Environmental Activism at a Cost: Greenpeace and the Nazca Lines

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LIMA, PERU –The environmental activist group Greenpeace has long stood for defending the Earth and all of its creatures, a mission which earth-centered Pagans are likely to support. The organization has been on the front lines of fights against whaling, the toppling of ancient trees, the single-minded pursuit of oil without regard for secondary damages, and has also lobbied for full nuclear disarmament, sought safer alternatives to toxic chemicals, and encouraged sustainable agriculture over genetically modified organisms.


On Dec. 8, however, a group of Greenpeace activists, seeking to attract the attention of United Nations delegates attending the climate talks in Lima, wound up attracting the world’s attention in a bad way. They placed a large message in support of renewable energy adjacent to one of the nearby Nacza Line drawings. While the words themselves were formed using large pieces of yellow cloth, the footprints left by the Greenpeace members irreparably damaged this UNESCO Heritage Site, according to Peruvian authorities.

It’s not difficult to imagine how this publicity stunt came to be planned. Environmentalists the world over have been focused on the talks in Lima, with hopes that substantive progress might be made towards addressing the growing crisis of climate change. As more extreme weather events shake the support of climate-change deniers, stronger calls for developing renewable energy sources have surged. With the talks being held in Peru, so close to the highly visible, very recognizable line drawings made by the Nazca people centuries ago, placing a non-permanent message near these iconic symbols must have seemed a perfect choice for those involved in the stunt’s planning.

What Greenpeace members apparently did not know about this highly restricted area is that the drawings were made by scratching into the dark ground to reveal the lighter soil underneath. They have been preserved for the 1,500-2,000 years since their creation largely by the dry desert climate of the region. To prevent footprints, which would similarly last for centuries, those few people who are authorized to walk near the site wear special shoes; shoes that the activists did not use.

This was a case where leaving only footprints and taking only pictures was not enough to leave no trace, and a firestorm has erupted over the action. Peruvian Deputy Culture Minister Luis Jaime Castillo said, “Peru has nothing against the message of Greenpeace. We are all concerned about climate change,” but he denounced the stunt as a “true slap in the face at everything Peruvians consider sacred.” Those involved were able to leave the country, but Peru’s government has demanded to know their identities and is considering legal action; attacking archeological monuments can carry a penalty of up to six years. One of those involved has been identified as Mauro Fernandez, an Argentine who coordinates the Andean Climate and Energy Campaign.

Greenpeace did issue an apology. However, it did little to quell the mounting criticism, because the apology focused on the “moral offense” inflicted on Peruvians, rather than the damage caused by the mile-long trek made through the desert to lay the message out. This is damage for which there is no known way to repair. After pictures made that damage evident, a more remorseful statement was published on Dec. 12:

The decision to engage in this activity shows a complete disregard for the culture of Peru and the importance of protecting sacred sites everywhere. There is no apology sufficient enough to make up for this serious lack of judgment. I know my international colleagues who engaged in this activity did not do so with malice, but that doesn’t mitigate the result. It is a shame that all of Greenpeace must now bear.” — Greenpeace U.S. Executive Director Annie Leonard

Executive Director Kumi Naidoo has since stated that Greenpeace will cooperate with the investigation, saying that “There cannot be any defense for what happened.”

Drawing of a colibri [Photo Credit: BjarteSorensen]

Drawing of a colibri [Photo Credit: BjarteSorensen]

This situation brings into conflict two common Pagan values — veneration of the Earth and the honoring of sacred land and indigenous religious practices. Alane Brown, a Dianic Wiccan and a professor at Fort Lewis College who recently returned from working for the Peace Corps in Peru, said, “I was shocked by Greenpeace’s action and see it as a crime against Peruvian heritage and deeply disrespectful of Peruvian ancestors.”

Unfortunately, the general Pagan reaction to the Greenpeace incident has been somewhat muted. Many individuals and groups reached for this story declined to comment on the situation and the implied conflict of interest. How far should we go, as Earth stewards or activists, to protect the planet’s resources and the future of our environment? Activism at what cost?