‘Only our collective voice will be heard’

Interview with Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International
From Africa Renewal: 
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Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International, interviewed by Africa RenewalKumi Naidoo, fighting for the environment, development and people’s empowerment.
Photograph: Greenpeace

From the struggle against apartheid and poverty in his native South Africa, to helping lead Greenpeace, one of the world’s foremost environmental advocacy groups, Kumi Naidoo sees less of a difference than a continuum. “An activist is an activist,” he explains to Africa Renewal. In advance of the June 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development — also known as “Rio+20” — we asked Mr. Naidoo, who became executive director of Greenpeace International in 2009, to reflect on a few of the more pressing issues affecting Africa. (For the full interview, see ‘We need a sustainable path for our future’.)

Twenty years ago, the first Rio summit emphasized that environmental protection and economic development are complementary, rather than counter-posed priorities. How significant was that shift in perspective?

Rio 1992 ended the false dichotomy between environment and development. Governments pledged to make development work for all, including for future generations. This was a breakthrough and remains our real global challenge: to deliver decent lives for all within the ecological boundaries the planet sets for us.

Key environmental agreements, such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing have been agreed since Rio. Last year investments in renewable energies overtook investments in old fossil fuel technologies for the first time.

At Rio [2012] governments must listen to the people, not the polluters, otherwise they are bound to fail the world. It’s a very small but powerful group of players who gain from the current destructive status quo that is holding us back.

To be credible, Rio+20 must support an energy revolution based on renewable energy and energy efficiency and providing access to energy for all. Governments and businesses must commit to zero deforestation by 2020 and governments must upgrade the UN Environment Programme to specialized agency status.

Rio+20 will seek to popularize the notion of the “green economy.” What might that mean for Africa?

The fair green economy we want is one that provides sustainable livelihoods for all while fully respecting ecological limits — our planetary boundaries. In a truly green economy, the economy will be a mechanism to deliver societal goals, and economic growth as an end goal in and of itself will be abandoned.

The green economy is not only an opportunity for African countries, but a necessity. Africa is at the frontline of climate change. One can already see the impacts: drought, conflicts in areas such as the Horn of Africa, increased migrations, food security compromised . . . We can no longer sit back and watch it happen.

Climate change can be an opportunity for Africa; it doesn’t have to remain a threat. There is huge potential for building new industries across Africa. We are blessed with vast renewable energy sources such as sun and wind. The wealth is simply amazing. In South Africa 149,000 direct jobs could be created by 2030 — 38,000 more than in the current government’s plan. That’s the kind of decisive action — leading to wins for the planet and the poor alike — that a green economy could deliver.

Desertification and land degradation are particular concerns in Africa. Are they getting enough attention in international discussions of sustainable development?

No, they are not given sufficient weight. You can see that when you look at the pitiful budget and capacity of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. Greenpeace calls for sustainable agriculture that works with the land rather than against it, which avoids degradation. Greenpeace works in the forests — including with indigenous peoples — to show that development is possible without deforestation and degradation. Also without proper governance — land use planning — and regulations and law enforcement, the problem of desertification cannot be addressed properly.

Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International, interviewed by Africa RenewalA solar power panel in Cape Town: Developing South Africa’s renewable energy industries could create nearly 150,000 new jobs by 2030.
Photograph: Africa Media Online / Ed Suter

At international conferences on the environment, African delegates often raise the need for financial support to help them adapt and change. Do you see this happening?

Social and environmental protection needs additional money, and it is high time governments provide it. Developed countries have indeed broken many aid promises. That is shameful, especially when you consider how much money they could easily find when they decided they needed to bail out their greedy banks.

Can Africa become more than a bystander in the international discussions on climate change?

The tragedy about this whole issue for somebody like me — coming from Africa — is that the people who are least responsible for climate chaos are the ones who are paying the first and the most brutal price. Climate change in Africa is contributing to the creation of more deserts, starvation and water scarcity.

Our continent needs to take leadership in the international negotiations, nationally and regionally. Our political leaders need to understand and accept that other nations’ actions will impact their own people at home, and they need to be clear and not compromise our right to a future.

How can global management of the environment be strengthened?

Today governance gaps created by globalization provide a permissive environment for wrongful acts by companies. At Rio 2012, governments must agree to the development of a global instrument that ensures full liability for any social or environmental damage that global corporations cause. African governments should also call for creating strong regulation and control of financial markets and introducing restrictions on speculators and speculative products to stop harmful practices that lead to rising resource and commodity prices and an accelerated depletion of natural resources, with dramatic consequences for poor people and small economies.

What if negotiators fail to agree on a suitable successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which seeks to curb emissions of the “greenhouse gases” that harm the earth’s ozone layer?

The answer is simple: They then will be admitting that governments and political leaders are sleep-walking us into a crisis of epic proportions, putting the future and lives of our children and grandchildren in jeopardy and great danger.

Many citizens in the world, especially young people — I know my own daughter feels this way — are completely disgusted by how governments lack the political will to establish a solid, time-bound process to address the biggest threat our planet faces.

Do African governments need to pay more attention to their own people?

A true revolution can only start when governments start listening to the people and not to the polluters. The power of the people can no longer be undermined. What our brothers and sisters in North Africa and the Middle East have done is a clear example of that. Based on what history has taught us, at the end of the day it is up to the voices of thoughtful, concerned citizens to stand up and resist the lack of action. If there is one thing I have learned about big systemic change, it is the following: Without decent men and women who say that enough is enough, and who are willing to go to prison for it, systemic change won’t happen.

There is strong civil society across Africa, and it’s getting stronger and stronger. The recent events not only in North Africa but also across the continent have shown the power of people. We need to go beyond the solo approach and work together and lend our voices across all sectors: environmental, human rights, health, education, etc. Only our collective voice will be heard.