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Saturday, 31 August 2013

Sponsorships, or Fox Guards Henhouse

One of the benefits of working for my company is that in August we get Friday afternoons off. It's a nice way to get a start on the weekend, whether by getting stuff done, leaving town or just visiting tourist spots that would be prohibitively crowded on weekends.

That was my plan this latest Friday, the last one of the month. I'd been reading David Toomey's Weird Life recently, and wanted to go check out the Natural History Museum and see if it had anything about that stuff. During the week, I also got talking to one of my colleagues, who'd been to an exhibition of pictures by Sebastiao Salgado, a Brazilian photographer; she said it was amazing, so I duly bought my ticket and went to check it out.

Salgado's pictures are mostly concerned with natural life and with indigenous cultures, generally in extreme environments - some were of the San people of Africa, others of Antarctica and still others of the native tribes in the Amazon. With the pictures of tribal peoples, in particular, he conveyed the sense that they have been living the same way of life for thousands of years - at least, as much as you can convey that sense by taking pictures of them.

Still, it was beautiful and thought-provoking in the way it made me think of the fragility of these people's lives and social systems, and the poignancy of the gulf between their way of life and mine. I don't want to romanticize it too much, but the people he snapped in the jungles of South America and Papua gave the impression of not wanting much - they live in a place that appears to provide them all they need, as long as they remain within balance with it.

I'm probably imposing a lot of my own world view on them, but if nothing else, it's interesting to see that there are still societies living like that. Of course, their ways of life are generally under threat from development, mining and - let's be honest - enormous poverty. They are minorities in their own countries, and generally without a voice, because they don't interact much with the outside world.

In any case, these were my thoughts until I got to the end of the exhibition. That's when I saw the sponsor: Brazilian mining company Vale. I'll admit I'd never heard of Vale before that moment, but the wrongness hit me immediately, even despite their rhetoric about corporate social responsibility. Just for good measure, I had a quick look for them on my phone, and turned up this tidbit about them "winning" the Public Eye award for having the most "contempt for the environment and human rights in the world".

Frankly it's not important whether or not Public Eye's allegations are founded or not, though. It could be run by the nicest people in the world, but at the end of the day a mining company exists to rip valuable materials out of the ground, regardless of what's covering them. There is absolutely no way to square that activity with protecting fragile ecosystems or the territories of indigenous peoples. Not one.

So you can imagine that on making that discovery I was not incredibly impressed. To be honest, it's still bothering me twenty-four hours later (hence this blog post). What did intrigue me, though, was how the feedback sheets provided by the museum asked us specifically about the sponsor and whether we knew of it before (I took the opportunity to point out my displeasure at that selection); even more intriguing is the fact that the posters on the tube advertising the exhibition carry no mention at all of the sponsor.

Usually special exhibitions at London's museums are emblazoned with the sponsors' logos. BP is one that keeps appearing, for instance. This raises a question or two - does the Natural History Museum believe advertising the sponsorship by Vale would put people off, or just that nobody would recognize the name? Or, given that they point out how the original sponsors pulled out and Vale kindly stepped in at the last minute, are they even the slightest bit embarrassed by the connection?

It's a little too much to expect, frankly - but I hope they are.