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Greenpeace's Kumi Naidoo: From Liberating South Africa to Saving Planet Earth


By Nell Greenberg, Earth Island Journal

Kumi Naidoo is the real thing. Naidoo, who became the Executive Director of Greenpeace International in November 2009, is not your typical career environmentalist. He became an activist at just 15 years old in apartheid South Africa. As a result of his involvement in the country's liberation struggle, Naidoo was expelled from high school, arrested at the age of 21, and, after a year living underground, went into exile in England in 1987. 


From the frontline of the anti-apartheid struggle, Naidoo went on to run the African National Congress's first national literacy program. He has also been the honorary president of the global civil society network CIVICUS and one of the founders of the Global Call to Action against Poverty.

So why would a global justice activist who has spent much of his life focused on poverty, trade, aid, and political injustice turn to an environmental organization? That's exactly what we talked about when he visited San Francisco. With Naidoo at the helm of Greenpeace, it appears it won't be environmental activism-as-usual. As a result of his personal experiences and his political philosophy, Naidoo -- the first African head of Greenpeace International -- intends to bridge the issues of equity and environmental destruction. As he says: "It's all happening on this fragile thing that we call Planet Earth."

Moving forward from Copenhagen, what is Greenpeace doing on climate change? What are the most important things to focus on now?

Part of what is critically needed right now is for us to actually build, if you want, the broadest possible awareness and understanding of citizens who are voters, in the hope that there can be a bottom up kind of pressure.

With the Copenhagen summit, some might justifiably say that we put too much of our eggs into the COP15 basket. In the sense that we wanted a fair, ambitious, and legally binding treaty, and it was not fair, it was not ambitious, and it was not binding. So in the post-Copenhagen reflection we are saying we also need to continue to build other leverages of campaigning and resistance and popular mobilizations.

What the situation calls for is a multipronged approach. We need to have a legislative approach, so in as many countries [as possible] we want to invest -- in the national legislative process; secondly, in the global negotiations; thirdly, in terms of pressure on corporations, particularly those corporations that are the most culpable in terms of contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.

And then the most important prong that underpins everything now going forward is to look at how we bring people into the struggle. Right now, I think if we are brutally honest with ourselves, a lot of us talk way above the people. My brother, who is a former political prisoner from the apartheid South Africa days, he is a professor of optometry -- quite an educated guy. After Copenhagen he said, "Kumi you've forgotten everything about organizing." I said, "What'ch you mean?" He said, "Half the time when I was hearing you and your colleagues speak from Copenhagen I was getting lost between the degrees, the percentages, and the 350 parts per million."

Ultimately our strategy has to be to make this climate change challenge something that every citizen feels – that it’s their issue – and we need to find ways in which climate change intersects with women, intersects with poverty, intersects with the challenge of peace.

We have to recognize that actually global warming offers us both the biggest challenge as well as the biggest opportunity, because we either get this right as rich and poor countries acting together and we deliver to our children and grandchildren a safe and secure future. Or if we get it wrong ultimately we put all of human life and other forms of life at risk into the future.

It seems to me that you have made a personal decision to focus on climate change as a way to connect several issues that haven't traditionally been seen as environmental issues. Given that climate change itself is challenging to solve, do you think this is effective?

The way I come to it is a very simple route, right. I think the moment of world history that we are living in is a very distinctive moment. It's what some of us have called a perfect storm. By which we mean we have seen the convergence of big global crises coming together in a very short, pressurized space of time. So first, if you take the last three years, we've had the fuel price crisis, followed by a food price crisis. We have the ongoing poverty crisis that takes 50,000 lives of men, women, and children from preventable causes every single day. We've got the climate crisis and then we have the financial crisis.

In terms of the impacts on peace, security, and securing a more just and equitable future for future generations, I do think that climate change specifically, and environmental destruction generally, is unifying. Because the thing is, everything happens on the environment, right? Everything happens on this fragile thing that we call Planet Earth. Whether we have gender equality or not on this thing called Earth, it's happening on the environment. Whether we have economic justice, social justice, political justice – all of these things are happening on this precious planet of ours. So in that sense, the foundational role of the environment generally and climate change specifically, I do think, offers us the opportunity to connect the different struggles in ways in which other connecting points in the past have not offered us.

The idea of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by any means necessary brings up fears for those who worry that we could reduce emissions in a way that would not necessarily be good for communities. How do you address that concern?

We shouldn't do that.

Simply put, I think there is an opportunity here. Let's just look at it from an African perspective, right. If we were to address climate imperatives in a bold way, that would mean: one, harnessing the humongous potential Africa has in terms of solar, huge potential in terms of wave, wind, biomass, and geothermal – just to take five. If we, for example, spent 10 percent of the money that was spent on the bailouts of the banks, the bankers and the bonuses, right, we would have revolutionized investment that would have generated clean energy, would have generated jobs, would have actually supported economic growth.

If we were to do that, the other positive impact, for places that are experiencing conflict, is that conflict will also likely reduce, because a lot of the conflict we are seeing is actually conflict based on resources. I mean, we are looking at resource wars happening now, in Darfur, in South Africa. South Africa had horrible xenophobic violence two years ago, and, you know, I was there and I have to say part of me died. I couldn't believe what was happening. I was in the communities and the biggest driver of the conflict was resource scarcity – that was when food prices had spiked globally.




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