Melchett's parting shot: 'Keep whacking them'

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In the 17th century they would have understood perfectly: His Lordship is retiring to his estates. But Peter Mond, the Fourth Baron Melchett, who is leaving the helm of Greenpeace after 12 turbulent years, is not a traditional peer, and his is not a normal estate.

In the 17th century they would have understood perfectly: His Lordship is retiring to his estates. But Peter Mond, the Fourth Baron Melchett, who is leaving the helm of Greenpeace after 12 turbulent years, is not a traditional peer, and his is not a normal estate.

The great-grandson of Sir Alfred Mond, who founded Britain's chemicals giant ICI, Lord Melchett turned his back on a privileged upbringing at Eton and Cambridge to become a socialist, a vegetarian and a radical environmental activist. The 800-acre Norfolk farm he inherited on the death in 1973 of his father - the Third Baron and the man who founded British Steel - has become a visible symbol of the values he espouses, open to the public to roam over, and farmed with the benefit of wildlife in mind.

He is now quitting as executive director of Greenpeace UK to turn the farm, at Ringstead near Hunstanton, fully organic, which will take two years. Yet his announcement of departure yesterday was a shock to the environmental pressure group and the environment movement in Britain as a whole, because it comes at a point when he has achieved the highest profile of any UK environmental activist for a decade, following the remarkable court acquittal last month of himself and 27 colleagues who trashed a Norfolk field of genetically modified (GM) crops.

Does he not think it worth staying and using his profile? Could it not be of enormous use in Greenpeace's campaigns? "I think you're right to say the profile can have a dramatic effect," he said. "But to effect change, which is what Greenpeace is about, is a different question. Greenpeace was going long before I had anything to do with it, and will be going long after I leave. I have done the job for 12 years and there does come a time when I would want to do something else."

The 12 years have certainly been, to use an old-fashioned phrase, action-packed. They have seen a whole series of Greenpeace objectives come to fruition through the direct action for which the group is best known, with activists climbing this, blocking that and chaining themselves to the other; the oil giant Shell prevented from dumping its giant North Sea storage buoy Brent Spar in the Atlantic, the Sellafield nuclear plant forced to cut back on its sea-dumping of nuclear waste, even the Millennium Dome at Greenwich, south-east London, was forced, under Greenpeace pressure, to abandon plans to use PVC as a roofing material.

And latterly, of course, there has been the campaign against GM crops and food, which has achieved real public resonance.

But looking back at the 12 years yesterday, Lord Melchett had a real regret: that the public is not well aware of the group's work on solutions to environmental problems, such as its promotion of renewable energy, and its highly successful advocacy of "greenfreeze" technology for fridges (the replacement of ozone-destroying CFC refrigerants by non-harmful alternatives). Tony Blair singled out the latter for praise in his much-reported environmental speech this week.

"Yet people still have a one-dimensional view of Greenpeace," Lord Melchett said. "People know us less for our solutions than for our activism. Our solutions work is largely invisible to the public. My successor will have to do better."

He is the first to agree, however, that direct action is at the core of Greenpeace's identity. "We attack people, politicians, companies, governments, very strongly - in a non-violent way. That's what Greenpeace is about and that's what Greenpeace can contribute. There's an extraordinary power in that individual commitment, to take these risks, to put yourself on the line, to risk arrest and imprisonment and sometimes injury," he said.

He rejects the notion that in direct action the group is stepping outside the rule of law. "To be prepared to be charged and defend yourself is to respect the rule of law. We don't deny the right of the police to arrest us, or the court to try us. When I started in Greenpeace, we were trying to stop huge discharges of nuclear waste from Sellafield into the sea. We were trying to stop incinerators on ships burning dangerous toxic waste in the North Sea, and people dumping sewage sludge and industrial waste there. All of these activities were legal - and to interfere with them was illegal.

"Now it's the other way round - anyone trying to burn or dump barrels of industrial waste would be breaking the criminal law and if we went and stopped them we would be law-enforcers. As society becomes more civilised, laws change to reflect that."

On the GM issue, he thinks Mr Blair has got it wrong. "He listened to scientists alone, scientists who were involved in the technology, and he got convinced it was to do with modern new industry. But it's unpredictable, it's unrecallable, the potential impact on the environment is terrible and there are better alternatives."

The group is not at present considering further GM crop raids, he said. It wants to win farmers over. "At the end of the day, we will win the GM campaign by persuading farmers not to grow these crops, either as experiments or, of course, commercially."

He talks with great feeling of his own farm and of the wildlife that flourishes there, from harvest mice to barn owls: it is open to the public through a series of new rights of way created by the estate. He will now be dividing his time between supervising the farm's conversion to fully organic production, and acting as a consultant to the Iceland supermarket chain, which specialises in non-GM and organic produce.

He says he is leaving at a very good time for Greenpeace. Supporter numbers are up from 170,000 in 1998 to 190,000 this year and are predicted to reach 200,000 by the end of 2001. Income, which in 1988 was £2m and from 1990 to 1999 averaged £5m, will be £5.3m this year and £5.6m next year.

The staff are what he will miss most. Looking to the future, he says he is an optimist. "You couldn't do a job like this without being an optimist." And his advice to his successor? "Keep whacking them," Lord Melchett says, laughing, but meaning business.

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