The earth watchers

Print edition : December 11, 1999

Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior comes to India as part of a tour aimed at creating awareness about hazardous wastes.

When the Earth is sick and the animals and plants begin to die, then the Indians will regain their spirit and gather people of all nations, colour and creed to join together in the fight to save the planet and they will be known as the Warriors of the Rainbow.

- prophecy made by "Eyes of Fire", an old woman of the Cree tribe.

ON its maiden voyage to India, as part of the Toxic Free Future Tour of Asia, the 55-foot, three-mast ship Rainbow Warrior of Greenpeace docked at Mumbai's Ferry Wharf in the last week of November. The tour, which began in South America last year and pas sed through ports in the northern regions of Europe and the Mediterranean, is aimed at creating awareness about the trade in hazardous waste and the export of technology that creates hazardous waste. The Toxic Free Future Tour was planned to coincide wit h the 15th anniversary of the disaster in the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal.

A report prepared by scientists Ruth Stringer and Kevin Brigden of the Greenpeace Research Laboratories was released in Mumbai on November 29. Titled "The Bhopal Legacy", it states that the disaster goes beyond the gas leak. "The disaster is continuing," says Stringer. "The environment is being polluted even today." On analysing samples of soil, water and waste from the factory site, Stringer and Brigden found that there was "severe contamination with heavy metals and toxic organic chemicals". Some samp les had 12 per cent mercury, which is 20,000 to six million times higher than in soil elsewhere. The researchers allege that sacks of chemicals still lie around inside the factory and that these are leaking into the soil and contaminating the groundwater . They say that the drinking water has a contamination level that is 1,000 times higher than is acceptable. The toxic substances affect the liver, kidneys, intestines and the nervous system. According to them, the technology to destroy these chemicals ex ists, and all that is needed is funds and the political will.

Bhopal is a microcosm of what toxic pollution by persistent organic pollutants (POPs) will make the world in the long term. Disseminating information about POPs will be central to Greenpeace's tour of Asia. Nityanand Jayaraman, Greenpeace's Asia coordina tor, said: "There are no safe levels of exposure to POPs. So we call for a cessation of their production. The industry, however, wants a regulation of these products."

Peter Willcox, captain of Rainbow Warrior, spoke about how he first came across POPs. "I became aware of toxic pollution in 1973 when working on the Hudson river in New York. Environmentalists there were patting one another on the back because the river was being rid of the petroleum and sewage pollution that was so easy to see. Then we learnt about poly chlorinated biphenyls or PCBs, that had settled on the river bed."

VIVEK BENDRE

The original Rainbow Warrior was built in 1977 from the hull of a North Sea trawler. Its earliest campaigns included those aimed at protecting whales and seals, eliminating high-sea drift nets and opposing nuclear testing. In 1985, when the Rainbow Wa rrior was docked in Auckland, New Zealand, before sailing to the Pacific atoll of Mururoa for a peaceful protest against the nuclear tests being carried out by France in the atoll, French secret service agents attached limpet bombs to its hull. The ship sank, killing Greenpeace photographer Fernando Pereira. Greenpeace, however, was undeterred and bought another ship. A three-mast schooner was rebuilt on the hull of a fishing vessel called Grampian Fame. The present Rainbow Warrior, which was launched i n 1989, is equipped with the latest electronic navigation, sailing and communication equipment.

POPs, including PCBs, have a long life. They emit toxicity into the environment gradually by getting into all the life forms that come into contact with them. They survive in fatty deposits and float in the air, spreading toxicity. Since PCBs survive wel l in fatty deposits, their effect is severe on creatures at the apex of the food chain, such as human beings, whales and polar bears. "Today, polar bears have the highest concentration of PCBs," says Willcox.

Greenpeace is also targeting a group of chemical compounds called dioxins, which it treats as toxic pollutants. Dioxins are the byproducts of industrial processes such as PVC manufacture, pesticide production, incineration, bleaching of pulp and paper wi th chlorine, and smelting and recycling of metals. Like PCBs, dioxins too are transported across vast distances, even by air and ocean currents. Because of this, dioxins can be found in the tissues, blood and breast milk of humans in most countries.

Stricter environmental regulations in the industrialised countries have led to the transfer of old and obsolete technology to nations where regulations are weak or non-existent. The latter category of nations includes India. Quoting a 1989 government cir cular, Greenpeace states: "According to the Indian government, industries that engage in activities involving TCCD (the most toxic form of dioxin) have specific responsibilities such as assessment of major hazards, measures to prevent accidents and limit impairment of human health and environmental pollution, proper information for workers, emergency plans etc. Unfortunately, these requirements are not enforced and there are no known standards for controlling or reducing emissions of dioxin into air, la nd or water. Greenpeace knows of no certified laboratory in India equipped to analyse for the presence of dioxin."

With their tradition of peaceful and hands-on protests, Greenpeace activists have sailed into nuclear test zones, blocked toxic effluent pipes and manoeuvred themselves between whales and harpoons. While Greenpeace does not envisage such direct action im mediately in the current context, the organisation will continue with its basic strategy of campaigning against the abuse of the environment by lobbying with the relevant authorities and international conventions, providing alternative choices and soluti ons in the form of studies and reports, and promoting environmentally responsible technologies and products.

According to Willcox, in India Greenpeace "will network using NGOs (non-governmental organisations), offering them scientific information support." Local groups will be provided support in terms of information and research. This strategy of providing sup port to local groups is also expected to help minimise any stonewalling tactics local governments may employ against any internationally initiated action.

Greenpeace believes that the involvement of local populations is another crucial element in the process of change. With the help of NGOs, Greenpeace will campaign for legislation that guarantees the community the right to know about the nature of waste d umping (if any) in their neighbourhood. As Willcox said, "These toxins are accumulating in our bodies and we are paying the price." Greenpeace is also calling for corporate accountability, saying that unregulated operation of industrial plants should be stopped.

In less than three decades, Greenpeace has, by campaigning against environmental pollution, notched up quite a few successes. It was instrumental in bringing about a ban on dumping toxic waste into the sea and on the export of hazardous waste from indust rialised to industrialising nations. In India, Greenpeace's efforts to ensure that Asia does not become a dumping ground for hazardous waste led to the 1997 Supreme Court order that banned the import of such substances.

Summing up the danger posed by toxic pollutants, Willcox said: "If I have learnt one thing about POPs in the last 26 years, it is that they represent a very serious threat to our health. And the longer we wait, the higher the cost we will pay for produci ng them."

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