During the mid-1980s, an estimated one million people died as drought and civil war swept Ethiopia and a group of neighboring African countries. Experts estimate that at the time, millions of lives were saved by a UN program that pumped $3.5 billion worth of food and other aid into the region. The renewed spectacle of human misery in the Horn of Africa, where famine is once again taking lives, troubles Maurice Strong, the Canadian businessman who ran relief operations there between 1985 and 1986 as executive coordinator of the United Nations’ Office for Emergency Operations in Africa.
“There was suffering, death and mass movements of people under conditions of tremendous privation,” said Strong.
“Those visions haunt me.” As secretary general of next June’s UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Strong is struggling to find solutions to problems that plague humanity, and the planet itself. Those who know Strong say that there are few men better suited to the task. “How do you save the world?” asked William Holt, a Toronto businessman who has worked with Strong. “Maurice just says,
‘Let’s figure out a way to do it.’ ”
Largely self-educated and a millionaire by the time he was 30, Strong is not a naturally impressive or charismatic figure. With his thinning hair, neatly trimmed moustache and customary dark suits, Strong, 62, projects an image that might belong to a small-town businessman. In reality, he is an influential international diplomat who flies regularly between world capitals to confer with political leaders. As a successful entrepreneur who says that global ecological problems are reaching a critical stage, Strong has credibility both in financial and environmental circles and across the divide that separates rich and poor nations. Some environmentalists express concern that next summer’s Rio conference, which is aimed at finding solutions to global environmental problems, could fail as a result of disagreements among participating nations. They add that one
of the challenges facing Strong is to prevent that from happening. Said Zen Makuch, a staff lawyer at the Toronto-based Canadian Environmental Law Association: “Strong’s role is going to be critical. He is the key player.” Strong’s record of achievement is impressive. In Canada, he has twice been chosen to set up major federal organizations—the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) in 1966, and the national petroleum corporation, Petro-Canada, in 1975. As well, he organized the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment and later headed the UN Environ-
mental Program. “His dedication to the environment and the global community is extraordinary,” said Ivan Head, a professor of law at the University of British Columbia who served as an adviser to then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau during the 1960s and 1970s. “He is a very genuine, decent human being.”
Still, some critics have questioned the depth of Strong’s environmental convictions as the result of a plan he helped to devise during the 1980s to pump water from a vast reservoir that
lies partly under 104,000 acres of land that he and others bought in Colorado. Strong’s name has remained linked with the project, even though he withdrew from it. After helping to set up Denver-based American Water Development Inc. (AWDI) in 1986 as a business venture, Strong argued with his partners, who included Vancouver financier Samuel Belzberg. The company’s plans enraged many inhabitants of southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley. Strong subsequently gave away his interest in the firm.
Last month, a judge of the Colorado Water Court in Alamosa rejected AWDl’s application to begin pumping 16.3 million gallons of water a year out of the aquifer beneath the valley. Lawyers for AWDI said last week that no decision had been made on whether to appeal the court’s decision. Said Christine Canaly, director of Citizens for San Luis Valley Water, a 1,500member group that opposes AWDl’s plans: “I think when he originally conceived this idea, Maurice didn’t understand the consequences in the way that he does now. But a lot of people haven’t forgotten that he was the impetus for getting it all going in the first place.”
Concern: Strong’s career has been marked by an evident concern for people and for the environment. He was born in Oak Lake, Man., 50 km west of Brandon, where his father, Frederick, lost his job with the Canadian Pacific Railway during the Depression. When he was 14, Strong struck out on his own. He worked as a merchant seaman off the coast of British Columbia. Then, the Hudson’s Bay Co. took him on as an apprentice fur trader and sent him to Chesterfield Inlet in the Northwest Territories, where, said Strong, “I lived very close to the Inuit people, learned their language and learned a lot about how people lived close to the earth.”
