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Payal Parekh, An Environmental Activist With The Science To Back It Up

The MIT-educated activist and scientist travels the world to condemn the effects of multinationals on the environment. Her recent project in Bern was the 3D modeling of oceans.

Environmentalist Payal Parekh
Environmentalist Payal Parekh
Christian Losson

BERN — Payal Parekh bears a bright smile and a look that seems to promise hope. At 42, she is the global managing director for 350.org, a U.S. non-govermental organization now present in 15 countries, that uses online campaigns and direct public protest to save the planet from environmental menaces such as the Keystone XL pipeline in the United States, or coal mining in India. Parekh also opposes the Transatlantic Free Trade Area (TAFTA), and supports full divestment from the fossil fuel sector.

"This is a fight against immoral investments," she says. "We must weaken the political power of the fossil energies industry to break the climatic deadlock. Name the enemies. Withdraw capitals from the problem to inject them in the solutions."

Whatever you do, don't talk to Parekh about leaders, spokespersons or providential men or women. She is only interested in voices that speak for those who have none. "In the field, people who have nothing are ready for anything to save their lives, while we have so much and do so little."

Her struggle is that of "the farmers, the impoverished people, the displaced people, victims of climate change or large, unnecessary projects," she says. "The forgotten people who want to fight on, even though their lives, in the short term, are devastated. This commands respect."

Parekh joyfully gravitates in the galaxy of guardians of the planet, where strategies are shared and passed on and resistance is building. She is part of a worldwide struggle in which activists, from local groups to global movements, try to embody alternatives to the inaction of governments, which do next to nothing to curtail multinational corporations. Parekh, a running enthusiast, is also a link between climate experts who aren't part of the inner circles of great summits and development activists working with weakened communities.

"Everything is linked," she says. "Poverty, climate, energy, etc. I fight against this because I want to see the glass half-full ... and also to put an end to the condescension of rich countries. The right to vote for women was established in 1950 in India. It took Switzerland another 21 years to do that."

Criss-crossing continents

Parekh grew up in a wealthy family in Mumbai. Her father was an engineer and her mother a shopkeeper. She made many trips between her country and the other continents. She was just six when she followed her father to the U.S. Later, as part of a school exchange, she spent a year in Germany before returning to India to graduate high school.

At one point, while browing in an activist bookstore, she came across a book denouncing ecological disasters caused by World Bank-funded firms. "This opened my eyes and I joined a small NGO, in the state of Gujarat, that worked with local populations whose only access to drinkable water had been diverted in favor of a company, and had to use sea water to water their fields."

She then joined the National Alliance of People's Movements, which fights for human rights and against the privatization of natural resources or land appropriation. Together they organized campaigns against dams that displaced populations. And they supported the fight against forced evictions of families in Mumbai slums.

In the meantime, Parekh earned a PhD in oceanography at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "I've always believed that science provides solutions, but that answers to social, economic and environmental issues are political and that we need to create power balances," she says.

A turning point for Parekh came in 1999, with the protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the media birth of alter-globalism. That marked the start of her connection with activists throughout the whole world to lay the first stone of another possible world. "I'm an anti-capitalist, but I live in the capitalist system and have my contradictions," she says.

An anarchist antique dealer

After passing through India again, Parekh went back to school: at the University of Bern, in Switzerland, where she worked on 3D modeling of oceans, studying the impact of fertilization on greenhouses gases. It was there she met her future husband, a man she describes as "an anarchist antique dealer who doesn't have a bank account."

What does she think about her years spent studying science while carrying out activist work, about this double life as a "half-Indian, half-American"?

"It's important to learn from the past," she says. "To work on solutions that have real effects, to support the most affected communities, which often have solutions on what should really change, and not just settle for slogans."

Parekh is always on the go. Just a few days ago, she was fighting alongside illegal immigrants in Switzerland. But she has little regard for large UN or even anti-globalization conferences. She has neither the resignation of some old rebels nor the cold realism of young fanatics. She wants to be lucid and hopeful.

"We are collecting small victories, such as shale gas," Parekh says. "We don't all dream about big events, but we refuse to let ourselves be eaten away by despair."

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