Kumi Naidoo Greenpeace

Can This Man Save the Planet?

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August 26, 2011

Kumi Naidoo Greenpeace

By Adam Spangler, Dow Jones & Co, Image: © Louise Gubb/Greenpeace

At 0700 hours, June 17, 100 Miles off the coast of Greenland, a black inflatable speedboat splashed into the icy water off the bow of a large, repurposed Russian fireboat. Kumi Naidoo, the charismatic leader of Greenpeace International, climbed down into it. As the engine revved up and the high-speed Zodiac started pounding through the waves, Naidoo recalled clutching a bow rope tightly with one hand, and with the other holding a banner demanding, “Stop Arctic Destruction.”

Speeding past Danish naval patrol boats, the inflatable reached its target, a towering 53,000-ton oil rig. As Naidoo and his Nordic action coordinator, Ulvar Arnkvaern, started to climb a steel ladder that stretched 100 feet up to the platform, a high-pressure fire hose hammered freezing water down on their heads.

Cairn Energy Stena Don rigSoaked to the skin and shivering violently, Naidoo and Arnkvaern fought their way up, step by step. When they reached the deck of the oil rig, Naidoo announced to the crewmen who surrounded him that he was there to hand over a petition signed by 50,000 people online demanding that the rig operator, Cairn Energy, release its oil-spill response plan—if it even had one. The captain of the rig refused to see him and, while he waited to be arrested, Naidoo gave a short interview to a newspaper reporter patched in by walkie-talkie. When a police helicopter landed, the activists were flown off to four days in a Greenland jail, where Naidoo came down with a fever. The petition was left behind, unread. Both sides claimed victory though neither seemed to have won anything.

The Cairn Energy protest was the first time a Greenpeace executive director had been arrested and deported in a direct action in over a decade and it’s not a coincidence that Naidoo decided to lead the operation on the eve of the organization’s 40th anniversary. Greenpeace finds itself at a major crossroads. What began as a tiny grassroots group in Vancouver now has 2.8 million members and 2,500 employees in 40 countries. It is not just the international face of the environmental movement—it is a behemoth that rivals some of the companies it opposes. It has won battles in the wilderness and in the courts, but it also faces widespread criticism that it has not achieved major, world-changing results. As the organization struggles with middle age, a question flaps in the air like one of their tattered banners: What is Greenpeace’s role in the world today?

Naidoo, a 46-year-old human-rights activist from South Africa who has held the top job at Greenpeace for two years, has always shared with the organization a taste for direct action. But his willingness to negotiate with multinational corporations is a new and controversial direction for the organization. He has successfully pressed Unilever and Coca-Cola to agree to discontinue the use of HFC gases (which are more harmful to the atmosphere than CO2) in their refrigeration systems. He has gotten Nestlé to agree to stop buying palm oil from Sumatra, where forests in pristine tiger habitats bear continual clear-cutting. He is now pressuring Facebook to “unfriend” coal. “How appropriate for our time that the executive director of Greenpeace is in the absolute heart and soul of global business and politics,” says J. Carl Ganter, a leading environmentalist. “He’s positioned to lead the way.”

All of this is sacrilege, however, for many hard-core eco-warriors. “I lost some old grassroots friends on that one,” Naidoo admits about working with Coca-Cola. “But we don’t have to support everything they do in order to work with them.”

Paul Watson, the youngest founding member of Greenpeace and now leader of the smaller, more confrontational Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, is perhaps the best-known detractor of his former NGO. He paints a picture of a once-great organization lost at sea. “It’s become nothing more than a bureaucratic money machine that rides on the backs of other NGOs,” Watson charges. He is especially contemptuous of Greenpeace’s philosophy of peacefully bearing witness in its direct actions, labeling the approach cowardice. “It sounds like he wants to move it in the direction of the Red Cross instead of Greenpeace,” Watson says.

The movement has gone mainstream in the past two decades, but as environmentalists save an old-growth rain forest here and protest the drilling for Arctic oil there, they feel the world is continuing to spiral further away from sustainability. “We’ve won significant battles,” Naidoo says. “But the environmental movement as a whole, Greenpeace included, are losing the war.”

The idea of saving the environment held little meaning for young Naidoo in his native South Africa. His mother committed suicide when he was 15. His father, a bookkeeper who ran local soccer and cricket associations from their home outside Durban, took care of Naidoo and his three siblings. As a young teen, he was drawn to anti-apartheid protests, for which he was expelled from school, reinstated and expelled again. By the time he was 18, Naidoo had been arrested, beaten, thrown in the back of a van with a can of tear gas. “One day we felt empowered,” he recalls. “Other days we were terrified. I felt like I was living on borrowed time. Too many friends died in the struggle to think I wouldn’t be next.”

