On Monday Dec. 8th Greenpeace may have crossed the line, literally. In their most recent publicity stunt, twenty Greenpeace activists from seven countries used the Nazca Lines in southern Peru to broadcast a message to the COP20 representatives in Lima. Trekking a kilometer from the highway in the darkness of pre-dawn hours they arrived at the hummingbird figure where they laid out a message on the ground in giant yellow letters: “Time for Change! The Future is Renewable” signed with their name underneath, “Greenpeace.”
The Peruvian government is seeking legal action against the twenty activists who they hope to apprehend and prevent from leaving the country. After an investigation by Ministry of Culture representatives the damage was reported to the prosecutor’s office. The charge they seek, that of attacking an archeological monument, carries up to six years in prison as punishment. Mauro Fernández, Greenpeace’s Climate and Energy campaign coordinator, proclaimed that he would put himself at the disposal of Peru’s justice system and the Ministry of Culture in order to “resolve any problems.” The activists will plead guilty to a lesser charge of criminal trespassing in order to avoid a trial on felony charges, a lawyer for the seven stated.
Greenpeace issued an apology to the Peruvian government after news of their action sent shockwaves of anger throughout the population, not just in Peru but world-wide. Peru refused Greenpeace’s apology.
The Nazca Lines, recognized in 1994 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are extremely delicate and prone to destruction from even the slightest disturbance. No one is allowed to enter the site, especially the area directly around the hummingbird drawing which is strictly prohibited. Even presidents and ministers cannot enter this area without special authorization, and if given, those who enter must use special shoes that minimize damage. Archeologists attempt to retrace their footsteps when working there so as to minimize impact.
The geologist Patricio Valderrama helps to explain why the lines are so susceptible to disturbance. The
the ground is made of a fine layer of dark colored rocks and sand laid over lighter colored sand. He saysthat “… if you “move” the upper one, you permanently expose the one below. It is this color contrast that allowed the ancient Nazcas to draw their lines, that is, [by] making grooves.” Anyone walking on the black top layer can easily disturb it, revealing the white sand below and irreparably altering a 1,500 – 2,000 year old historical site.
Greenpeace maintains that their stunt was authorized by an archeologist and that absolutely no trace was left behind. Many spectators remain highly skeptical that they disturbed nothing in the kilometer trek from the highway in the dark without special footwear when professional archeologists worry about the impact they make using specialized shoes during daylight hours.
Peru spoke out strongly against Greenpeace. Luis Jaime Castillo, the deputy culture minister, stated: “It’s a true slap in the face at everything Peruvians consider sacred. They [the lines] are absolutely fragile…You walk there and the footprint is going to last hundreds or thousands of years, and the line that they have destroyed is the most visible and most recognized of all.” As Peru worked toward an international climate deal in COP20, Castillo emphasized that: “Peru has nothing against the message of Greenpeace. We are all concerned about climate change. But the means doesn’t justify the ends.”
While the majority of the general public has been quick to condemn Greenpeace in social media outlets, some commentators criticized the hypocrisy of the Peruvian government. This is not the first time that the Nazca Lines have been damaged. Land invasions, looting and illegal mining at the archeological site have all wrecked much more damage than Greenpeace, but have elicited very little action from the government. As recently as a few weeks ago a group of land invaders, using heavy machinery, took control of the Cerros Altos and Huaca La Calera II sectors, both of which are part of the Nazca Lines archeological zone. The Ministry of Culture did nothing in response. Dakar, an extremely popular rally raid, or off-road car and motorbike racing event that lasts for several days over thousands of miles of terrain, is also responsible for damage to the Nazca Lines. Many claim that the media’s attention to Greenpeace’s stunt is the only reason the government is in an uproar.
This is not the first time that Greenpeace has used an archeological site in Peru to broadcast their pro-environment messages. Just one week prior the organization projected a message in support of solar energy onto Huayna Picchu, a protected site on a mountainside with ruins that over looks Machu Picchu. In May of 2008 Greenpeace caused a similar stir when they hung banners with the message:“Change Bio Fuels. Save the Forst – Save the Climate. Greenpeace” on the terraces of Machu Picchu. As to why the Nazca Lines were picked this time around, one of the activists involved, Wolfgang Sadik, explains that “We chose the Nazca Lines because we think that these lines are a symbol of climate change. What happened here in the past in a smaller scale happens now on a global scale. The Nazca culture disappeared because of climate change.”
With a record of using controversial means to promote their agenda, GreenPeace is hardly unused to run-ins with the law. The question now is whether the Nazca Lines were a line too big to cross. While their pro-environment message is laudable, it seems to have gotten lost in the bigger message Greenpeace has sent about their disrespect for irreplaceable cultural heritage sites.