“Struggling for justice is not a sprint, it’s a marathon”

I had the pleasure to meet Kumi Naidoo, the director of Greenpeace International. Originally from South African, this anti-apartheid activist currently lives in Amsterdam, the headquarters of the NGO. He talks about his commitment with Greenpeace and the long fight against the petrol industry to make them recognize the reality of the climate change.

You were an activist in the fight against apartheid back in South Africa. What is the difference with the fight against climate change?

Kumi Naidoo: Both fights are about justice. One is about human rights, about justice, and the other one is about environment and climate justice. The reality is we are fastly running out of time, our politicians and our business leaders are in denial.
Just as our folks were put into prison in Russia, few days after that an intergovernmental panel in climate science with every country having their scientists represented, gave the main assessment on the state of climate change. This is a conservative body, it’s a compromise about what they say, it’s not the scariest of the assessment in the matter. Even this conservative body says that we are running out of time, and between 60 to 80% of fossil fuel need to stay where they are, if you want to stand a chance to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Greenpeace sent a scientific mission during three months in Arctic to study the consequences of climate change. Why did you need another study?

The difficulty we have as an environmental organisation, when we set up and meet with the head of the state, or any other senior politicians in any country… Let’s take the example of California. I spent the whole day with the City council. They agree that we are running out of time, they see the problem. But the next day once you left the office it’s back to business as usual. What we have in too many countries around the world is the capture by powerful economic interest.
For example in the USA, and it’s not even funny to say, the United States today is the best democracy money can buy. If you unpack the money that buys those offices, George Bush was lock stock and barrel by the oil industry for instance. You have this disproportional amount for money that these oil and gas company make. And the terrible thing is that when there are profits to be made, the shareholders get it. When there are losses to be made, they socialize it among the people, it’s a burden they have to take.
Giving all of this, we are not saying that we will not continue to engage the dialogue with governments, with business, we’ll continue to do that and that takes 80% of our time, to try to convince them. But as history shows, those powers will not give it up until they are pushed, until they are pressurized, and so they feel that people have reached a point when enough is enough.

Is it not a bit frustrating to drag media’s attention only when your activists get arrested and not at all about your scientific studies?

A lot of people actually think that Greenpeace spends 80% of its time doing actions, that’s what they read in the newspapers. In fact life would be more interesting if it was the case (laugh). It is not the case. A lot of our work consists in scientific studies and proposals. The action that we took in Russia, that was clearly trying to draw public attention to a craziness. The company was operating without even a valid licence, twelve months ago, when we did the early action where I participated. And it was weird because when we went with the same ship, same location, at that time the coastguard just observed. The captain of the coastguards asked to write everything down and said that as long as the action was peaceful, there would be no arrest to be made. So we planned to do the exact same action. But 12 months later the russian government changed its attitude… Gazprom is one of the biggest owner of the media in Russia. So we can do only what we can, being as factual as we can, and make sure that the media tell the story the way we see it, but in that case we succeeded to make public the fact that the Arctic has been destroyed. We have not succeeded in stopping them. Of course we didn’t think we would stop them in one action but at least we dragged the public eye to that issue. Struggling for justice is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.

Isn’t it a good timing with the opening of the Olympics that Vladimir Putin wants to have a good public image releasing your crew?

People have said that the main motivation for the amnesty was driven by the Sotchi timing. I hope that during the Olympics the message of the human rights, environment and climate justice should be given some space to be heard.

So are you preparing an action during the Olympics?

Errrr even if we did, I would not have the liberty to tell you (laugh). But of course we don’t want to appear as a reckless organisation. We take calculated risks, so to be honest we would have never expected to be charged for piracy, given that the year before they observed and did not do anything. But of course it is a moment to urge Russia to move in the direction of human rights and democracy. Like other countries, it will be a long way to travel.

Do you think that as a director of an international organisation you also have to go on the field yourself?

My job is quite boring and I wish I could be more active. And even if I think that a director of such an organisation can’t be arrested every other day, it’s important also sometimes to lead from the front. It’s something that I learnt from Nelson Mandela: it doesn’t mean that if you are a leader you need to be in front for every demonstration. But it also does not mean that your life is more important than the life of young activists who are risking their lives. Nothing of real value comes without sacrifice; hard work and commitment. Mandela’s life was when there is an injustice you stand up against it.

But for Mandela, the enemy was very clear…

I think the enemy is pretty clear now. The enemy is those companies and those politicians who go against what science tell us to do. On climate change, there is 98,5% chance that this is happening. I’m hopeful that humanity won’t leave it too late. Our challenge is to convince companies and politics to make the clean energy revolution.


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