Brabeck-Letmathe (Nestlé) Letters

Letter to President Samarasekera from Liza Piper, Associate Professor, Department of History & Classics:

Dear President Samarasekera,

I write to express my deep distress and opposition to the decision to award an honorary degree to Peter Brabeck-Letmathe. Brabeck-Letmathe is an individual whose leadership on water-related issues, through his role at Nestlé, has been entirely at odds with social justice and environmental values that I not only personally hold dear, but which are essential to sustainable and equitable development, and infant health, across the globe. I would have had no issue with bringing Brabeck-Letmathe to campus for a discussion of issues related to water, but I am ashamed that we are honouring him with a degree. Following your interview on CBC this morning, I am concerned that were I not to contact you directly to let you know how I feel, that my silence would be interpreted as tacit support for this decision.

Liza Piper
Associate Professor, History & Classics
2-37 H.M. Tory Building
University of Alberta
Edmonton, AB T6G 2H4
tel: 780-492-0855

Letter to President Samarasekera from Patrick McLane, Doctoral Candidate, Department of Sociology:

Dear President Samarasekara,

Today I listened to your February 28, CBC debate with Dr. Amy Kaler over the controversial award of an honorary degree to Dr. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe.  I am glad, as a member of the University of Alberta community, that you chose to engage in this debate in the spirit of public dialogue.

I respectfully disagree with your position that Brabeck-Letmathe’s work as an individual may be separated from his position as chair and former CEO of Nestlé. I believe that his notoriety and authority are derived from his work with that company.  

I am writing you today because of your comment that you have received few concerned emails other than some thousands which have been organized by the Council of Canadians. This comment seems to suggest that the Council represents marginal views on water conservation. I would argue that the Council is among the primary organizing forums for individuals concerned with water conservation in Canada. Therefore, it is not surprising that letters from individuals concerned about water conservation and Nestlé’s corporate activities in this area would be forwarded under the auspices of the Council of Canadians. I find the suggestion that letters received through the Council may be dismissed to be misguided.

At the same time, you seemed to dismiss the reports of what you called ‘action groups’ while endorsing Nestlé’s own claims that its distribution of infant formula is not in violation of international norms and laws. This appears to reflect a bias in favour of business perspectives over and against civil society organizations’ perspectives. This is not, in my view, appropriate for the President of an institution of public learning where diverse perspectives must be tested through scholarly research. 

I would note that, as President of the University of Alberta, you have access to a full array of specialist scholars who could provide you with balanced, expert information on Nestlé’s current practices. There is no need for you to remain at the level of arguing opinions. I believe that the reputation of this institution would have been better served had you answered Dr. Kaler with sources of your own instead of countering her sources by impugning the reliability of civil society organizations in a general way. Indeed, your criticism of Dr. Kaler’s sources suggested to me a lack of respect for her integrity as a scholar who can be relied on to corroborate information and assess the credibility of the reports she cites.  

I hope that after the degree is conferred today you will continue to engage the campus community to ensure that controversies about honorary degrees and the University’s relation to the private sector are conducted in a way which furthers our aspirations to be among the world’s most reputable universities.



Patrick McLane

Doctoral Candidate, Department of Sociology

University of Alberta

Letter from Nat Hurley, Assistant Professor, English & Film Studies, to President Samarasekera:

Dear President Samarasekera,

Having heard your interview on yesterday morning’s Edmonton AM morning show, I am writing to express my disappointment with our university’s decision to award Peter Brabeck-Lamathe an honourary degree.  You remarked this morning that only about twenty faculty members had written to you in protest of this decision—evidence, it would seem, that few of us are troubled by the award.  I want to add my voice to the chorus of faculty members who want you know this is simply not the case. 

The fact that Nestle is, as you put it this morning, a legal company does not make it or the people who head this company (and the Nestle group) ethical.  Moreover, the biggest ethical problems emanating from the Nestle group and its leaders concern issues of water.  The company’s marketing of baby formula to areas of the world lacking proper drinking water, for instance, makes the baby formula issue a waterissue.  The fact that children are dying or suffering from disease as a result of drinking formula mixed with dirty water is a direct effect of Nestle’s decisions.  Further, Nestle’s commodification of water and Peter Brabeck-Lamathe’s resistance to seeing water as a human right fly in the face of so much important work being done in the world today to conserve water and make clean water available to communities who cannot access it. Just because the Stockholm International Water Institute decides to overlook such issues should not license us to do the same.

It is one thing to court debate about issues relating to water, even to consider the question about whether water should have a market value at all.  As a faculty member at this university, I value debate and diversity of opinion.  But the primary effect of awarding this degree to Peter Brabeck-Lamathe thus far has not been to foster debate about the management of water in the world.  It has been to incite controversy about one degree candidate.  The contributions of the other two honourary degree recipients have actually been lost in the coverage as a result.  Surely this fact alone should persuade you that something has gone terribly wrong. 

