Imagine you stumble upon an oil spill that needs immediate attention to prevent substantial environmental damage, but even when you contact the authorities nothing happens. You feel completely lost when you realise no one cares. What do you do? Do you take matters into your own hands to try to stop the spill?
Yes, indeed – you enter private property and turn off the tap to stop the oil spill. When that is done the authorities finally act. The property owner is convicted in court as he, on purpose, started the pollution. People living in the surrounding area all support your move to take matters into your own hands. The property is seized to avoid further oil spill and authorities start checking the environmental impact of the pollution.
So problem solved, right? Not really. It is only just starting.
The property is in reality a corn field, and the oil is an illegal cultivation of genetically engineered (GE) corn (MON810), in which GE pollen was spreading and contaminating conventional cultivations as well as the surrounding environment.
In 2010 in the Friuli Region in northern Italy, Greenpeace activists from Italy, Austria, Germany and Hungary quarantined GE corn crops that were grown illegally. Wearing safety equipment to protect against contamination, the activists isolated, cut and secured the top of the GE corn plants, the part that contains the pollen.
Greenpeace Hungary decided to join the action in order to put pressure on its own government to uphold a GE ban that was in place in Hungary but was being threatened by multinational seed companies transporting all kinds of seeds throughout Europe. They were hoping for a very strong reaction from the Italian authorities that would encourage the Hungarian government to stand strong against increasing pressure from the bio industry.
The Greenpeace action was carried out to identify GE contamination caused by the owner of the field, who decided to sow – without authorisation – GE corn in a hidden location. Regional and national authorities did not take any measures to find the GE corn and stop the contamination, so after filing requests to all public bodies involved – from regional authorities, to the Minister of Agriculture and even reaching out to the President of the Republic (in his role of safeguarding laws and rules) – Greenpeace activists found the hidden location of the illegal cultivation and quarantined the area.
A total of 23 Greenpeace activists were arrested by police.
After this, national and regional bodies finally acted. They confiscated the fields and ordered the destruction of the illegal corn. The owner was fined 30,000 euros and locals and farmers were happy their fields were safe.
It does not end there though; in 2011 the farm was seized by the authorities in order to prevent new illegal activities, and one of the Greenpeace activists involved had all accusations of invading and occupying the corn field against him dismissed because the judge had ruled that the activist needed to act in order to prevent contamination.
In 2012 Greenpeace Italy was fined as well – 86,250 euros – because the activists entered the field. The activists are also risking a second charge because they interfered with the illegal corn in order to quarantine it.
Greenpeace Italy opposed the charges and the case is going to court.
Greenpeace believes the party that put the environment at risk is the guilty one, and not the one that prevented the contamination. During this process Greenpeace Italy has received strong support from farmers, consumer associations and many others who are ready to declare themselves co-responsible in an act of solidarity.
Saving the environment can cost you dearly. Greenpeace believes it is worth it.
Federica Ferrario, GE Campaigner, Greenpeace Italy
Further reading: Genetically Engineered Maize: The Reality Behind the Myths
and Greenpeace critique of the European Food Safety Authority's opinion on genetically modified maize MON810