Last week the Greenpeace Office in Amsterdam was in super high-gear. Aside from the launch of the Green my Apple campaign, we were running a rapid response blockade on the Probo Koala, the toxic death ship that poisoned 50,000 people in the Ivory Coast, killing eight.
We had tracked the ship after it left Ivory Coast, and it ended up in Estonia, within striking distance of the Arctic Sunrise. Ship’s schedules are planned a year in advance, usually, so diverting one of these big babies on short notice takes effort. and a huge degree of flexibility from the folks on board. The AS crew took the change in plans in stride, cranked up the banner factory for the new target, and headed for Paldinski while our political operatives worked with the government of the Ivory Coast to demand the ship be seized pending a full investigation.
I mean, seriously. The Probo Koala had simply sailed away from Africa and was free to roam the seas. Ship kills 8 people (4 of them children), poisons thousands more, and nobody even issues a ticket? Somebody ought to do something, right?
So where governments and international bodies fail to protect the global commons, that’s where Greenpeace steps in. Bruno Rebelle, our Program Director, knocked together a Rapid Response team with a single objective: don’t let that ship get away until somebody arrests it.
My desk was within earshot of campaigner Helen Perivier, who usually works out of Brussels but relocated to the situation room in Amsterdam for this effort.
Sitting where I do, next to our communications section, I see a fair amount of frenzy. At one point I saw Mike Townsley (media officer) Helen (campaigner) and Guido Verbist (Actions coördinator), having three separate conversations on their phones and talking to each other simultaneously while they all paced in different patterns across the carpet. That’s pretty normal.
But normal in the art of campaigning means rolling with the unexpected, and this one threw us an unusual turn.
At one point Helen was doing this incredible bi-lingual dance in English and in French between the Ivory Coast, Paris, and the folks up in Estonia.
The campaign had succeeded in alerting the Ivory Coast government to the location of the Probo Koala, opening a channel with officials in Estonia, and the official request that the ship be seized had been made.
But something went wrong. The officials in Estonia dismissed the official request. The reason: it purported to come from a minister in the Ivory Coast government, but had arrived in an email from a Yahoo! account.
But it’s true, gentle reader: the entire government of the Ivory Coast conducts their online correspondence entirely via Yahoo accounts. (And that’s progressive: other African governments use Hotmail!.)
Helen had to scramble to bridge the communication gap back to the Ivory Coast to ask them to send a fax. Preferably one with lots of official seals and stamps.
Now this is the kind of full-press heroism that only people who have been involved in a campaign effort know about: the tiniest of logistic details, the question of whether a minister in Estonia gets a fax or an email, becomes the laser-focus, high-energy make-or-break objective that determines whether a campaign succeeds for fails. And it was only one of a dozen items that the team had to juggle. I left the office that night around 8pm. Helen was there at her desk, on the phone. I got in next morning at 8:30 am. Helen was there at her desk, on the phone.
But she had to be. Unless you’ve got dogged, determined, bull-headed people like Helen who work insane hours and won’t take failure as an option on a team like this, the efforts of dozens of people and an entire ship can go to waste.
Helen used to canvass for Greenpeace back in the Boston office in the early 80s. Twenty years later, she’s still at it. Dogged. Determined. Bull-headed. One of the unsung heroes.