It might be rhetorically and politically expedient for you to diminish criticism of this decision by insisting that naysayers come from one group (the Council for Canadians) or that they are mere activists.  However, if you look more closely, you will see that there is a much broader coalition of people who stand in opposition to this university’s decision.  I count myself among them. 

Awarding an honourary degree to Peter Brabeck-Lamathe simply diminishes the reputation of the University of Alberta in the public eye at a time when we can least afford it.  I urge you to reconsider this decision.


Nat Hurley

Letter to President Samarasekera from Janice Williamson, Professor, Department of English & Film Studies

Dear President Samarasekera,

As a long-time faculty member at the University of Alberta, I am ashamed that we are awarding an honorary degree to corporate executive Peter Brabeck-Lamathe, CEO of Nestle Group and executive with Nestle since 1997.

The other day, I participated at an interfaculty meeting with University of Alberta colleagues from various faculties and departments. While the reason for our meeting was unrelated to this honorary degree, our conversation turned to the ethical dimensions of our teaching and research. At the table, one person detailed how Nestle over many years has been a textbook case of controversial corporate practices on a number of fronts. And there was nothing abstract in this attribution since a number of professors from different faculties pointed out that the textbooks they used in their courses include references, articles, and chapters devoted to ethical problems with Nestle.

My colleagues have registered their opposition to honouring Peter Brabeck-Lamathe with a degree from the University of Alberta. I support their position.

Nestle has long been associated with practices that are considered unethical by NGOs, experts in the field, and concerned citizens around the world. To give you a sense of the longevity of the problems, see this 2005 study of Nestle:

Last year in a European talk, Peter Brabeck-Lamathe announced that Alberta was talking with him about the commodification of our water. In response, our provincial government environment minister quickly took to the airwaves in May 2011 to repudiate that a conversation about this had ever taken place.

The new Water Institute at the University of Alberta seems to be developing from the superb research accomplished by the internationally lauded Professor Emeritus David Schindler. It will be harmful to its work and to the University of Alberta if this initiative is associated with corporations who have tainted reputations.

While Peter Brabeck-Lamathe is cited by the UofA President for recent small-scale initiatives that support water conservation, this occurs at the same time that long-standing issues with Nestle remain. There are controversies about interest in the privatization of water. And the promotion of baby formula by Nestle continues in spite of opposition by leading world experts on infant health. Most recently in 2011, NGO’s condemned Nestle in Laos. The baby formula issue itself is a water issue since infants can be harmed when women use tainted water to make the formula.

Nestle is a proponent of the privatization of water and has been caught up in controversies that include depleting water resources in bottled water production. Nestle is the largest producer of bottled water globally, a problem in itself since the plastic bottles lead to large-scale pollution. Profits come before ethics.

Nestle has continued to promote its formula in areas of the world where women have limited resources and breast feeding makes medical sense. The Code of the World Health Organization objects to baby formula advertising to new mothers.

For further information, consult this article from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs:

In an open letter to Nestle on 24 May, 2011, nineteen leading Laos-based international NGOs, including Save the Children, Oxfam, CARE International, Plan International and World Vision, boycotted a Nestle competition and outlined how the company had violated the 1981 International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes. They wrote that Nestle’s “marketing of formula milk still jeopardizes the health of infants and children in Laos.”

“This opposition to Nestle by child health groups began in 1977.”

Last year, Laurence Gray, World Vision’s Asia-Pacific advocacy director said, “Some of the marketing strategy presents formula as better than breastfeeding….It doesn’t take into account the circumstances needed to prepare the formula….In poor nations, formula-fed infants are four to six times more likely to die of infectious disease than breastfed babies. The problem is not with the formula, but with the preparation.”

‘Nestlé has mastered the art of marketing formula products with many forms of deceptive advertising in Laos and countries throughout the world,’ Leila Srour, who works in Laos with Health Frontiers.”

The University of Alberta states that an honorary degree “honors both the grantee and the spirit of the institution.” This honorary degree compromises the spirit and reputation of our university.


Janice Williamson
Department of English and Film Studies
University of Alberta

Letter from Micah Cooper, Alumna & Current Student, to President Samarasekera:

Hello Ms Samarasekera and colleagues,

I wish to add to what I know is the ever-increasing pile of emails registering displeasure at the decision to award Nestle’s CEO with an honorary PhD.  I realise that the decision was not made solely by you, Ms Samarasekera; but I hope you can reconvene your committee and, together, reverse this decision.  As you are no doubt aware, Nestle has an appalling history, recently and historically, with child labour practices and with aggressively pushing formula as a superior alternative to breast milk in developing nations.  Now Mr Brabeck-Letmathe is advocating the privatisation of water, insisting that it is not a basic human right.  Do you not find this shocking?  Do you not find this outrageous?  Do you not find this blatantly unjust and absurd?  I do.

