In 1985, the residents of Rongelap in the Marshall Islands asked Greenpeace International to help them relocate to a new home. Their island had been contaminated by radioactive fallout from atmospheric nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific.
On March 1, 1954, the United States detonated a hydrogen bomb, code named “Castle Bravo.” At 15 megatons Castle Bravo was a thousand times more powerful than “Little Boy,” the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and after the explosion there was a marked increase in the level of background radiation measured around the globe.
The inhabitants of Bikini and Enewetak were evacuated from their island homes prior to the nuclear tests to avoid exposure to radioactive fallout. But the inhabitants of Rongelap 150 kilometers away were not. Within four hours of the explosion, fallout from Castle Bravo was settling on the island. A fine white ash landed on the heads and bare arms of people standing in the open. It dissolved into water supplies and drifted into houses.
Although U.S. authorities knew of the fallout pattern and the strong winds that had been blowing towards Rongelap on the day of the test, they made no attempt to evacuate the Islanders for more than 48 hours. The Rongelap people were returned to their island in 1957, in spite of the fact that it had been continually dosed with fallout from nuclear tests during their absence and no “cleanup” of radiation was ever conducted.
The Islanders’ frequent pleas to the U.S. government to be evacuated fell on deaf ears. So at the request of Rongelap’s representative to the Marshall Islands parliament, Greenpeace agreed to take on the task of evacuating the entire population to the safer island of Mejato 180 kilometers away.
“Operation Exodus” was a major departure for Greenpeace. This was not a traditional Greenpeace style protest, there were no inflatables or banners to hang, there was just the logistical challenge of moving an entire population 180 kilometers in the Pacific.
When the Rainbow Warrior arrived at the seemingly idyllic tropical island on the 17th of May in 1985, local women sailed out to greet the crew singing Marshallese songs. Other Rongelapese waiting on the beach held up banners that read, “We love the future of our kids.”
With all they had heard and read about Rongelap, it was an overwhelming experience for the crew of the Rainbow Warrior —the realization that these people who had been living here for thousands of years would probably never see their homes again. For the next few days the Greenpeace crew and the islanders worked together to dismantle the houses and ferry the materials to the Warrior.
The ten-day evacuation required three trips between the islands and, in all, 300 Islanders and over 100 tons of building materials were relocated. When it was time to leave, most of the crew were devastated. Their experience at Rongelap brought home to them the consequences of nuclear testing on these isolated Pacific communities and stirred up powerful emotions.
A Just Recovery in Puerto Rico
In the aftermath of deadly Category 5 Hurricane Maria in September 2017, Donald Trump’s response was to launch rolls of paper towels into a crowd of Puerto Rican survivors, deny that his administration’s disaster response efforts were a slow and incompetent fiasco, and complain about spending money on the U.S. Territory’s residents in need of relief.
While images of Trump’s tossing went viral and were turned into internet memes, Greenpeace’s ship the Arctic Sunrise prepared to sail from Miami to San Juan to support “Our Power Puerto Rico, ” a national campaign started by Climate Justice Alliance (CJA). We went to support rural communities on the island as they push for a Just Recovery following Hurricane Maria.
After gathering supplies to help hundreds of farming communities recover from Hurricane Maria in a way that leaves them more empowered, resilient, and sustainable in the years to come, the campaign sent shipping containers full of solar batteries, tools and supplies for agroecology, water filtration systems, and more to Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, the Jones Act prevented us from bringing these supplies onto the Arctic Sunrise, but it could not prevent the activist brigade from reaching San Juan on board the ship. Greenpeace was happy to play a part on board the Arctic Sunrise and work alongside local organizations to set up distribution plans for future supply deliveries and engage in dialogue about what their medium and long-term vision is for a Just Recovery in their communities.
Wings of Emergency
For eighteen months, Greenpeace Brazil and other organizations have been providing humanitarian aid to communities in vulnerable conditions. President Bolsonaro’s hands-off approach to the global pandemic has led to the loss of over 500,000 Brazilian lives. Indigenous communities have been especially hard hit as COVID-19 mortality rate for Indigenous communities is at least 16% higher than the Brazilian average. Through the Wings of Emergency project, Greenpeace has been able to step in and provide emergency supplies to Indigenous Peoples in the Amazon region. The coalition Wings of Emergency has provided over 100 tons of food and resources to several Indigenous communities in the Amazon. The coalition, in April, launched a factory to produce oxygen tanks in São Gabriel da Cachoeira, the city with the highest number of Indigenous Peoples in the country.
“We are living today in a country where there is a lack of respect to the Brazilian population and where millions of people are abandoned to their own luck, without food, jobs, or vaccines. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the federal government has been dealing with the pandemic irresponsibly and not protecting the people, causing a profound damage to thousands of families. It’s a state that could have been avoided if the pandemic had been treated with seriousness and science had been respected,” said Tica Minami, Program Director of Greenpeace Brazil.
Greenpeace Brazil continues to call on President Jair Bolsonaro and the Brazilian government to listen to Indigenous organizations and prioritize protecting the people of Brazil during the COVID-19 pandemic – especially the groups most at risk, like Indigenous Peoples and traditional communities.