Guy Laliberté: Backpacker Billionaire, Founder Of Cirque du Soleil

The creator of the mega-successful global circus, Guy Laliberté says he's still a hippie at heart. He also explains how he nabbed the exclusive to an extravagant new show devoted to the late Michael Jackson.

Cirque du Soleil (tarotastic)
Cirque du Soleil (tarotastic)
Serge Raffy

PARIS - He's been dubbed the "saltimbanquier." It's a French play on words that loosely translates as "acrobat banker," an epithet Guy Laliberté is not particularly fond of.

Sitting in a penthouse suite at the Meurice Hotel overlooking the rooftops of Paris, the Cirque du Soleil founder swears he's a dreamer, a backpacker, a lover of open spaces and the human race. This master of an all-powerful multinational dream factory claims he has changed little in the 30 years since he began his career in Paris.

What Laliberté cannot deny is that today he's the head of a company which employs 5,000 people, including 700 artists, producing 10 shows a year – five permanent ones in Las Vegas and Orlando, and five road acts – which annually entertain 11 million people, on five continents.

According to Forbes magazine, Laliberté"s personal fortune stands at more than 2 billion euros ($2.7 billion). In spite of this, Laliberté remains a hippie at heart, nostalgic for the 1970's Flower Power. A lean face, a shaved head and clearly in top physical shape, he recalls his Parisian years as an accordionist and fire-eater.

"I arrived from Montreal in 1978 with 50 Canadian dollars in my pocket," he recalls. "I lived in the Marais neighborhood. I begged on the street and sometimes performed with a group of musician friends, influenced by the folk music of a band called Malicorne. I lived on the top floor of an old building with a view of the roofs, like this suite today. I didn't have an elevator, but my sense of pleasure was exactly the same."

Guy Laliberte's biography is the stuff of Hollywood movie scripts. After Paris, this nomadic spirit headed to Berlin, then Marrakesh, a must for any self-respecting beatnik. On his return to Montreal, he couldn't shake off his love of street entertainment. He met a group of stilt-walkers, called The High Heels Club, and launched a show with them. It was an immediate success.

It wasn't long before Laliberté attracted attention from across the border. He was invited to Los Angeles. It was an instant love affair and the beginning of a crazy adventure. "We experienced instant success. Michael Jackson would come every month in disguise," recalls Laliberté. "He never missed a single one of our shows and became a friend of Cirque du Soleil."

Another close friend was George Harrison. The two men, both passionate about Formula One motor racing, bumped into one another at different races, and a strong friendship developed. "In the middle of a party I had invited him to, we started fantasizing about a project revolving around the music of The Beatles," he remembers. "For me, George Harrison was one of the pioneers of world music. George wanted to close the loop with his mythical group. We came up with the idea of a permanent show in Vegas, Love. We went to London to negotiate with Apple."

The rest is history. With a stroke of genius, Laliberté invited the Fab Four's legendary arranger George Martin to supervise the production at Abbey Road studios in London. The 80-some-year-old, credited with creating the distinctive sound of The Beatles' Sgt Pepper album, agreed to get on the project. His son Giles joined him.

"It was one of the most important moments of my life," says Laliberté. "I am one of those people who still believes in John Lennon's pacifist message. Too many baby boomers abandoned their ideals. This image of father and son working together at Abbey Road really moved me. One of the values that I defend at the Cirque du Soleil is the intergenerational transfer of knowledge and know-how. And there, I saw a father passing the torch on to his son."

This thrill seeker mounted another adrenaline-charged production in September 2009. To mark his 50th birthday, he gave himself a 24-million-euro ($32 million) gift: 12 days on board a Soyuz space rocket. His aim: promoting his One Drop Foundation aimed at raising issues related to water rights across the globe. It was a publicity stunt – the weightless businessman drummed up media coverage worldwide.

Entertainment giants such as Universal and Disney would love to buy into Cirque du Soleil, but Laliberté values his freedom. "I prefer to reinvest my profits into the business rather than see them disappear into pension funds," he says. Despite Cirque du Soleil's global reach (the company is currently performing in Australia) the company remains family-owned. That said, the ex-backpacker and owner of a 54-meter-yacht called Tiara sold a 20 percent stake of Cirque du Soleil to Dubai real estate developer Nakheel. The deal also included an agreement to produce a permanent show in Dubai for 15 years.

Another project on the cards, Laliberté"s most extravagant and costly one yet, is a musical tribute to Michael Jackson which is due to debut in Las Vegas in the spring of 2013. In hard fought negotiations with the executors of Michael Jackson's estate, Laliberté fought off competition from a number of entertainment giants to obtain rights to his work for the show.

"It was Michael's mother who tipped the scales in our favor," he explains. "She knew that he loved our universe. We were sort of the little guys in this story." But little guys with determination and ambition. The show is due to play permanently in Las Vegas as well as an still-to-be-selected Asian location. Perhaps Hong Kong. Maybe Shanghai. This backpacker, who in the past 30 years has gone from hitchhiking to his own private jet, hasn't come to the end of the road yet.

Photo - (tarotastic)

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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