As a University of Alberta alumna and current student, I am extremely embarrassed to be linked to tomorrow’s event.  I will be publicly expressing my dissatisfaction by standing outside the Timms Centre with my friends.

There is still time to change your mind!

And no longer eating my favourite KitKats,

Micah B. Cooper
MLIS 2010

From Stephen Slemon, Professor, English & Film Studies:

I disagree with the President’s reading of public opinion over the Brabeck-Letmathe honorary degree. Maud Barlow, for the Council of Canadians, has indeed been vocal about the optics and the politics of this decision, but so has the Letters section to the Edmonton Journal, and so has Twitter, Facebook, CBC Radio, etc. I just Googled {+“honorary degree” and +”Brabeck-Letmathe”} and came up with 3,480 hits, almost all of the ones I scrolled through (the exception being the U of A’s own “Colloquy” announcement) registering strongly in the negative, and using terms like “furor,” “poor choice,” and “say no”. It may of course be the case that social media can misrepresent genuine public opinion, but it’s much more likely, with this, that our senior administration just doesn’t have its ear to the ground.

We have been exhorted not to embarrass the University, and there’s reason in this: we exist by public sufferance and depend on government support. I thought that the decision a couple of weeks ago to bar occupation protest on campus embarrassed us. I think this decision does too. We have become a flashpoint for social controversy, to the extent that our University’s name is being linked to phrases such as “knowledgeable exploitation of child slave labour” and “kidnapping and torture in West Africa.” I’m not an expert in this area and have not done sufficient research about Mr Brabeck-Letmathe to assess this kind of linkage. I do accept the idea in principle that very deserving people can attract very underserved public criticism. But if this is the case – if the U of A really is taking the high road in this nomination for an honorary degree – then surely it should at least issue a clear, detailed statement about why it is that Mr Brabeck-Letmathe really does deserve so noble an award. To say simply, in this context, that “this guy is an intellectual. He’s put this issue on the global agenda” is insufficient.

Letter from Brad Bucknell, Associate Professor, English & Film Studies to the Edmonton Journal

To the Editors,

It is odd and unfortunate that President Samarasekera cannot see a reason to stop the honorary degree for Peter Brabeck-Letmathe. Experts in epidemiology, sociology, and political science from the University of Alberta – not to mention religious people and alumni of the university who have written to The Journal – have offered many principled and thoughtful reasons not to do so. Some have even mentioned that the status of the U of A as a serious research institution could be compromised.

These are informed, and critically thought-through, responses to this situation. They are also ethical and rigorous responses. We claim to teach critical thinking at the University of Alberta. We have here a “teaching-moment,” a moment where we can show our students what it means to be responsive, and responsible, to the world around us.

Do not dismiss the very fine thinking that has gone on here as though it is a distraction. We can “lead” on matters of water without the premiss that water is just one more thing to sell. Otherwise, air might be next.

February 8, 2012

Dear Ms. Hughes,

I am writing to you with regard to an email I received yesterday from President Samarasekera’s office, announcing that she and the Chancellor intend to bestow an honorary degree upon Mr. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, along with two other individuals.

My concern is specifically with the honouring of Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe for his “work on water”. (The invitation says little about the reasons for this honour, apart from the association with the “future of water.”) As you know, Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe is the Chair of Nestlé Group, one of the world’s largest multinational corporations and the world’s largest marketer of bottled water.

All around the world, civil society organizations have been mobilizing against the commodification of water access that Nestle has been promoting, and have been trying to bring attention to the environmental harms caused by the bottling of drinking water. Nestle has stated interests in the creation of a market in water permits in Alberta. While it is true that Nestle represents a particular position in the debate about whether water should be a commodity or a human right, and I have no objection to Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe being invited to debate, for example, Ms. Sunita Narain, I do find it unacceptable that the University of Alberta should legitimize Nestle’s corporate interests by bestowing honours upon its CEO.

You may argue that the university is not “endorsing” Nestle’s corporate goals and has maintained some kind of impartiality regarding these social questions by also bestowing degrees upon Dr. Hrudey and Ms. Narain, but the fact remains that it was completely unnecessary to bestow a degree upon Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe in order to recognize the work of the others, and that the decision to do so sends the message that there is no distinction to be made between private (corporate) interests and the public good. In this case, moreover, the university administration is choosing to recognize as a contribution to water conservation efforts the very activities that many associate with social injustice and environmental harm.

I don’t know whose idea this was, or what is behind this decision, but I must tell you that I think it is a very bad decision, and should be reversed.

Yours sincerely,

Laurie E. Adkin, Associate Professor

Department of Political Science and Environmental Studies Programme

University of Alberta

10–16 H. M. Tory Bldg.

Edmonton, Alberta, T6G 2H4

tel. 780-492-0958

fax 780-492-2586

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