By the 1940s, after taking several business courses in night school, Strong turned his attention to the oil-and-resources business and worked as a securities analyst in Winnipeg and Calgary. With a growing reputation for commercial brilliance, Strong became a vice-presi-
dent and treasurer of Dome Petroleum Ltd. in 1954. It was the first in a succession of highlevel jobs. In 1963, Peter Thomson, chairman of Montreal-based Power Corp., made Strong president of the giant resources and investment company. During that period, Strong built the basis of his later wealth as the result of stock options from Dome Petroleum and Power Corp. In 1966, Prime Minister Lester Pearson launched Strong’s career as a public official when he picked him to set up and head CIDA, which was created to run Canadian assistance programs in developing nations. When Trudeau’s Liberal government decided to establish a national petroleum company in 1975, the Prime Minister chose Strong for the job.
Strong’s experience at CIDA and his growing interest in environmental issues made him a logical choice for his next job. UN Secretary General U Thant called on Strong to organize the 1972 Stockholm conference that gave international recognition to emerging concerns about the global environment. As a result of the meeting, the United Nations in 1973 established the UN Environmental Program to monitor global ecological issues and appointed Strong to head the agency, with headquarters in Nairobi.
It was an investment during the late 1970s that led to Strong’s involvement in the Colorado water project. He and some business partners bought the Denver-based Arizona Land and Cattle Co. One of its assets was the Baca Grande Ranch in the mountain-ringed San Luis Valley. Strong fell in love with the valley, and so did his Danish-born second wife, Hanne (Strong had married Pauline Olivette in 1950; they were divorced in 1980). According to
Strong’s son Kenneth, who lives in Ottawa and who serves as vice-president of the family holding company, Vancouver-based Strovest Holdings Inc., his father became interested in the water lying under the valley when the U.S. government launched a project during the early 1980s to divert water into the Rio Grande. According to some estimates, the aquifer under the valley contains 660 trillion gallons of water (equivalent to the flow of Niagara Falls for 36 years).
According to Kenneth Strong, his father originally envisaged using the water locally to raise cattle and to operate a proposed brewery. But some of the investors involved in AWDI promoted a larger project, involving a proposed pipeline to supply water to the suburbs of Denver, 300 km north of the valley. Maurice Strong says that he disagreed with his partners’ plans. “The Belzbergs and another group consolidated their control” of the firm, Strong told Maclean’s. “I had a lot of differences with them and I was basically pushed to the sidelines.”
Energy: As a result, in 1989 Strong donated his 22-per-cent interest in AWDI to a nonprofit foundation in Kalamazoo, Mich. He retains a royalty position of just under two per cent that currently has no value. Earlier, Strong donated about 600 acres of land to groups that included a Carmelite monastery and a Hindu retreat, which form a spiritual community in the valley. When the Colorado Water Court began hearing AWDI’S case in October, the 79 official objectors to the firm’s application included the U.S. government, the state of Colorado, the Carmelite monastery and local residents.
Since last year, Strong, who spends much of his life aboard jetliners and who crosses the
Atlantic nearly every week, has lived in a rented house in the Geneva suburb of Ärmeres. A diabetic dependent on daily insulin injections, Strong works punishingly long hours. Said businessman Holt: “He has a very high energy level.” Along with his duties as a UN official, Strong continues to manage his personal fortune, which his eldest son, Frederick, who is president of Strovest, has estimated at about $10 million. Most of Strong’s energy is currently focused on arrangements for the conference that will unfold in Rio de Janeiro next summer. Strong says that one Q§. his principal objectives is for the conference to set in motion changes that will relieve the poverty of developing countries through such measures as restructuring or forgiving Third World debts and encouraging trade with poorer nations. “We must realize,” said Strong, “that we cannot avert global environmental risks without the co-operation of the three-quarters of the world’s people who live in developing countries. We therefore must help them to enjoy some of the benefits of technological civilization.”
At the same time, Strong says that it is essential to tackle global environmental problems before they become overwhelming. “If we don’t do so in Rio,” says Strong, “then I ask, When will we do it? Nobody can say for sure what is too late, but it is very hard to envisage another opportunity like the one we will have in Rio next year.” The daunting task that Strong will face in Rio de Janeiro will be nothing less than to persuade competing nations and blocs to submerge their differences in the interests of the global future.
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