Interview with Kumi Naidoo

Kumi Naidoo in February 2005.

Kumi Naidoo is executive director of Greenpeace International. Born in South Africa in 1965, Naidoo became involved in South Africa's liberation struggle at the age of 15 when he joined the Helping Hands Youth Organisation (an affiliate of the South African Youth Congress). After the apartheid government imposed a state of emergency in 1986, Kumi was arrested numerous times, charged for violating provisions against mass mobilization and civil disobedience. Police harassment eventually forced him to go underground before fleeing to the United Kingdom in 1987. He spent his time in exile at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, earning a doctorate in political sociology.

From 1998 to 2008, Naidoo was the secretary general and chief executive officer of Johannesburg-based CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, which is dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world. He has also been Global Council co-chair of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty since its inception in 2003.

Am Johal caught up with him in Vancouver.

Am Johal: You have been doing civil society work in South Africa and internationally with CIVICUS for some time now. What interested you about moving to global environmental advocacy with Greenpeace?

Kumi Naidoo: A lot of this work is interconnected. With civil society work we are pushing governments and international institutions towards policy reform. There are interrelationships with these agendas. There are three main reasons for me.

First of all, I increasingly believe that one of our big problems in dealing with global challenges is many of us continue to work in silos. We have poverty in one box, economy in another, peace in another, environment in another. We all understand that we need to interrelate better. I have been drawing on the inspiration of the women's movement and the principle of "intersectionality." How do you understand how our different issues intersect with one another to be able to advance them? These are all human challenges. We will be better at meeting our demands if we deal with them in an integrated way. In the global context on poverty, I saw how many of our constituents were wanting to make connections on climate change. Climate change was driving poverty; poor people were dying first, though they weren't responsible for the environmental changes. Amidst the chaos, they are the ones that are paying the price.

Also, I've been struggling with the question of how does change happen. Part of mobilizing large numbers of people to pressure governments and push the U.N. on change, I was beginning to feel that we should perhaps challenge ourselves a lot more. As social movements, have we been mistaking access for influence? I was beginning to feel that we should challenge ourselves a bit more. We talked in our work quite a lot, five years or so, trying to broaden access to civil society. We are able to access those in power and we weren't taking money from government. Having a seat at the table is very different from being equal voices at the table, and it is very different from being listened to. We have to learn from what history teaches us. We have to continue to build leadership. Like Rosa Parks, we need to engage in peaceful nonviolence that builds public support for change. If we can't push them at the table, perhaps we can drag them to do the just and right thing.

It is a fact that those struggles only move forward when the leadership buy in to the logic, make the kinds of changes towards what Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. were doing—engaging in peaceful nonviolence. It is important that we engage in dialogue too; these actions are important, but we cant put all our eggs in one basket. Most of the decision makers won't act until there will be a peaceful confrontation.

It is natural to do environmental work if one is interested in global poverty. I consider poverty advocacy and environmental advocacy as two sides of the same coin.

Climate change is potentially the connection to the peace agenda. Similarly, there is a connection to development and gender equity. The poor and women suffer disproportionately from climate change in Southeast Asia and Africa for all those reasons. I felt that working with the environmental movement globally was a way to connect the work in a more integrated way with other movements.

AJ: In terms of the broad climate change debate, there hasn't really been a scientific debate since the 70s. What has held things back has been the broader cultural debate and political debate that has lagged. With the large international conferences like Copenhagen, there seems to be continuing disappointments. What can be done around the question of cultural change, the hearts and minds campaign, that is sadly out of step given the gravity of the impacts upon us?

KN: In terms of the scientific enterprise, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change continues to produce reports, and many more are happening at national and regional levels. The scientific research provides many details around the impacts and shows the patterns are getting much worse. There is a huge problem. If we are going to prevent the catastrophe, something significant needs to happen quickly.

With other organizations, such as Global Action for Climate Change, we continue to push that and need governments to act to prevent climate chaos. We also recognize the need to support democratic global action, support developing countries. We will be in Cancun; we will be in South Africa at the upcoming conferences, as well those related to global finance. I'm not saying that we should give up, we will continue to push, but we need to do other things. We have been running campaigns against companies like Nestle. We need to see who the culprits are related to climate change and get them to change their behavior in a way that can change the reality on the ground. By going after companies whose conduct and failure to act are contributing to the problem, we have to put more energy into that, and we will continue doing that. We are also putting our efforts into looking at national level changes.

The logic behind these international meetings is that there are possible agreements that can be signed at the global level and then they trickle down to the countries. We can also build pressure from the ground up and build pressure from that direction as well by getting countries and regions to take leadership, which can then serve as a working model for others globally.

AJ: Population projections show that the world is going to be a much larger place over the next century. We can't really deal with climate change without looking at population growth as well. How can the climate change movement deal with the question of human population growth?

KN: Basically, that's why it's important to connect the different agendas. The easiest way to address population growth is to address poverty. Family sizes are larger when people are mired in poverty. The options to access jobs are smaller. Unsustainable population growth is usually a symptom of other problems. Public policies to limit family sizes usually fail because they do not acknowledge cultural, historical or religious differences, so they tend to be ineffective, and also problematic from a human rights perspective. That's why addressing poverty is a vital part of addressing population growth.

AJ: Which countries are doing well and which countries are lacking related to climate change policy?

KN: I would say that there are several places that used to be doing well. Regional blocs within the E.U., France and other places were making inroads for a period of time. It's important that we try to change the mindset that "we will only do something when others do something first."

There are different countries that stand out in the E.U. where there seems to be an environmental ethos [who] have more recently lost their leadership role. They have agreed to a 20 percent reduction by 2020. It won't be really hard not to make their commitment. Based on the current trajectory, they will meet that target without doing anything significant. There is a lack of leadership for doing anything more ambitious.

The U.S. is a big challenge, when the U.S. is 4 percent of world population but it is responsible for 25 percent of global emissions.