In 1985, when he was 19, Naidoo heard a local group home for boys from broken families was about to close because they couldn’t afford to pay a social worker. With his father’s support, he volunteered to be a live-in counselor to the dozen or so boys. One afternoon, he turned on a small shortwave radio to Radio 702, one of only two independent radio channels in the country. The voice described a scene in faraway Auckland, New Zealand. Two bombs planted by divers working with the French Secret Service had ripped through the hull of Greenpeace’s flagship, the Rainbow Warrior, which was in the South Pacific to protest French nuclear tests in the area. Naidoo had never heard of Greenpeace, but the broadcast electrified his imagination. “That a nonprofit could constitute such a threat to a powerful government,” he recalls, “inspired me to believe that our efforts against the apartheid regime could succeed even as the state was becoming increasingly violent.”

A sympathetic professor at a local university recommended that the promising student apply for scholarships to get him out of the country. He interviewed to be a Rhodes Scholar, the only black South African candidate on the region’s short list of 12. He was awarded the spot and went to Oxford, England, where he followed the liberation of his homeland from afar. In 1990 Naidoo returned to South Africa and plunged into two decades of high-profile human-rights work. He led South Africa’s first national literacy program and became honorary president of the global civil society network Civicus. He was named a Young Global Leader and he sat on the board of Greenpeace Africa.

In January 2009, Naidoo helped lead a 21-day hunger strike to protest the South African government’s position on Zimbabwe’s despotic ruler, Robert Mugabe. Exhausted and emaciated, he saw his hair turn gray from malnutrition. On his 19th day without eating, a recruiting firm called to see whether he was interested in the top job at Greenpeace. He brushed off the offer—it wasn’t exactly the best timing—but his daughter convinced him to reconsider. (Naomi is now 19 and studying ethics, religion and philosophy at the University of London.)

The new consensus among eco-activists is that environmentalism is now a matter of life and death, especially for people of color living in poverty, who are bearing the brunt of climate change. “Climate apartheid” is a term Naidoo uses to connect environmentalism and human rights. “The old paradigm, where we can pretend you can either care about people or you care about the planet and don’t worry about both at the same time, is starting to break down,” says Van Jones, a former environmental-jobs adviser to the Obama administration. “Someone like Kumi, who has such impeccable human-rights credentials, says that protecting the people and the planet are twin duties. It showed a lot of foresight on Greenpeace’s part to hire someone with that background.”

What exactly to do about the daunting challenge of climate change, however, is still very much up in the air. After failing to strike an accord in Copenhagen in 2009 and Cancun in 2010, the next attempt comes in December at the Climate Summit South Africa—in Naidoo’s native Durban, where the spotlight will naturally fall on him. “The environmental movement is global now,” Jones says, “and you need someone who can speak to people in Asia, Latin America, Africa. That’s easier when you have a former anti-apartheid youth leader sitting across the table. With Nelson Mandela passing from the international scene soon, I wouldn’t be surprised if the South African that most kids will hear about and know about in their lifetime is Kumi Naidoo.”

For years he traveled to the World Economic Forum in Davos to campaign about issues of poverty and climate and couldn’t get a single meeting with a CEO. In the past two years, Naidoo couldn’t accommodate all of their requests. One CEO told Naidoo, “My colleagues are very keen to get you to the table, so that they are not on your menu.” In a battery of informal half-hour meetings with companies across a range of industries, from energy to telecom to chemicals to electronics, executives asked how they could avoid Greenpeace’s wrath, whether it’s a ranking on a polluter’s list or being subjected to direct action.

In many ways, Naidoo’s life mirrors the growth of Greenpeace, a wild-eyed youth protesting injustice maturing to a grown-up negotiating on equal terms with the largest corporations in the world. It seems fitting, then, that Naidoo is now fund-raising to build a new Rainbow Warrior, a successor to the famous flagship sunk by the French government. Naidoo has to convince donors that the new boat is not just a headline-grabbing echo of an aging organization’s glory years but a cutting-edge weapon in environmentalism’s biggest fight.

Van Jones argues that Naidoo is the best possible person to do that. “Kumi’s such a compelling person,” Jones says. “He gives a speech to poor kids and gets them excited, and then he gives the same speech at the World Economic Forum to the richest people in the world, and they give him a standing ovation. I don’t know anyone else who could do that.”

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