Attempts to protect the Arctic are not criminal

5 November 2013

LESS than a fortnight ago a group of respectable, sign-holding Hunter residents protested outside AGL’s headquarters.

FUTURE UNCERTAIN: Greenpeace International activist Alexandra Harris at her bail hearing in Murmansk.

Alexandra Harris in Murmansk Court © Dmitri Sharomov / Greenpeace

Police kept a quiet watch on proceedings.

Photos show the well-dressed and largely grey-haired group cheekily popped a home-made ‘‘Australia’s Greediest Looters’’ placard on top of AGL’s office signage.

The chairman of Barrington Gloucester Stroud Preservation Alliance, Graeme Healy, worried about the effects of coal seam gas exploration on food and water security, explained this was one of a series of rolling actions

“We’re taking our argument to the court of public opinion,” he said.

As these Hunter residents choofed off home after this action I imagine they would have felt a little less powerlessness about their situation.

It’s a tough and relentless gig trying to stop the destructive plans of big fossil fuel companies, but they did something important to shine a light on the effects of CSG on their precious local environment.

Clock back a couple more weeks to a similar protest against the dangers of mining, this time designed to highlight the impact of oil drilling in the Arctic.

Thirty people were taking part in a peaceful action in Arctic waters. Two of them tried to hang a sign off an oil platform owned by Russian oil giant Gazprom.

The stark difference is that the 28 Greenpeace campaigners and two freelance journalists involved never headed home.

What was a peaceful protest designed to highlight the risks of an Arctic oil spill from drilling (which is only possible because the ice is melting from climate change), has morphed into a personal nightmare for the 30 people involved and their families.

The ‘‘Arctic 30’’, as they are now known, are currently in freezing Russian jail cells facing absurd charges, which could lead to years in detention.

Three of the Arctic 30 live in Australia, including the quiet and hard-working Alexandra Harris, who works for Greenpeace in our Sydney office.

Alex, 27, in a letter to her Sydney manager James Lorenz, paints a distressing tale of life in solitary confinement in her Murmansk cell.

“We’re allowed to leave our cell and walk for one hour each day,’’ she wrote. ‘‘We’re locked in what can be described as an outdoor chicken pen. It’s horrible. To get myself through the long days and nights I think of my family. I dream of the day I can run into their arms.’’

Obviously Alex’s family, including her parents back in the UK, are worried sick by this news.

So, too, is the wife of the gentle 58-year-old Tasmanian Colin Russell, who was a radio operator on the Greenpeace ship.

Christine Russell is in almost daily contact with Greenpeace campaigner Reece Turner. She has told Reece that: “After 25 years together, life feels surreal without Col. If I look to the future I can’t imagine being without him.

“I worry about Col in jail. It’s not easy there and I know he’d want to be at home with us.”

Peaceful protest is now a regular feature of life in Newcastle and the Hunter, from the annual blockades of Newcastle Port by flotillas of canoes and kayaks to farmers protesting outside Sydney courts against plans to expand Hunter mines.

As a general rule, the response of authorities is reasonable.

In contrast, the trumped-up charges levelled at the Arctic 30 by Russian authorities – which have no merit in law – are excessive and designed to intimidate.

Earlier this month 11 Nobel peace prize laureates, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, wrote a joint letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin about the Arctic 30, underlining the right to non-violent protest about the threats posed to the Arctic and why.

“Arctic oil drilling is a dangerous, high-risk enterprise. An oil spill under these icy waters would have a catastrophic impact on one of the most pristine, unique and beautiful landscapes on Earth. The impact of a spill on communities living in the Arctic, and on already vulnerable animal species, would be devastating and long lasting.

‘‘Equally important is the contribution of Arctic oil drilling to climate change. Climate change in the Arctic and elsewhere threatens all of us, but it is the world’s most vulnerable who are paying the price for developed countries’ failure to act.”

Greenpeace is working hard, hand in hand with the international community, to secure the release of our colleagues as quickly as possible.

Because no one trying to peacefully hang a hand-painted sign to highlight risks to our environment – whether in Gloucester or the Arctic – deserves this kind of harsh and unjust treatment.

Ben Pearson is operations manager for Greenpeace Australia Pacific.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald.