Friday, March 02, 2012

A Dubious Honour: Nestle Protest

An honorary degree is a very high accolade to bestow upon someone. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, Chair of Nestle, received this honour yesterday from the University of Alberta.

The decision to award Brabeck-Letmathe in this way came with controversy since day one of it being announced. The outcry against the U of A's decision came to a head yesterday when a rally was held outside the Timms Centre for the Arts shortly before the ceremony was set to begin.

Breastfeeding advocates, almuni, experts in water security, students, parents, and professors spoke (in varying combinations,such as a breastfeeding advocate with five children of her own, and a professor who is an environmental specialist).

The bottom line was that Nestle has had a spotty record in its actions as a multinational corporation, particularly in two areas. First, by selling its baby formula to women in the Third World by saying it was better than breast milk. In these countries, water is scarce and often contaminated. Formula has to be mixed with water. Babies were getting sick and dying, and by the time the mothers realized what was wrong, their own breast milk had dried up.

The other thing is Nestle's treatment of water as a commodity. It views water as a foodstuff and is responsible for much of the waste that is bottled water.

One of the speakers raised some excellent questions, asking why precisely this person was chosen to receive an honorary degree instead of being recognized some other way. Why the highest honour a degree-granting institution can give?

The excellent turnout at the rally (I counted between 150-200 people at its peak) demonstrates that people are watching and people do care when it comes to the actions of the University of Alberta. The U of A has a history of excellence which would be painful to see overshadowed by it selling out to corporate interests.

Here is my photo set of the rally.

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