REYKJAVIK, Iceland – Greenpeace's executive director used an open forum at the Arctic Circle conference Sunday to question Russian Arctic explorer Artur Chilingarov on his nation's arrest of 28 activists and two freelance journalists on charges of piracy after a protest staged against a Russia-owned oil company drilling in the Arctic.
Greenpeace also continued to protest outside the conference, held in Iceland's capital, over Russia's arrest of what the environmental group has dubbed the "Arctic 30."
Greenpeace executive director Kumi Naidoo, speaking Sunday morning prior to his friendly-but-charged confrontation with Chilingarov, said his organization's current goal is to see the protestors detained in Murmansk, Russia, let out of prison on bail.
"Greenpeace does not see itself above the law," Naidoo told Alaska Dispatch. "We have always been willing to deal with the consequences."
It was a sentiment that he reiterated to Chilingarov, who in 2007 drew worldwide attention to the Arctic when he descended nearly 14,000 feet to the seabed beneath at the North Pole and planted a Russian flag there. Speaking through translators, Chilingarov told Naidoo that he himself was a member of Greenpeace in Russia in the 1980s. At that time, the organization was more underground, especially in Russia, Chilingarov said.
The exchange happened before hundreds of people attending the inaugural Arctic Circle conference, an international gathering of government officials, business leaders, scientists and others to discuss the rapidly changing Arctic.
"I put it to this conference that ... the two journalists and 28 activists that are imprisoned in Murmansk were acting in the best interests of all of humanity, and I wanted to ask this conference to agree with (Russian) President (Vladimir) Putin and myself when we say that these activists are not pirates, that they were acting in the public interest, and that they should be released immediately," Naidoo said across a room crowded with experts on Arctic issues from all over the world.
"I think it is a gross violation of Human Rights that they've been denied bail, and I call upon this conference to … call for the release of the Greenpeace activists that are imprisoned in Murmansk at the moment."
In his public response, Chilingarov told Naidoo there are international forums to discuss just the problems that Greenpeace is concerned about, including a conference that took place in Salekhar, Russia, last month, where Chilingarov said the discussion revolved around the Arctic environment.
"Basically, we don't need the slogans of Greenpeace to understand how important the ecological issues are" in the Arctic, Chilingarov said, "and that's a concern which is shared by everyone."
He added that he trusts Russian law is "competent" enough to properly deal with issues like the detained Greenpeace activists. "I do believe a forum like the one we are attending today is a proper platform to discuss the environmental issue," he continued. "There's no need for actions like the one organized by Greenpeace."
Naidoo and Chilingarov stepped outside the main presentation hall after the open question and answer session, where they continued to discuss the issue with other Russian officials on hand.
Naidoo mentioned the letter he sent last week to Putin, offering to move to Russia for the duration of the "Arctic 30" trial, in hopes that he could act as collateral to allow the activists to be released on bail. Chilingarov said that he would talk to the appropriate people about the letter.
Naidoo also said he hoped to get into Russia, but would have difficulty because he holds an African passport. Chilingarov seemed receptive to helping him visit the country as the "Arctic 30" continue to be held.
Russia touts Northern Sea Route
At a conference where answers to issues in the Arctic remain elusive, Russia has provided some of the most tangible evidence of Arctic change. In addition to the impending offshore oil extraction in the Pechora Sea where Greenpeace was protesting, another Russian endeavor is already taking shape.
Just off the western and northern shores of Alaska, history's next great trade route may be a far-flung, icy voyage passing through the Bering Strait and over the top of Russia. Known as the Northern Sea Route, these shipping lanes are only open two to three months of the year now, but they are already seeing use because they cut down the travel time between North America and Europe and Far East Asia by 59 percent, said M. V. Slipenchuk, deputy of the State Duma of the Russian Federation, at the Arctic conference.
In 2009, just two vessels sailed the Northern Sea Route. This year, an estimated 55 vessels are expected to pass over the top of Russia and through the Bering Strait.
"By 2021, the Northern Sea Route will be open for business for eight months per year, and Arctic Sea traffic will rise 10 times," Slipenchuk said.
Among the big shipping companies eyeing the Northern Route is China Ocean Shipping Co., which made China's first commercial voyage across the Arctic this summer. On Aug. 15, a COSCO vessel left the Port of Taicang, China, sailed through the Bering Strait and over, arriving in Rotterdam, Netherlands, on Sept. 10, said COSCO President Yunpeng Li during a panel discussion at the Arctic Circle conference.
