Then & now: Iceland, Greenpeace, and whales, Part II

By Rémi Parmentier

Feature story - 2 October, 2003
Iceland enjoys a rugged, natural beauty that can only be appreciated fully by seeing it. It also hosts a people who are fiercely proud of their largely pristine and clean environment. So why, after 14 years, has the Icelandic government bowed to internal pressure and begun whaling again? Has nothing changed since long-haired Greenpeace hippies took to the high seas in the late 70s? Rémi Parmentier takes us on Part II of a three-part journey back in time.

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 most.

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.

But 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 Icelanders.

Beyond whaling

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 be.

Since 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 was.

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 authorised.

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 grandchildren.

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 internationally.

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.