Greenpeace Arctic 30: A shift in focus for campaigners
- 20 November 2013
- From the section Europe
Greenpeace set out to protest about oil companies drilling in the Arctic Ocean, but now finds itself fighting to free a group of 30 from a Russian jail. What effect is the case having on the group's environmental aims?
"The primary focus is getting the Arctic 30 free and home with their loved ones. That's what we are spending every hour working on."
Ben Ayliffe used to be head of Greenpeace's Save the Arctic campaign. But now even his job title is different.
As head of the Arctic 30 campaign, he spends his time trying to get 30 activists and journalists freed from prison in St Petersburg.
They were arrested in September by Russian forces after some tried to scale an offshore oil platform, and currently face up to seven years in prison on charges of hooliganism.
"It's all hands to the decks. That's my focus now," he says.
Updates on the detainees' latest legal applications can make almost daily appearances in the news. Protests have been held at Russian consulates in cities around the world and attended by film stars.
Even Greenpeace's website makes it clear how attention has shifted - the first thing you see is a call for readers to 'Stand with the Arctic 30'.
Meanwhile its environmental message that oil drilling in the Arctic means "a catastrophic oil spill is just a matter of time", is far less obvious.
Despite this, Mr Ayliffe says the push for the activists to be freed has not taken away from the group's environmental efforts.
"They are one of the same campaign," he says. "We talk about wanting to free the Arctic 30 and at the same time we are reminding people what they were doing in the Arctic in the first place.
"It certainly has resonated with people."
Chris Rose, a consultant in campaign strategy and former adviser to Greenpeace International, says public views about the group will not be altered.
"People support the organisation because of its values and principles," he says.
However Frank Zelko, associate professor of history and environmental studies at the University of Vermont, says the legal case is "definitely a distraction".
"Something as high profile as this is bound to have an impact," he says.
"But the amount of media attention on Greenpeace has just multiplied so many times that if even 10% of the attention is directed towards the environmental issue, it is still way more attention [than] it would have got otherwise."
Greenpeace says it has had millions of people joining its Save the Arctic campaign as a result of events in Russia.
In 2012, the worldwide organisation received $354m (£216m, 260m euros) in donations, according to its annual report.
It is now paying 2m roubles ($61,000, £38,000) in bail for each of the detainees to be allowed to leave pre-trial detention.
"The legal costs are coming from the money that we have to run our organisation around the world," says Greenpeace's Ben Ayliffe.
He says the group is not fundraising off the back of the Arctic 30 detentions.
"That is not something I ever thought about. Whether people are writing to their embassies or signing up to the Save the Arctic campaign, we do not ask people to stump up cash."
But Mr Zelko says past cases such as the bombing of Greenpeace's campaign ship, the Rainbow Warrior, in 1985 raised large amounts of money for the organisation.
"The money they receive on the back of the Arctic 30 case should more than cover whatever they need to pay to cover the activists' legal costs," he says.
"I'm not suggesting they are necessarily looking for it... they can't help but make money."
If Greenpeace's environmental arguments remain in the spotlight, then what about the oil companies being criticised?
"I think the Russian government's actions with charging the activists have done more harm than good both for the oil industry and for Russia itself," says Anthea Pitt, executive editor of Petroleum Economist magazine.
She says the BP oil spill at the Deepwater Horizon well in 2010 showed oil explorers and producers the importance of communicating with the public.
So oil companies may now be questioning whether they want the "hassle" of dealing with Greenpeace's actions, she says. But the regulatory environment, costs and continuing demand for oil will be a greater influence on their decisions.
Mr Rose says the most important thing for Greenpeace will be that their message is heard in the long run.
"I'd say that although waiting to get the people out is obviously a distraction, and whatever the legal costs involved are... the net effect has probably been helpful to the cause of raising awareness of the threat to the climate that is posed by any opening up of the Arctic to gas and oil development."
Mr Ayliffe says the Russian court action will not stop Greenpeace campaigning in the Arctic.
"Taking action is in Greenpeace's DNA and that is not going to stop," he says.
"But our campaign isn't just about Russia, it is about oil companies that are operating in other parts of the world - Greenpeace will be campaigning there too.
"We are not going to be intimidated, but right at this moment our complete objective is to have the Arctic 30 home with their loved ones."