October 2011: Kumi Naidoo has fought for environmental and social justice virtually all his life. When he was just 15, he joined the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and spent several years working with grassroots organisations in his hometown, Durban.Currently the Executive Director of Greenpeace International, he recently led the Global Coalition for Climate Action of which Greenpeace is a founding member. An inspirational figure, he was arrested in June 2011 for scaling a Cairn oil rig in the Arctic to protest against the company's impact on this fragile ecosystem. In this interview with Bittu Sahgal he speaks about his life, work and his vision for the future.
Are there parallels between the apartheid battles you fought so hard against and the colonisation misadventures of industrial countries against weaker nations today?
Yes, there are certainly parallels. Any movement to achieve change requires commitment, sacrifice and perseverance. During the anti-apartheid struggle we faced much resistance to change even when the writing was very much on the wall. And again now, the writing is on the wall as we face catastrophic climate change and we must urgently move towards a low carbon fuel economy.
What went through your head during the time you were incarcerated at Nuuk?
Having been blasted with icy water as my colleague Ulvar and I climbed that 30 m. rig in the Arctic, I was surprised that I actually made it as far as being prisoner number 22! (The significance of this number is that 20 fellow Greenpeace activists had been arrested previously - Ulvar and I became numbers 21 and 22 respectively).
It is not hard to reflect when you have so many hours with your own thoughts… I thought about how the battle to protect the Arctic is one of the most defining challenges of our time. And about the people who inspired me to bear witness to the Cairn's cavalier attempts to carve up this vulnerable environment. About our brave campaigners who endured two weeks in prison for their peaceful protests, and the more than 50,000 people who signed our petition to protect the Arctic from the threat of devastating oil spills. And as Fathers' Day came and went my daughter was always in my thoughts. She was instrumental in encouraging me to work for Greenpeace.
As head of Greenpeace do you believe we will see effective climate change action in place before we collectively go under?
It is a race to the future. I am an optimist. As a South African growing up under apartheid and having seen incredible change in my own country, I believe change is possible. I believe that when men and women of good conscience come together they can change the world. We can and must rise to this challenge and when I look around me at the examples of action for change, there are positive and inspiring developments. The rise of renewable energy continues apace globally and with current technology, we could provide most of the world's energy demands with just a fraction of viable resources. We can still avert the most devastating consequences of climate change. But we need governments to act faster, because failure on the climate is just not an option.
Cairn, BP, Shell, Dow Chemicals… How do you guide Greenpeace into balancing the imperative of meeting and negotiating with corporate heads, while fighting them with every means available at your disposal?
A clear and guiding principle at Greenpeace is that we have no permanent enemies or allies; it means that we are free to work with people when we agree with them and can find common purpose in the pursuit of environmental protection and equity. It would be folly for us to simply man the barricades and not meet, discuss and negotiate. Our approach has allowed significant progress with a number of major corporations: with McDonald's on the Amazon; Unilever on Indonesia; Adidas, Nike, Puma and H&M on toxic discharges to name but a few recent examples. We investigate the involvement of companies in environmental destruction, we expose it, and then we enter into talks about the solutions. We have won victories for human health, wildlife and the environment but this does not mean that we now endorse these companies - we merely applaud the progress they are making in these specific areas.
It is important that companies and the people who run them realise that we mean business, that we are real and often pragmatic people. That we are not only there to bash but also to present solutions, which in the end they will realise are not only beneficial for the ecological and social top-line but more often than not, their shareholders' bottom-line as well.
You will presumably be in Durban for COP 17, but do you personally believe this is a wise investment of your time?
Yes, indeed. Greenpeace will be inside and outside the Durban climate conference. We will be watching the governments who must come together and will urge them to make real progress on agreeing on a fair, ambitious and legally-binding treaty to avert climate chaos. We will be watching the governments and the corporations who are colluding to block progress. We shall expose them to their voters, their shareholders and their customers; people who may not want to vote or pay for climate intransigence. If we were not on the inside at the UNFCCC meeting in Durban then the way would be clear for climate deniers, the fossil fuel industry and others to wreak havoc, unhindered and unabated.While the signs for Durban are not looking good, we must try to get what we can out of it. We must continue to build conditions for the provision of a climate saving treaty under the auspices of the UN. This is certainly a good use of my time. And as a boy from Durban, I know a thing or two about the host country and I also know a couple of people… More than ever before, I may be able to help convince those in power to do the right thing.
Can science help us navigate through and avoid catastrophic repercussions of climate change?
Science is critical to understanding climate change; from its role in alerting us to the increasing dangers of a warming planet to the technological leaps in providing solutions through renewable energy. Science tells us what we need to do but it cannot perform the task for us. Diminishing Arctic ice, sinking island communities and great swaths of once fertile land reduced to drought can only be solved by ending our reliance on dirty fossil fuels. We need our leaders not only to listen to the overwhelming scientific consensus, but crucially, to act on it.
How big is India really in the Greenpeace scheme of things? Is your global spend proportionate to the likely planetary role that India is likely to play in the decades ahead?
India is a top priority for us as well as the global community. Greenpeace India has grown at an amazing rate since it was formally established in 2001 and there are ambitious plans in place for our future growth in this region. The Indian office is financially self-sufficient, relying on the donations of over 60,000 supporters - as you know we take no money from corporations or governments. With India's one billion plus population, most living in poverty, this country is already being hit hard by the impacts of climate change. Unfortunately, India's current energy priorities are taking the country down the road of “more coal, more nukes, more big dams”.
Post-Fukushima, the nuclear industry is on its last legs, and it will target the Indian market even more aggressively to survive. As for coal, well, most of India's coal is under forest areas in central India - which also happens to be the world's largest tiger habitat! Aside from climate change concerns, expanding coal mining will spell the end for wildlife in vast areas of central India.
