blame one man for what has happened.

  • PaulH

    Sorry “huggies”… All probably said, but like GP, I want to get my message across.

    Cohen’s assertion that “Greenpeace is a long-admired organization…”, is extremely narrow point-of-view among huggies.

    A responsible organization operates within the law, weighs opportunity to deliver maximum value while preserving resource (bang for the buck), and is accountable for their actions. Regardless if GP leadership was aware of the Nazca activity before-hand, the responsible parties should be held accountable for their actions.

    If leadership did not know of the Nazca activity before hand, then it suggests that GreenPeace is organized more like terrorist cell than a responsible organization. I believe that most people see them in this way.

    This may be an opportunity for GP to get some real street cred (instead of thug-cred), and own-up to become an honest organization.