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Shift in Greenpeace operations

Publication Date : 26-12-2012


Contrary to what many people might think, Greenpeace International’s executive director Kumi Naidoo’s biggest critics have come from the environmentalist movement itself.

This reflects a subtle but important shift in how Greenpeace operates. In the past, the movement was vehemently anti-corporate and anti-development.

But as the global growth markets – China, India, Indonesia and Brazil, in particular – have boomed, this approach with its snotty, First World bias is clearly unacceptable.

Moreover, Greenpeace’s willingness to engage with its former “adversaries” is a new and intriguing development for a country like Malaysia that is pushing for development while also trying to balance out environmental standards.

Nonetheless, the South African Kumi with his anti-poverty rhetoric has drawn particularly scathing comments from his predecessors.

In the New York Times last year, Paul Watson, a founding director, said: “They brought Kumi in from the anti-apartheid movement and I’m sure he’s a great guy. If he was running Amnesty International or the Red Cross, I’d be all for him. But when he makes statements about protecting the planet by alleviating world poverty, that just doesn’t make sense.”

Straddling the different worlds isn’t an easy task. However, when I met Kumi earlier in the month in Abu Dhabi during a United Nations Environment Programme retreat, he was at pains to stress the importance of his multi-pronged game-plan.

But first off, the man has real presence.

Tall, expansive and exuberant with a penetrating baritone voice as well as an infectiously explosive laugh, Kumi, wearing an iconic open-necked, embroidered African tunic, dominates the room, any room.

Over the past three years, he’s been a constant force in the plethora of global conferences and talkfests ranging from Copenhagen to Doha.

Now in his late forties, Kumi, a South African Asian, brings over 30 years of broad-based activism to bear on the environmental group’s work.

Nonetheless, even Kumi is concerned about the failure to convert the access Greenpeace enjoys in the corridors of power and money into real influence.

He knows that his strategy of engagement has had only partial success.

Nonetheless, the less militant approach – plus his very real on-the-ground experience in building mass-based movements through the decades of South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle as well as being Secretary-General of CIVICUS (the World Alliance for Citizen Participation) – has been vital in shifting the perception of Greenpeace in the Third World.

This at least ensures them a “voice” in countries such as Russia, Brazil and India.

In Abu Dhabi, he explained: “A major problem with environmentalists is the way they’ve positioned the ‘environment’ and ‘development’ as being in opposition.”

“At Greenpeace we’ve argue that forest degradation and destruction have harmed local poor peoples the most. We work very closely with the local population in furthering their legitimate aspirations to better their livelihood.”

Kumi’s formative South African experiences (he was expelled from school at the age of 15 for a demonstration) clearly shape his world-view – making him an excellent communicator.

Moreover, his shrewd combination of local action and global advocacy melded with the “carrot and stick” of radicalism and engagement have kept Greenpeace very much in the public eye, whether it’s in Kenya, Greenland or Ecuador.

Kumi is particularly proud of what Greenpeace has achieved in Indonesia though he admits the success has had its downside.

“In June 2012 we had a very good meeting with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and four of his ministers at his invitation. It was a very constructive meeting. He felt that we were on the same ship sailing in the same direction though maybe we were moving faster.”

When I asked him about Malaysia, he had appeared less familiar, telling me later and by e-mail: “We welcome Malaysia’s voluntary carbon emissions reduction commitment of up to 40 per cent against 2005 levels, its additional pledge of devoting 50 per cent of its land area to forests conservation, its enactment of renewable energy law in 2011, and carbon disclosure programme.”

Still, he’s very much aware of the limitations of campaigning in the developing world: “In reality, since the Fall of the Berlin Wall, in many countries we have democracies without substance and there are many challenges to operate.

“Indonesia is not immune from this and we still have many serious problems with corporates.”

He adds though that the hanging of his effigy recently outside the Greenpeace office was a low point.

Nonetheless, he remains upbeat. He sees a seismic change in how the public, whether they’re in Sao Paulo, Jakarta or Amsterdam view environmental issues saying:

“You must bear in mind that Indonesia is in fact, the fastest growing country for Greenpeace in terms of local supporters. This is proof that the stereotypical view that only developed countries care about the environment is incorrect.”


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