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DAVOS, Jan 31 2011 (IPS) - “Smothered in white mud”, to quote South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, Davos is a long way from the Durban township where I grew up. It is as far from my comfort zone as I’m likely to get. Yet, this was the tenth time in 12 years that I found my self cloistered in the expensive and exclusive resort surrounded by the corporate world’s aristocracy and a great many presidents and prime ministers.

My participation as a long-time activist has raised an eyebrow or two and has been the topic of an heated internal dialogue. I ask myself, as I hear news of anti-capitalism protesters, am I on the right side of the security fence? On the right side of the fortress that is Davos?

There are occasions where it makes sense to be on the inside, when it makes sense to ‘suit up’ and reach out to the captains of industry for some straight talk or, as we would say in Greenpeace, ‘direct communication’. After all, there are occasions when we go to great lengths -often involving a very long rope, indeed- to get our message heard by company directors. In Davos I met over the last days with no fewer than 15 CEOs of major corporations, men -and yes they were all men- whose decisions help shape our environment and affect workers’ rights and ultimately what kind of world we pass on to our children and grandchildren.

Davos for those who dismiss it as nothing more than an elitist executive speed-dating event -and it can be- was founded to ‘improve the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas’.

In discussions with colleagues we estimate that just over 200 or so of the more than 2,000 Davos participants come from civil society, trade unions, and faith-based groups -around 10 percent. That puts civil society representation just below that of women, which is a feeble 16 percent. Davos is far from representative, but wealth and power are certainly present, and the chance to speak truth directly to power makes it worth the trip.

Two examples among many serve to highlight the value of showing up: the first was a breakfast briefing with Unilever and some 150 of its customers. This was a golden opportunity to raise awareness of the impact of the company’s sourcing policies, to talk about the impact of palm oil plantations on rainforests in Indonesia and on the wildlife, and on the small farmers and indigenous peoples who are often cleared along with the forest.

I was invited by the CEO, who in offering me a chance to address the audience spoke of the curious relationship his company enjoys with Greenpeace. He spoke of our debate over the need to protect the forest and of the time last year when Greenpeace activists descended from the roof of Nestle’s annual general meeting to press home the point about palm oil and rainforest destruction.

The second example came when I was interviewed by Randi Zuckerberg, sister of Facebook founder Mark, which was broadcast live on Facebook from the Davos social media corner.

It was a great opportunity to tell Randi in person about our on-going campaign to convince FB to unfriend coal. I was also able to speak to directly to many in the company who would also be watching the broadcast. For months we have been calling on FB to go green and announce a plan to quit using energy from coal-fired power stations to run its massive data centres. Watch the interview on our web site www.greenpeace.org as I present Randi with a Greenpeace t-shirt and a set of demands that would allow the company to live up to its claim of being an innovative, forward- looking company.

Davos is not exactly a revival meeting for the socially or ecologically aware, but there are many who are beginning to realise that social and ecological bottom lines are directly linked to their companies’ bottom line. They know that more and more consumers are looking at the true cost of products and voting with their pockets to demand clean production and respect for the rights of workers and local people.

While all of the pressure on the outside has helped drive environmental issues up industrialist’s agendas, it is clear after several days walking the corridors here, that all too few genuinely share the sense of urgency about tackling the climate threat.

Greenpeace has no permanent enemies or allies, and we seek to work in concert with all who share our desire for a green and peaceful future, I’d have hoped to find more of those in Davos. While we fiercely protect our independence by not accepting funding from corporations, that does not mean we will not work in common purpose.

For me Davos is a key opportunity to speak truth directly to power and to stress what connects us rather than what divides us. It is a chance to make a direct appeal to the captains of industry as parents, as grandparents, and fellow citizens on this finite fragile planet of ours. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

(*) Kumi Naidoo is the Executive Director of Greenpeace International.

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