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Greenpeace Chief Compares Oil Sands to Apartheid

Kumi Naidoo tells Tyee Alberta should learn from Africa's injustices.

By Geoff Dembicki 1 Sep 2010 | TheTyee.ca

Geoff Dembicki reports for The Tyee with a focus on the Alberta oil sands and the fossil fuels industry.

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'We would expect better': Naidoo, Greenpeace International executive director.

Is Alberta worse than Africa when it comes to protecting and sharing its natural wealth? Greenpeace International's new executive director makes that claim after visiting Canada's oil sands this summer.

It was the first time Kumi Naidoo, Greenpeace International's "activist-in-chief" had been to the oil sands area, and the South African-born anti-apartheid organizer drew some unflattering conclusions.

"It has been said that Africa is so poor above the ground because it is so rich under the ground. Alberta is beginning to see similar impacts of being a resource-rich region," Naidoo wrote in an email to The Tyee.

"The big difference between Africa and Alberta is that Alberta and Canada have a much stronger democratic tradition than Africa and we would expect better."

An Alberta government spokesperson dismissed the comparison, saying Naidoo did not understand the way the province works.

Leader compares oil sands to apartheid

Naidoo was chosen as Greenpeace International's leader in late 2009, the first South African to ever be awarded the position. He has a long and distinguished history of social activism.

Naidoo entered the anti-apartheid struggle at age 15, leading a student protest in his native South Africa. He fled to the United Kingdom in 1987 after years of arrests and police intimidation.

The activist earned a doctorate in political sociology at Oxford University, and returned home after Nelson Mandela's release from prison.

He spent years working for the African National Congress and organizing within South Africa's NGO movement. This summer's trip to Alberta appears to have triggered old memories.

"During apartheid, the government did not act in the interests of all its citizens," Naidoo wrote recently on The Huffington Post. "Here in Canada, it appears the rights and health of First Nations peoples are also being violated and ignored."

Canada's reputation at risk?

Naidoo visited the northern Alberta community of Fort Chipewyan, where in 2006 a local physician began publicly reporting higher-than-normal rates of rare cancers.

Since the town of 1,200 is downstream from Fort McMurray, many observers concluded pollution from nearby oil sands operations was to blame. Controversy mounted after Health Canada filed a professional complaint against Dr. John O'Connor, accusing him of raising "undue alarm."

The physician was cleared of all charges late last year. Further vindication may have come from a recent peer-reviewed scientific study, which concluded oil sands mines are releasing highly toxic heavy metals into the Athabasca River.  

"If the Alberta government doesn't begin to stand up to industry and protect its citizens," Naidoo wrote to The Tyee, "then it risks becoming a desolate wasteland where industry is allowed to run free, control policy, and destroy Canada's reputation -- if it hasn't already been destroyed."

Claims are 'ridiculous'

When The Tyee contacted the Alberta government, a spokesperson called the charges “utterly ridiculous” before referring inquiries to another department.*

Jay O'Neill, spokesperson for Alberta's ministry of energy, told The Tyee oil sands royalties provide well for the province's citizens. Education, healthcare and many other social programs have benefited immensely, he said.

"I think [Naidoo] needs to spend a little bit more time in finding out exactly how Alberta operates," O'Neill said.

He denied that industry operates with impunity, claiming instead that companies must abide by "some of the most stringent regulations in the world."

Many challenges remain -- oil sands projects still struggle with toxic tailings ponds -- but new technologies continually reduce the sector's ecological impact, O'Neill said.

'Grow up already,' newspaper says

Naidoo's recent comments are unlikely to endear Greenpeace to many Albertans. In early August, activists affiliated with the group rappelled down the Calgary Tower, unveiling a banner that read "Separate Oil and State."

"Greenpeace's lame direct actions have diminished the organization to the point where its members are little more than puerile pests," read a Calgary Herald editorial. "Grow up already."

A Corporate Ethics-led billboard campaign this summer comparing Alberta's oil sands to BP's disastrous Gulf of Mexico spill infuriated politicians and energy industry officials. It reportedly raised Premier Ed Stelmach's blood pressure.

Led by Naidoo, Greenpeace will continue to advocate for a complete shutdown of Alberta's oil sands industry.

"This is a resource the world cannot afford to extract or burn," Naidoo wrote. *Story updated at 3 p.m., Sept. 1, 2010.  [Tyee]

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