From radical campaigning to blockading Italian docks in the name of EU agricultural legislation.
Greenpeace’s ‘blockade’ of a ship carrying genetically engineered (GE) soya into Chioggia, Venice, ended on the evening of 12 May 2004, after three days.
Four activists from the Greenpeace ship, the Esperanza, first boarded the Argentinean vessel, the Keoyang Majesty, on the morning of 9 May. They waved banners saying ‘Don’t buy GE food’ and ‘Defend yourself from GMOs’ (genetically modified organisms). On the morning of 13 May, they began to disrupt the offloading and transportation of the GE cargo, boarding barges and an elevator used for these purposes. Six activists also placed themselves in canoes between a barge and the Keoyang Majesty.
Coordinated with the Chioggia campaign, another blockade started on 10 May in the Italian port of Ravenna. Seventy Greenpeace activists from six European countries blocked warehouses on the docks, preventing GE soya from being loaded from the depots for transport around the country.
According to Greenpeace, Italy imports about 4.2million tonnes of soybeans every year for animal feed, about three million tonnes of which are genetically modified (GM). The port of Ravenna accounts for an estimated two million tonnes of these imports, making it the main entry point into Italy. Greenpeace wants Chioggia and Ravenna to be ‘GM free’.
These protests may seem radical, but what exactly was Greenpeace calling for? While Greenpeace would of course like to end GE imports into Italy, its specific request during the blockade in Chioggia was for the intervention of the Italian authorities to check that the cargo complied with European regulations.
The European Union (EU) hasn’t allowed experimental or commercial growth of any new GM crops since 1998, or the imports of new GM-based food products. Eighteen biotech plants had been approved before this date, including soybeans. Since then, the European Commission has pushed through new laws on the traceability and labelling of GM products.
At Chioggia, Greenpeace invited the port authorities, customs officials, police and health inspectors to check the cargo to ensure that it met European legal requirements and was secure. Greenpeace also sent a letter to the Italian minister of health, Girolamo Sirchia, asking for checks on the traceability of GM food (1). The activists had their demands met – the Italian Ministry of Health committed itself to carrying out an inspection of the GE soya to check that it complied with EU legislation.
During the 1980s, Greenpeace was part of a radical environmental movement in Italy, working with many other environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs), such as Italia Nostra, Legambiente and the Italian branch of the World Wildlife Fund, to oppose the government. Their main campaign was against the Italian government’s plans for expanding nuclear power and hosting cruise missiles. They succeeded in mobilising considerable numbers of people – on 10 May 1986, between 150,000 and 200,000 people marched in Rome against nuclear power. The campaign succeeded in stopping plans for the expansion of nuclear power through three referenda in November 1987.
Since then, Greenpeace and other NGOs from the environmental movement of the 1980s have concentrated on mobilising individual activists for media and legal campaigns. According to the social network theorists Pamela Oliver and
Gerald Marwell, in the late 1980s environmental organisations began to give priority to ‘quasi-professionalised’ action, and focus on mobilising sympathisers’ money and resources, instead of their time and ‘labour force’ (2).
Greenpeace became adept at conducting high-impact media stunts, often with only a handful of activists. For example, Greenpeace gained high-profile media attention against the industrial complex at Marghera, Venice – its famous ship, the SV Rainbow Warrior, pulled into the Venetian lagoon to ensure that TV cameras filmed four Greenpeace protesters leaving the ship to ‘occupy’ Marghera (3).
As Greenpeace has become more professionalised, it has focused more on government institutions. Mario Diani, a specialist on the Italian environmental movement, noted the efforts of Italian environmental NGOs ‘to create a sort of “environmental lobbying structure”, to exert systematic pressure on established political actors and public institutions’ (4). Indeed, since the late 1990s several environmental NGOs have acted as consultants for Italian governments, as described by leading Italian sociologist Roberto Biorcio in ‘Green Parties in National Governments: Italy’, his 2002 essay for the Environmental Politics journal.
Prominent Italian sociologist Alberto Melucci has suggested that environmental associations can help modernise Italian institutions that often seem outdated: ‘For this core of the movement, the institutions and the market are not traps to be avoided but instruments to be utilised to the extent to which they enable the achievement of environmentalist goals. Better accustomed to wielding the same weapons as their adversaries, these actors may perform a modernising role within the institution, while their behaviour towards the outside translates into institutional support or “alternative” entrepreneurship.’ (5)
Who needs customs officials or the police to enforce the law when Greenpeace activists seem more efficient in doing the job?
Dominic Standish is writing a PhD on Venice and environmental risks. He also writes for numerous media organisations, including the Italian National Press Agency, Ansa.
(1) Greenpeace: Esposto sulla regolarita’ della nave con soia OGM, ancora bloccata a Chioggia, Greenpeace website, 11 May 2004
(2) P Oliver and G Marwell, ‘Mobilizing Technologies for Collective Action’, in A Morris and C Mueller (editors), Frontiers in Social Movement Theory, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1992
(3) Greenpeace Activists face a rough time while occupying a chemical plant to protect Venice lagoon, Greenpeace website, 15 September 1999
(4) M Diani, Green Networks. A Structural Analysis of the Italian Environmental Movement, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1995, p189
(5) A Melucci, Challenging Codes. Collective action in the information age, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p166
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