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University of Alberta v.s. Nestlé: Controversy and honorary degrees

The University of Alberta is embroiled in controversy over its decision to award an honorary degree to Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, the Chair of Nestlé, the largest multinational food and water corporation in the world and one of the most unpopular.

Nestlé, which Brabeck-Letmathe has helmed as CEO and now Chair since 1997, has been the target of international boycotts stretching back decades for its marketing of breast milk substitutes in the Majority Word in violation of international standards, widespread labour violations and links to slave labour in its chocolate production, and its environmental impact and strong-arm tactics with communities opposed to Nestlé’s exploitation of groundwater for its bottled water division. Nestlé is currently in court over a spying scandal over a similar community fight against Nestlé in Brazil.

While the university justified giving its “highest honour” to Brabeck-Letmathe because he has contributed to “the preservation, distribution and management of one of humanity’s most vital resources: water,” Brabeck-Letmathe’s views on how the world should deal with the global water crisis tell a different story.

In an interview for the 2005 documentary We Feed the World, Brabeck-Letmathe outlined his vision of water, saying, “Water is, of course, the most important raw material we have today in the world. It’s a question of whether we should privatize the normal water supply for the population. And there are two different opinions on the matter. The one opinion, which I think is extreme, is represented by the NGOs who bang on about declaring water a public right. That means that as a human being you should have a right to water. That’s an extreme solution. And the other view says that water is a foodstuff like any other and like any other foodstuff it should have a market value.” He also promoted genetically modified food in the same interview, saying, “Today people believe that everything that comes from Nature is good. … A good example is the organic movement. ‘Organic is now best.’ But organic is not best.”

The response to the University’s decision has been swift. Faculty members at the University have decried the decision, saying that awarding Brabeck-Letmathe will tarnish the institution’s global reputation.

“Everyone is aware of the role Nestle plays in privatization of water and baby formula, and it will reflect back on the university,” David Zakus, director of the global health centre in the University of Alberta medical school, told the Edmonton Journal. “We have a very strong focus on global citizenship here and how our students should impact the world. This award seems to contradict that.”

Sociology professor Amy Kaler, who researches maternal health in rural Africa echoed those concerns, saying, “The U of A is a major research institution and on the global stage, we should be leading the charge for child maternal health … So this honorary degree is really a mistake.”

A number of organizations around the world, including the Council of Canadians, UK-based Baby Milk Action and INFACT Canada, have launched campaigns encouraging supporters to contact the University and call for the honorary degree to Brabeck-Letmathe to be revoked in light of his corporate record.

After University President Indira Samarasekera initially refused to speak to media on the issue, instead directing inquiries to the University’s official blog — where the decision to honour Brabeck-Letmathe was again justified on the basis of “his emerging and growing role as a worldwide leader in water resource management. [Brabeck-Letmathe’s] recent advocacy and leadership calling attention to water issues worldwide is challenging industry and government to take quick action” — Samarasekera finally broke her silence on February 10 in an interview with the Edmonton Journal columnist Paula Simons. Samarasekera again justified the decision, saying, “This guy is an intellectual. We give honourary degrees to intellectuals of distinction, controversial or not. He’s been saying for a long time that water is a scarce resource and we could be heading for a global water crisis, 20 to 30 years from now. Because of his leverage, he’s put this issue on the global agenda.”

Despite this claim, Simons points out that it’s impossible to separate Brabeck-Letmathe’s record from Nestle’s: “Yet it’s absurd to pretend the U of A is only honouring Peter Brabeck-Letmathe the individual, not the Nestle executive. Brabeck-Letmathe is a company man. He joined the Swiss-based multinational in 1968, straight out of university, at the age of 24. He’s spent his entire career there, serving as CEO from 1997 to 2008, and as board chair since 2005. Given the U of A specifically cites Nestle’s Stockholm Industry Water Award as one of its key reasons for honouring Brabeck-Letmathe, it’s disingenuous to suggest the rest of Nestle’s checkered corporate record is irrelevant here.”

In spite of the University’s defence of the decision, opposition to the honorary degree shows no sign of abating. Campus screenings of the new Swiss film on Brabeck-Letmathe and Nestle’s record on water have been planned, and a protest being organized for the March 1 conferral ceremony has attracted over 200 supporters to greet Brabeck-Letmathe and say no to his honorary degree. For those not in Edmonton, there’s still time to let President Samarasekera and Chancellor Hughes know how you feel.

Image courtesy of telegraph.co.uk.