Greenpeace to slash staff and spending

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GREENPEACE is about to make swingeing cuts in staff and spending, despite the most successful months in its 25-year history.

Both Greenpeace International, which co-ordinates 30 national bodies, and the British branch of the world's biggest environmental pressure group are drawing up plans to sack campaigners and severely pare their budgets even though the organisation is enjoying unprecedented publicity and prestige after its victory over the disposal of the Brent Spar oil platform in June and its success in catalysing international opposition to France's nuclear tests in the Pacific.

The cuts, to be carried out over the next few months, are a further serious setback for Greenpeace following its admission last week that it wrongly claimed that the Brent Spar contained more than 5,000 tonnes of oil that would severely pollute the sea if it were dumped.

They are caused by falling income, changes in strategy and the urgent need to raise cash to replace Greenpeace's ageing fleet of protest ships, two of which have been seized by French commandos off Mururoa atoll.

Greenpeace International is to slash its budget by 18 per cent by the new year. This is the second big cut it has suffered in less than three years; in 1993 some 100 campaigners, a third of its staff, were made redundant.

"We have never been so prominent but we are having to make economies and lose staff," says Richard Titchen, a director of Greenpeace International. "You would assume from the amount of coverage we are getting on the international news agenda that we were doing very much better in terms of income than we actually are."

Part of the problem is that Greenpeace International raises little money of its own and is instead financed by voluntary pledges from the national organisations. Although these jointly have a huge income - more than $131m (pounds 87m) drawn almost entirely from individual small donations - this has dropped sharply from more than $178m at the height of international environmental fashionability in 1991.

The number of paying supporters worldwide fell from 4.8 million in 1990 to 3.1 million at the beginning of this year.

Some large national bodies have been hit particularly hard; the numbers of paying supporters in the United States, Canada, Sweden, New Zealand and Denmark have fallen by about a half since the early 1990s, and there has been a severe decline in the Netherlands and Australia.

Only 11 of the 30 national organisations now give to the international body's budget and some of these have greatly cut back their contributions. Greenpeace International adds that its five active campaign boats are all nearing the end of their lives and need to be replaced.

Ten days ago, French commandos seized its two main vessels, Rainbow Warrior II and Greenpeace, together with a helicopter, two aircraft and 11 inflatable boats - in all worth at least pounds 10m.

The organisation fears it will take years of legal tussles to get them back.

The British national body has weathered the recession much better than most of its counterparts. It has some 280,000 paying supporters, down by only about one-tenth since its peak in 1991. It has not increased its staff since 1989 - but now also plans big cuts. Some 20 jobs - about a quarter of those in its smart Islington headquarters - are expected to go by the end of the year.

Lord Melchett, the executive director, says this is partly to give the group a better operating margin and more cash-in-hand, partly to increase the amount it spends on campaigning, and partly to accommodate a new strategy for its rank-and-file supporters.

In the past, Greenpeace activists have concentrated almost entirely on raising money, but the leadership now wants to involve them in campaigns. This would mean that they had less time to collect contributions, and Lord Melchett expects that income from local fundraising will fall from pounds 300,000 to pounds 100,000 a year as a result.

Critics say that the pressure group's enormous need for money for its worldwide operations and its recent difficulties in many countries have led it to exaggerate its case to try to gain extra public support. Greenpeace denies this, but recent months have witnessed a series of unwarranted claims that have seriously dented its credibility.

This culminated last week in Lord Melchett publicly apologising to Shell's UK chairman, Chris Fay, for a report which alleged that the Brent Spar contained 5,500 tonnes of oil and that the company had made "a gross underestimation" of the amount of polluting material in the disused platform. The report turned out to be based on faulty sampling of the Brent Spar's tanks by Greenpeace activists occupying it.

The group, rightly, insists that this claim did not play an important part in its campaign; it came in the last few days of the battle and made little impact.

But it is damaging, because it confirms widespread expert analysis that Greenpeace exaggerated the harm that the sinking of the platform would do to the sea - and because it followed false statements in Greenpeace advertisements revealed by the Independent on Sunday in preceding weeks.

One advertisement had falsely claimed that Shell was trying to dump "14,500 tonnes of toxic litter" in the sea; this was the total weight of the Brent Spar which in fact is thought to contain only about 130 tonnes of troublesome substances.

Another a few weeks earlier claimed that "scientists have shown that the same chemicals that we dump in the sea are causing willies to shrink in size", a charge unsupported by the evidence.

In the early Eighties Greenpeace gained the reputation for being none too scrupulous with the facts. But over the past 10 years Lord Melchett and other modernisers have increasingly dispelled this by insisting on higher standards of accuracy, sometimes in conflict with some of the more traditional activists.

Observers feared that this summer's false claims meant that the old Greenpeace was reasserting itself.

The apology, however, is likely to strengthen the hand of the modernisers. Greenpeace International is drawing up new guidelines, which, says Mr Titchen, will make "over-exaggeration or making a false claim a sackable offence".

He adds: "From time to time people exaggerate because they feel so passionately about what they are doing. But that is just not on."

It may also, paradoxically, lead to a resolution of the Brent Spar affair. After the apology, Lord Melchett and Mr Fay met late last week and agreed to go on talking about what to do with the platform.

Shell disclosed that it was reviewing more than "200 options" for reusing the Brent Spar, or disposing of it on land rather than dumping it at sea.

Some sources say that Shell no longer wants to sink the platform, that civil servants at the Department of Trade and Industry concur, and that the main pressure for sticking to the original plan is now coming from the Energy Minister, Tim Eggar, who last weekend accused Greenpeace of "environmental terrorism".