There are those who say that we have no choice if we want to provide electricity for all?
60 years of centralised coal-driven energy production has still left 400 million people without electricity. The energy access work Greenpeace has been doing in Bihar is proving that India doesn't need to destroy its forests for coal in order to provide energy to its poor - decentralised renewable energy options can do that at a fraction of the financial, social and environmental cost, while empowering local communities to be in charge of their own energy options.
On the marine front, where do you see India fitting in?
We are looking at India to play a leadership role in international fora on issues of marine biodiversity. India has always been against whaling, and, thanks to the pressure from its large traditional fisher population, has kept its seas largely closed to the huge factory fishing vessels of Europe and East Asia. This must not change. Looking beyond national waters, there is a pressing need to declare substantial areas of the high seas closed to all extractive industries – fishing, oil and gas extraction, mining, etc. Such closed areas - marine reserves - play a role in the regeneration of fish stocks, with benefits for surrounding areas. This is where India can play a leadership role, as an advocate for marine reserves on the high seas. Since there is no artisanal fishing in these areas, there is no “conservation vs. livelihood” conflict either as there is in coastal areas. In the near-shore waters, it is important that marine protected areas are set up with the involvement and buy-in of artisanal fishing communities, if not they will be doomed to conflict and failure.
Climate change is likely to trigger pandemics of disease and hunger, so why are we finding it so difficult to convince governments and people about this impending calamity?
Partly it seems to be a question of where, and upon whom, these pandemic, famines and diseases will be visited. As it stands it is the poorest in the world and in society who will be the first and hardest hit. They are not only the poorest but they are the powerless.
The problem isn't about getting through to the people. Millions of people are already calling for action on climate change through a global network of NGOs and civil society organisations. The challenge is for governments to listen to the people, instead of listening to the polluting corporations who are holding back climate progress. Governments think in the short term but even in the short term we are seeing more extreme weather events, exacerbated by climate change, which are blighting developed nations also. This is a situation our leaders cannot ignore for much longer.
The illegal wildlife trade is acknowledged to be the third largest illegal trade in the world after arms and narcotics. Is Greenpeace engaging world leaders by highlighting the possibility that this could be financing insurrectionists, terrorists and possibly even subverting democracies within nations?
While the illegal trade in wildlife is indeed rife, repugnant and a major source of income fuelling conflict around the world, this is not a core area of Greenpeace's focus, there are other organisations working on this and we salute their efforts. There are many issues that we do not have the resources to add to our core campaigns. We need to stay focussed to make the biggest impact we can on a small number of issues, such as climate change, ocean destruction, deforestation, toxic pollution and sustainable agriculture. We also join with others in coalitions to seek synergies and ways of sharing so we can have maximum impact.
What is the Greenpeace strategy to counter President Obama and other world leaders who seem bent on turning the climate crisis into an opportunity to push nuclear power?
The Indo-US nuclear deal has paved the way for an ambitious civilian nuclear energy programme in India. The American nuclear industry seems to be very keen in marketing their technology to India and President Obama and his government are pushing for India to dilute their unique liability law to allow for American suppliers to expand their Indian market. Greenpeace has been campaigning to ensure that a Bhopal-like abdication of corporate responsibility is not acceptable in the case of a nuclear accident.
It is clear that the nuclear industry wants their risks entirely subsidised by governments and tax payers and uses that to claim that their energy is cheap. This is a joke and the Indian liability law is an example of how the industry is unable to operate when their risks are included in the costs of generation.
Is it time that trials for environmental crimes against humanity are established, along the lines of the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials?
That is a big concept, and one to be thought through. What we can say is that there are many environmental laws on the books that are simply ignored, inadequate or not policed. We should seek to uphold the laws we already have and to enforce them to the fullest possible extent. When corporations drill in the Arctic and are legally obliged to have an oil spill response plan, then we need to ensure that the plan needs to be credible. It needs to be feasible, it needs to be tested and open to public scrutiny.
Our recent work to get Cairn Energy to release its oil spill response plan is a case in point. Once released, following several high profile Greenpeace actions in the Arctic, the plan confirmed our worst nightmares; that there is in fact no way a major spill could be tackled in the Arctic. For example if a spill were to occur at the end of the Arctic summer, it would be a full five months before any action could be taken to stop it, or even start to clean it up. Another example could be when an industrial fishing vessel is caught with an illegal cargo. The vessel should be impounded immediately rather than the owner being fined an amount so insignificant that it can simply be taken from petty cash.
What are we likely to find you doing after your Greenpeace stint is over? And how would you judge your own success or failure when you hand over the controls of the good ship Greenpeace to your successor?
What will I do…? God only knows... By the time I leave Greenpeace I hope the organisation will be as global as the challenges we seek to address and that we would have won several important struggles against the polluting activities of governments and companies alike. By the time I leave, I want to see a positive and concrete move towards a sustainable global green economy.
You got actively involved in life and death struggles at the age of 15. What message do you have for kids that age today?
Activism is fun, it is fulfilling - you meet many like-minded people to share your hopes, dreams and aspirations. It is exhilarating and it takes all kinds, so no matter where your interests lay, there is an important role for you to play. The more you get engaged, the less these struggles will be defined by life and death. Sometimes activism is a compulsion as I guess it was for me. But sometimes it is a simple invitation, you do not have to wait until something terrible happens to get involved, in fact the sooner you get involved, the less terrible things there will be.
To support Greenpeace visit: https://www.greenpeace.org/india/en/
Published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXI No. 5, October 2011.