Honouring the memory of the Rainbow Warrior

Thirty years on from the Rainbow Warrior sinking, have New Zealanders forgotten  the environmental message the ...
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Thirty years on from the Rainbow Warrior sinking, have New Zealanders forgotten the environmental message the Greenpeace vessel carried?

OPINION: The 30th anniversary of the bombing of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior by French terrorists in 1985 has inspired a surge of memories and patriotism throughout New Zealand.  

These are fine, important sentiments, but commemorating the terrible event should also remind us of the Rainbow Warrior's mission, which was centred on environmental issues in the Pacific that remain just as urgent 30 years later.  

In fact, the Rainbow Warrior's stay in Auckland Harbour was meant only as a stopover on a tour of the nuclear Pacific, from the Marshall Islands, site of American tests, to Mururoa, where the French were planning further explosions.  The issue of nuclear pollution, especially of the oceans, had galvanised Greenpeace in the first place, setting its course first to Alaska's Aleutian Islands in 1971 then increasingly to the central and South Pacific.   

Along with Greenpeace's move into the anti-whaling crusade, engagement with threats to the Pacific transformed the environmentalism of the time from narrower concerns with preserving local nature into a trans-national movement with a global message whose relevance has only grown in subsequent decades.  Greenpeace's Auckland office bears the proud distinction of being the first overseas branch of the originally Canadian organisation, and other, home-grown organisations such as Project Jonah would soon become a global force. 

The environmentalist movement's goals have not always been aligned with the interests of Pacific peoples. 

Its focus on preserving pristine environments has sometimes meant ignoring or undervaluing long local histories of sustainable resource use. 

However, in recent decades there has been a clear trend of shared interests and concerns in an increasingly complex array of environmental issues. 

The successful closure of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) to tuna fishing earlier this year in a longstanding partnership between Kiribati, Conservation International and the New England Aquarium is particularly noteworthy.  At more than 3.5 times the size of New Zealand's North Island, the PIPA lies at the heart of the world's largest and richest remaining tuna grounds.

Many NGOs, including Greenpeace, governments, and communities across the planet are marshalling action on this century's environmental challenges of climate change, pollution, over fishing and more.  

Problems such as these almost make the nuclear testing the Rainbow Warrior faced seem small, but the sense of individual responsibility for the ocean and the sheer human effort that campaign called for are still what is needed today.

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In New Zealand, however, it seems the Rainbow Warrior's message is fading.  The Government is set on expanding deep sea oil drilling in the nation's territorial waters, in the face of protests from Greenpeace and others. 

Action on banning or at least charging for plastic bags – which too often end their noxious lives in the Pacific Ocean, where they kill marine life and pollute coastlines for thousands of miles – is stalled well behind the pace of Tasmania, South Australia, Hawaii, California, Oregon, and even  - gulp - Texas.  

  These are precisely the kind of issues that the Rainbow Warrior bravely faced off against. 

 Although few onboard were directly harmed by nuclear fallout or genocidal whaling, they courageously sacrificed time, energy, and – in Fernando Pereira's case – life, for the health of the ocean and those whose health depended upon it. 

Their vision went well beyond local horizons and even their own species.

 That same Pacific still connects New Zealanders to peoples and environments around its shores.  So, the next time you head to your local supermarket, take your own bags. The next time you open that can of tuna consider what species you are eating and where it came from. 

When you vote, think about what deep sea oil spills can do to the ocean's inhabitants. 

When you vacation in Rarotonga or Fiji, look for local produce and environmentally-responsible hotels. 

When you do all of these things, remember the Rainbow Warrior.

Dr Ryan Tucker Jones is a senior lecturer in history at Auckland University.    Sue Taei is executive director of  Conservation International New Zealand and Pacific Islands.

 - The Dominion Post

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