“I’d like to start by clearing up a very common misconception about volunteering for Greenpeace,” says Sir Oscar Gador III, the volunteer coordinator of Greenpeace Southeast Asia – Philippines. “We don’t do tree-planting. What we do is stop people from cutting trees.”

This, I am learning, is part of the direct action the 40-year-old non-governmental organization seeks in line with its goal to “bear witness to environmental destruction in a peaceful, non-violent manner.” I’m one of around 60 people participating in the NGO’s first volunteer orientation for 2014. This is one of the two NGOs I joined in the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda (international name Haiyan) mainly because I really felt I had to maximize my time and capabilities to effect change in global awareness regarding the environment. The other NGO is the All Hands Volunteers, which focuses on rebuilding efforts in Tacloban, the hardest-hit area during the typhoon.

Greenpeace aims at preventing natural calamities, while All Hands focuses on helping after the disaster strikes. I felt that both complement each other.

A mural at the NGO's Philippine headquarters in Quezon City
A mural at the NGO’s Philippine headquarters in Quezon City

There are a number of versions on how the organization exactly started, but according to Sir Oscar, the most accepted one is thus: Greenpeace was started in the 1960s by a small group of young Quaker pacifists, who, desperate to avoid enlisting in the Vietnam War, escaped to Canada. These young men learned of a U.S. plan to do nuclear testing in Alaska. In an attempt to stop the plan, the Quakers borrowed a boat and attempted to sail from Vancouver to Amchitka in the far southwestern part of the U.S. state. They got lost, however, and failed to stop the detonation.

Their plan didn’t escape the attention of the local press, and soon, these guys were regarded as heroes, and a wave of environmental activism took shape at a time the hippie culture was reigning in Cold War America. Since then, Greenpeace has dedicated itself to non-violent direct confrontation in order to protect the environment. Greenpeace advances its cause through different campaigns, four of which are actively performed in the Philippines. These are the 1) Climate and Energy; 2) Water and Toxics; 3) Sustainable Agriculture and Genetic Engineering; and 4) Defending Our Oceans. Each of the campaigns focuses on certain problems.

But stopping the problem is only half of what Greenpeace does; it also has to provide solutions. “Take the Renewable Energy Bill, for instance,” Sir Oscar says.

Using coal energy is harmful for the environment due to its carbon emissions and the worst offender is China, burning billions of tons of coal in an hour. But you can’t just go around lobbying for the closure of coal plants, especially since you’re targeting big-time investors who would stand to lose profits if these plants were shut down. That’s why Greenpeace is pushing for other energy sources, like solar energy, which is free and comes from a very sustainable source. “If the sun dies, trust me, electricity would be the least of our problems,” Sir Oscar says.

The new volunteers after the orientation on January 18
The new volunteers at the orientation (Photo credit: Greenpeace SEA – Philippines)

So what does it mean to be a volunteer? A Greenpeace volunteer can roughly be classified as an activist, an intern, a cyber-activist, or a local group member. Among those, activists are probably the one you associate the most with the NGO. These are the volunteers you see in the news, doing radical actions – scaling towers to hang large banners, running naked to protest the presence of toxic chemicals in clothes, etc. – in order to promote a cause.

It’s not easy becoming a volunteer Greenpeace activist. Aside from the fact that this entails months of training (physically to be able to perform the actions required, mentally to withstand the intellectual challenges of being on the field and emotionally to maintain a non-violent disposition despite the threats), it entails risks that can land you in jail, at the very least. It’s not to say that volunteering for Greenpeace is deliberately looking for trouble, especially since the organization does all its activities with very meticulous plannings and rigorous training (“We always take calculated risks; we don’t just spring into action.”); it’s just that going against the dictates of the powers that be can have undesirable consequences.

“But it’s a trade-off we’re willing to take,” Sir Oscar says. “We have to defend the planet, or it will defend itself.”

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