Rainbow warrior matures into political animal

One of the first protests by Greenpeace Switzerland on Lake Zurich in 1985. Greenpeace

The Swiss branch of Greenpeace, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this month, has evolved into a key political player after years of headline-grabbing protests.

This content was published on November 5, 2004 - 11:35

In an interview with swissinfo, Kaspar Schuler, head of Greenpeace Switzerland, talks about past successes and the challenges ahead.

The Swiss chapter of the environmental organisation was established on November 5, 1984, more than a decade after Greenpeace International was founded.

Over the years it has staged a series of spectacular protests against the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel rods, trials of genetically modified crops, and raised public awareness of waste dumps used by the country’s chemical industry.

swissinfo: Why does an international organisation like Greenpeace need a Swiss branch?

Kaspar Schuler: Several multinational companies have their headquarters in Switzerland, and we see our role as allies of developing countries which are victims of corporate policy.

Switzerland is an ideal testing ground for public campaigns. The Swiss system of direct democracy gives people a say in matters such as genetic engineering.

Greenpeace Switzerland is also among the top five financial contributors with SFr4 million [$3.4 million] annually. I don’t mind if some people consider us a cash cow. But this is certainly not the main reason to justify our existence.

swissinfo: What are the most urgent policy areas on the agenda of Greenpeace Switzerland?

K.S.: It is sad to say that Switzerland is no longer at the forefront of implementing laws protecting the environment. Discussions about legislation on chemicals and dangerous substances are much more advanced in the European Union.

swissinfo: Where has Greenpeace Switzerland scored its biggest successes over the past 20 years?

K.S.: We helped to keep Switzerland’s agricultural produce and other food sold in shops free of genetically modified substances.

We pushed through legal regulations stating criteria for the shutting down of old nuclear power plants. That is unique in the world. And we successfully campaigned for a ten-year moratorium [which has expired] for the reprocessing of spent fuel rods.

Greenpeace is also involved in tough negotiations with chemical companies around Basel to impose standards for cleaning up old waste dumps.

swissinfo: The nuclear industry has stepped up a public relations campaign for the building new power plants in Switzerland. When will we hear from Greenpeace?

K.S.: We reviewed our climate campaign after Swiss voters in 2003 rejected a proposal to extend a ten-year ban on the building or upgrading of nuclear power plants. The launch [of our campaign] will be in the next few months.

We are one of the few organisations which still have experts on nuclear power. Greenpeace has retained its know-how on the subject, and we will use it in our campaign to counter this shocking renaissance of nuclear energy.

swissinfo: Historically, Greenpeace has been active in protecting the maritime environment. How difficult was it to win support for this cause in a landlocked country like Switzerland?

K.S.: Not difficult at all. Swiss Greenpeace members appear to relate easily to life in the oceans. The fundraising campaign for a new Greenpeace boat two years ago was one of the most successful in our history.

swissinfo: Environmental issues appear to have lost much of their public appeal. Doesn’t this make your work difficult?

K.S.: True, it is no longer the number one issue, which makes it a big challenge for us. But Greenpeace Switzerland is still very present in the media. We might not be making the front pages with long articles, but there are regular small articles.

swissinfo: Is it necessary to stage more spectacular events to be heard?

K.S.: By no means. We cannot go beyond certain legal and bodily risks for those activists taking part in protests. Safety comes first for us.

A new trend is protest events with an artistic flair. We put, for instance, several television sets on a wintry field and played statements of opponents to genetically modified crops. Our plan is to find new forms of protest which grab the attention of a wider public.

swissinfo: Why did you take the job at the helm of Greenpeace Switzerland three years ago?

K.S.: It is a question of personal conviction. A few years ago my young family and I were involved in a battle over the construction of a water reservoir in a mountain area.

I had to learn the hard way that individual citizens very seldom have the courage and energy to fight for their cause. I’m prepared to do my job for Greenpeace for as long as I can help them.

swissinfo: Do you still believe that lobbying is as important as fighting?

K.S.: Absolutely. Last July we struck a deal with Swiss door producers. They agreed to use certified tropical timber for their annual production of about 600,000 doors.

It was a small breakthrough which was only achieved through a mixture of public events and three years of negotiations.

swissinfo-interview: Christian Raaflaub

Key facts

Number of Greenpeace offices worldwide: 38.
The organisation’s headquarters are in Amsterdam.
Greenpeace employees worldwide: 1,100 – Switzerland, 44.
Greenpeace members worldwide: 2.8 million – Switzerland, 143,111.
Greenpeace Switzerland is an independent non-profit organisation.

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In brief

The Swiss branch was founded on November 5, 1984 – 13 years after Greenpeace International.

Greenpeace Switzerland has staged spectacular events against nuclear energy, genetic engineering and chemical waste.

It has also raised awareness of the effects of climate change and shrinking biodiversity.

Kaspar Schuler, 46, became head of Greenpeace Switzerland in 2001.

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