Nobel Laureate and anti-Apartheid activist Bishop Desmond Tutu has joined the list of prominent global citizens visiting the Alberta oil sands to emphasize his opposition to further development there, most notably the Keystone XL pipeline.
In a speech on Friday May 30 he urged Canada to give up on industrial projects that unleash more carbon into the atmosphere, which exacerbates climate change.
“Only those who don’t want to listen, only those who want to be blind can’t see that we are sitting on a powder keg,” he said, according to the Canadian Press. “If we don’t do something urgently, quickly, we won’t have a world.”
Though bad weather postponed his planned tour of the massive industrial project, Tutu spoke on the eve of a two-day conference on oil sands development and aboriginal treaties hosted by Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and co-sponsored by the Toronto law firm Olthuis Kleer Townsend. Former Ontario premier Bob Rae, who also once led the federal Liberal Party, is a partner in the firm, the Canadian Press said.
At the same time, Tutu said, he was not there to “tell Canadians what you must do” but rather to enlighten them. His hope, he told reporters at a press conference in Fort McMurray, was that his presence would serve as a catalyst and that he could assist all parties—First Nations, leaders of industry and other affected parties—in working together, the Canadian Press reported.
“Ultimately, it is far better, it is cheaper, for people to be friends than for people to be enemies,” he said. “The time spent is growing shorter by the day. We can still perhaps do something about reversing what we have done so recklessly.”
He also called pipeline rejection a "moral choice" in an editorial in the Ottawa Citizen.
"The oil sands are emblematic of an era of high carbon and high risk fuels that must end if we are committed to a safer climate," he wrote. "Oil sands development not only devastates our shared climate, it is also stripping away the rights of First Nations and affected communities to protect their children, land and water from being poisoned."
The bishop’s opposition to oil sands development is not new. He has joined with fellow Nobel Peace Prize winners—he received his in 1984, for his work against South Africa’s system of Apartheid—in urging President Barack Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline proposal.
The U.S. State Department must approve the section that crosses the border between the two nations. The controversial $7 billion, 1,700-mile-long pipeline project has been held up by numerous legal challenges, the latest by a court ruling in Nebraska.
The conference, As Long as the Rivers Flow: Coming Back to the Treaty Relationship in Our Time, is devoted to “harnessing the power of treaty rights to protect the environment, shape resource development, and approach the promise of reconciliation,” according to the event’s website.
Tutu will give the keynote address at the conference, which is being webcast as well, and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam will also speak, as will Rae.
This is not the first celebrity visit to the oil sands. Most recently, musician and Canadian Neil Young sang four concerts to benefit the Alberta Chipewyan First Nation’s fight against further development there, then visited the region to show his support.
The conference, organizers said, is not being held to fully oppose oil sands development entirely, but to call a halt to development until environmental concerns can be assuaged.
“We are contributing to what is happening worldwide, regardless if it is a small footprint or not,” said Adam at the press conference. “We are feeling it at home.”