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May 29, 2017

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Changing times see a changing Greenpeace

PETALING JAYA, Malaysia -- Contrary to what many people might think, Greenpeace International's executive director Kumi Naidoo's biggest critics have come from the environmentalist movement itself.

This reflects a subtle but important shift in how Greenpeace operates. In the past, the movement was vehemently anti-corporate and anti-development.

But as the global growth markets — China, India, Indonesia and Brazil, in particular — have boomed, this approach with its snotty, First World bias is clearly unacceptable.

Moreover, Greenpeace's willingness to engage with its former "adversaries" is a new and intriguing development for a country like Malaysia that is pushing for development while also trying to balance out environmental standards.

Nonetheless, the South African Kumi with his anti-poverty rhetoric has drawn particularly scathing comments from his predecessors.

In the New York Times last year, Paul Watson, a founding director, said: "They brought Kumi in from the anti-apartheid movement and I'm sure he's a great guy. If he was running Amnesty International or the Red Cross, I'd be all for him. But when he makes statements about protecting the planet by alleviating world poverty, that just doesn't make sense."

Straddling the different worlds isn't an easy task. However, when I met Kumi earlier in the month in Abu Dhabi during a United Nations Environment Program retreat, he was at pains to stress the importance of his multipronged game-plan.

But first off, the man has real presence.

Tall, expansive and exuberant with a penetrating baritone voice as well as an infectiously explosive laugh, Kumi, wearing an iconic open-necked, embroidered African tunic, dominates the room, any room.

Over the past three years, he's been a constant force in the plethora of global conferences and talkfests ranging from Copenhagen to Doha.

Now in his late forties, Kumi, a South African Asian, brings over 30 years of broad-based activism to bear on the environmental group's work.

Nonetheless, even Kumi is concerned about the failure to convert the access Greenpeace enjoys in the corridors of power and money into real influence.

He knows that his strategy of engagement has had only partial success.

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