Rémi Parmentier, lower left, in 1978 aboard the Rainbow Warrior
When you are at war (even a non-violent "war" against the
whaling industry), you don't win every battle, or every aspect of
it. We certainly won the overall whaling war in the 70s, even if
today Iceland and Japan are still using a "scientific whaling"
loophole to hunt Minke whales.
What is regrettable, however, is that - on the way - we
sacrificed our relationship with the Icelanders. Even if I can say
today that we have nothing to be ashamed of -- far from it -- I can
also say that we could have been smarter. We were just learning the
tricks of a new form of campaigning as we were inventing them, and
despite our mistakes we made a lasting mark on the history of
whaling, and accelerated its progressive elimination. It is just
too bad that Greenpeace lost a potentially strong ally - the
Icelandic people -- in the "war" against whaling.
If you visit Iceland, you will discover a land with a sky that
is clearer than in any other European country, and with people who
have adapted wisely to a harsh environment. They have harassed
geothermal energy, put hydrogen cars on the street, and, unlike the
US and Russia, ratified the Kyoto Protocol. They value the
preservation of their environment, no less than other modern
nations, and have done more to defend that environment than
Early Greenpeace campaigns against Iceland's whaling unified her
people in a view of Greenpeace as an enemy, an anti-Icelandic
force. We saw world opinion as our best weapon against whaling, and
played to that, ignoring the need to respect and work with the
people of Iceland themselves.
It is all about perceptions
But did we really "sacrifice" our relationship with Iceland? To
talk to people in the streets of Reykjavik, or anyone who followed
the whaling conflicts over the past decades, you'd expect
Greenpeace and Iceland to be sworn enemies, dueling with bared
teeth at any opportunity.
that's not the picture if you scratch below the surface.
As far back as the 70s, we were pointing toward an economic
opportunity that has since yielded rich rewards. On first visiting
Iceland we proposed that the whaling industry could be replaced by
a whale-watching industry for tourists. Living whales can bring as
much money, or more, and for longer, than dead whales, we said in a
genuine attempt to change the mind-set. Like all visionary and
ground-breaking thoughts, it was a laughable one at the time, and
we were treated like weirdos: the weather in Iceland was not suited
to taking tourists out to sea, they said; this was not the Canary
Islands or the Caribbean.
So I was pleasantly surprised the last time that I visited
Reykjavik, in 1998, to see that there was a flourishing whale
watching industry in the country. On hotel reception shelves, the
old post cards of the Hvalur whaling station were replaced by post
cards showing whale watchers taking pictures of living whales
blowing on the surface of the sea. Whereas in the 1970s, tour
operators would take visitors to the whaling station to photograph
themselves and their children beside dead whales, they were now
taking them to photograph themselves with living whales. Ideas
which are ahead of their time will always be laughed at. But I'm
proud that the last laugh was on the nay-sayers, and that the
Icelandic whale watching industry turned out to be a benefit to
I have returned to Iceland several times in the course of these
twenty five years, mostly in connection with work I was doing with
Greenpeace to improve international environmental policy and law to
prevent marine pollution. That's an issue which Iceland is aware of
and active on, as you would expect an island country entirely
surrounded by ocean and heavily dependent on fish exports to
the early 1990s, whenever I had the time to pass by the harbour
during a Reykjavik visit, I would always go and see the four
decommissioned whale catchers of Hvalur hf. The sight of these four
superb steamers brings back a lot of memories each time of course,
but also the thought that they would be perfect whale-watching
boats, for logistical as well as symbolic reasons. Although the
four catchers have been inactive for many years, the whaling
company Hvalur hf keeps them well fitted and maintained as if they
were ready to go whale hunting at any minute. I remember asking
Arni Finnsson, a veteran Icelandic conservationist, why that
Could they be expecting the hunting season to be re-authorised?
"Well, no," said Arni, "they are just making a statement in this
way". If this is the best way for the whaling company to save face,
so be it, but these guys always remained pretty active for a
company that had not harpooned a single whale for many years, and I
bet they are watching closely what is happening up north with the
limited resumption of Minke whaling that the government has just
In this regard, although I would tend to agree that the catch of
a few Minke whales is not the most pressing environmental
challenge, I think Greenpeace has been right to react to it this
summer, because it is a test case, for whalers and conservationists
alike. I remember that during my last visit to Iceland, in the
spring of 1998 to participate in a technical meeting of the OSPAR
Commission, the intergovernmental body that regulates marine
pollution in the North East Atlantic, the Board of Directors of
Hvalur hf was meeting - purely by coincidence - in the same hotel
and on the same floor.
I even bumped in to Mr. Kristian Loftson, the Head of Hvalur hf,
along with some of his associates, in the elevator. It was clear
from their body language that these guys were not getting together
to talk about the weather or share photos of their
At any opportunity, they'll be out there again harpooning large
Fin and Sei whales. I'm certain they'd even harpoon blue whales if
they were allowed, and it's precisely that kind of pressure on the
Icelandic government which makes any return to whaling dangerous.
The history of the industry is one in which more and more whales
are hunted until the target species is depleted, and if the whalers
can get over the initial public opposition to their Minke hunt, it
won't be long before higher quotas and additional species begin to
creep in to the industry's demands to the government. This is one
industry whose record of self-management is provenly appalling.
But over the years that I've worked with Iceland in the
diplomatic hallways and side rooms of international treaty
negotiations, I came to appreciate what a minority Mr. Loftson and
his kind are in Icelandic politics, and how their single-minded
approach to resource exploitation is fundamentally at odds with the
principles which inform Iceland's environmental policies
Not many Icelanders would believe that their nation and
Greenpeace worked side by side for many years, quietly behind
closed doors, far away from the television cameras and journalistic
buzz that accompanied our confrontations on the high seas. But it's
a fact, and a story which is overdue in telling.
Read the conclusion next week
This is Part II of a three-part
series by Rémi Parmentier, a crew member on the first voyage of the
Rainbow Warrior, which took Greenpeace to Iceland to confront
commercial whaling there for the first time in 1978. Rémi has
worked for Greenpeace in different capacities for 27 years,
specialising in international environmental policy and treaties.
Recently he formed with Kelly Rigg, another Greenpeace veteran, The Varda Group for
Environment and Sustainability. The views expressed in this
article are Rémi's; they do not necessarily reflect all aspects of
Greenpeace's current policy.
You can read Part I here.
You can read
Part III here.