"Traveling through the Northern Sea Route takes nine to 15 days less than traditional routes," he said. "Carriers can thus cut voyage time, reduce bunker costs, and improve their competitiveness."
Commercial ship operators must apply for permits to sail the Northern Sea Route. The cost for icebreaker escorts typically ranges from $250,000 to $400,000, said Dmitry Purim, chairman and chief executive of Sovfracht-Sovmortrans Group, one of the largest freight-forwarders in Russia that operates three ice-class vessels.
"It's best to create a caravan of ships to keep icebreaking costs down," he said.
But visions of a busy Arctic highway raise concerns.
Last month, a 435-foot Russian-flagged ship carrying diesel fuel struck an ice while traveling the Northern Sea Route. The ice ripped a gash in a ballast tank, but the crew was able to act quickly by plugging it with cement.
Even some Russian authorities acknowledge the environmental risks to Arctic shipping. A combination of the remoteness of the route, a lack of deepwater ports and limited response capabilities make the Northern Sea Route a risky proposition.
Slipenchuk suggested at the Arctic Circle gathering that a $3 billion to $4 billion joint venture should be set up to address such concerns for the Northern Sea Route, perhaps with a partnership between his country and industry.
Worries over Russian oil development in Arctic
An oil spill, which the drifting tanker renewed concerns over, is a worst-case scenario for a group like Greenpeace, which has called for an Arctic oil-spill response plan before any industry moves forward in the region. Aside from the potential spills from traveling tankers, there's also the concern for offshore drilling in the Russian Arctic, which Anton Vasiliev, Russian ambassador for Arctic cooperation, said was imminent.
"We are planning to produce the first oil in the ice-covered Arctic offshore next month," Vasiliev said during the introductory session of the conference on Saturday.
It was just that kind of action that Greenpeace was protesting in September aboard the vessel Arctic Sunrise when they staged a protest at the soon-to-come-online offshore oil rig. Now, almost a month later, the activists involved in that protest remain in jail.
Naidoo was surprised by the piracy charges -- the Russian government has also recently alleged it found drugs aboard the Arctic Sunrise -- especially because Greenpeace had staged a nearly identical protest, with the same vessel, at the same Prirazlomnaya oil rig last year. In that case, he said, the Russian Coast Guard merely observed the protest, even as activists attached themselves to the anchor chain of a resupply vessel.
Russia's harsh detention of the 30 activists could be interpreted as Moscow taking a stricter stance against such protests in the country's waters, especially Arctic waters. Greenpeace in recent years has staged numerous high-profile protests in opposition to Arctic drilling, and the most recent actions may be an indicator that Russia is putting its foot down.
Many of the protests have been somewhat theatrical in nature -- like when six protesters climbed London's Shard skyscraper in July -- intended less to actually slow development than to raise awareness of Arctic development. Naidoo said that protests that even slow activity for a day or two in the Arctic are beneficial, because of the brief window for actual development in the Arctic, which is still ice-choked in winter.
But, he said, "Our objective is not to delay, our objective is to stop."
Even with Russia's stern reprisal for Greenpeace's most recent actions, Naidoo said that it might not stop the organization from continuing to stage protests.
"As I sit here now, the events of the last month will definitely calculate in" when determining if further protests go forward, he said. "But we would find it morally very difficult to say … that we will not raise our views to activities of resistance again."
He said that even raising the profile of resource development in the Arctic is of benefit, and harkens back to Greenpeace's original founders, who spoke of "bearing witness," documenting and sharing perceived moral injustices with the rest of the world.
It's a notion that Josefina Skerk, a member of the Sami people and of the Sami Parliament of Sweden, could get behind. She said that her people are not worried about oil development in her country, but mining is a major concern and one where the indigenous people feel marginalized by the larger Swedish government.
She said that she was unhappy with the level of indigenous representation at the Arctic Circle conference, and that her people were often passed over for consideration on major Arctic issues that could affect them. It's a story that many of the Arctic's indigenous populations can sympathize with.
"We're living cultures," Skerk said. "We're not strawberries that need to be preserved."
Skerk was part of a Greenpeace effort to ski to the North Pole earlier this year and drop a flag of their own to the bottom of the ocean. So when she met Chilingarov alongside Naidoo, two Arctic adventurers became acquainted. Chilingarov is currently planning an expedition to return to the North Pole, with several other Arctic nations, aboard a ship carrying the Olympic torch.
As the meeting wrapped up, Skerk shook Chilingarov's hand and said, "Say hello to the North Pole for me."
It came across almost as a challenge.
Editor Tony Hopfinger contributed to this story. Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com