A NOBLE'S CALLING-1989
Sitting comfortably in his office in the immaculate villa that houses his Bellerive Foundation in Geneva, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan hardly looks like a man who has taken as his personal agenda many of the world's most pressing problems. The erstwhile townhouse, from which he has directed his various personal philanthropies since 1977, is a grand confection of turn-of-the -century architecture clearly intended, inside and out, to facilitate to the fullest its original owners' enjoyment of their comfortable existence. Surrounded by the trappings of refinement and culture, the Prince, dressed in a conservative dark suit, sits primly in an ornate antique chair. Looking as if his next remarks will be about the latest prices at Sotheby's or the current state of the opera, he sips a demitasse of dense black coffee delivered only moments before by an efficient aide.
What the prince talks about instead, though, and what has been his concern for at least three decades, is the state of the world and many of it's seemingly insoluble problems. His conversation quickly turns to the environment and the extinction of hundreds of plant and animal species, homelessness and famine, and the constant threat of nuclear proliferation. At this particular moment, between sips of coffee, he speaks knowledgeably about deforestation, the rapid destruction of millions of square miles of tropical forests occurring in many developing countries as the result of unrestricted timbering and urbanization.
"Because it has such an enormous impact on the whole of the world's climate system, deforestation is a particularly great threat," he observes with his polished British accent. "The studies of the so-called greenhouse effect and the depletion of the ozone layer, although still going on, leave little doubt that deforestation contributes to this situation.
"Deforestation is like removing the planet's lungs. And is going on at such an incredible pace now that every day, hundreds of square miles of forest are destroyed. Unless this process can be reversed, it is going to lead to disastrous consequences."
A man of immense personal wealth, the prince is a member one of the world's great noble families. He is the son of His late Highness Sir Sultan Mohammed Shah Al-Husseini Aga Khan III, brother of the late Prince Aly Khan, and uncle of the current Aga Khan IV Mawlana Hazar Imam. But while the rest of the world has rushed ahead with its business, 55-year-old Prince Sadruddin has by virtue of his position in life, taken time to reflect on just here the world is going.
PRINCE SADRUDDIN AGA KHAN HAS TAKEN FOR HIS DOMAIN A CONCERN WITH SOME OF MANKIND'S MOST PRESSING PROBLEMS.
Over the year his interest have carried him into a bewildering rang of activities. In 1958, shortly after completing undergraduate and graduate studies at Harvard, he plunged into work with the United Nations. His tirelessness and managerial skill gained him wide respect within the world body and in 1965, at the age of 32, he was named U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, a post he was to hold for 12 year. In 1981, he won the vote to become U.N. Secretary General, but his election was vetoed by the Soviet Union.
Over the years the Prince has maintained an involvement with the United Nations and most recently he was appointed to the newly created position of Coordinator for U.N. Programs Relating to Afghanistan. In the hope of reviving that nation's war-ravaged agricultural economy, he is overseeing an innovative 18 month aid plan that will provide seeds, tools, and small equipment to Afghan farmers as part of what he calls a "grass-roots, bottom-up" relief effort. As the Prince explains, "We're helping Afghans help themselves."
An equally urgent program is the resettlement of some five million Afghans who are currently refuges in Iran and Pakistan, as well as another two million displaced persons, within the nation's borders. "Afghanistan is a country without its people," the prince says. "They have to be able to go home in dignity and with honour". Even with a tenuous truce is place, both tasks remain daunting. But Prince Sadruddin is somewhat optimistic, noting that years of humanitarian work have taught how to balance "idealism and pragmatism." He says, "The realism comes from seeing how governments deal with humanitarian problems." The idealism is the result of the way he's been "inspired by the courage and incredible dignity of the victims."
As for Prince Sadruddin's great concern with environmental issues, it is a major focus on the Bellerive Foundation and its affiliated Group de Bellerive, which he founded in 1977 at the end of his tenure with the U.N. High Commission for Refugees. He also has been an active supporter of the World wide Fund for Nature (formerly the World Wildlife Fund, and still known by its initials WWF). of which he is vice president.
The Prince's multifold activities may take him to many parts of the world over the course of a single year. In addition to the time he spends in New York in connection with his U.N. activities, he may turn up to in Moscow, Paris, London, or other European capitals one month, or in a remote part of Africa another.
The Prince has a vacation house on the coast of Kenya and a residence in Cairo; he has strong ties with Egypt, the site of his father's shrine. Recently he completed a month-long African tour that took him to environmental problem areas in Burundi, Kenya, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Talking about the trip, he points out that "one of the things I am concerned about is the state of the rhino population in Kenya and Zimbabwe. The unfortunate beast is being poached out of existence so that its horn can be made into handles or ground up for use an aphrodisiac in places like Hong Kong or Singapore. It's like a war, really, and I'm afraid that the rhino is losing it."
While in Kenya he also checked on a project to which his foundation has contributed considerable resources, the development of high-efficiency cooking stove for use by the local population.
"Burning wood for fuel is a major cause of deforestation in Kenya," he notes, "especially where they fell large stands of trees to cook for large communities. That's why our stoves make a big difference. They provide a fuel savings of about ninety percent."
This particular afternoon, as the sun settles low over the old city of Geneva, the Prince is meeting with the new head of international timber trade association to discuss ways of controlling deforestation," he muses, " is that most people don't realize that once you cut down a tropical forest and destroy this self-contained universe, you can hardly use the land. It is very poor land. The topsoil is extremely thin. You can plant maybe one very poor crop. And then because you can't replenish it no one is able to live there for generations."
Looking around Prince Sadruddin's office at the Bellerive Foundation, one quickly gets a sense of the depth and breath of his interest. On one wall hangs a painting of mother cheetah and her cubs by Canadanian wildlife painter Robert Bateman. A grandly carved antique desk and the shelves behind it are piled with books and reports, many of them produced by the Bellerive Foundation, its affiliated group, or the Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues, Which he funds and co-chairs. There are also numerous publications produced by the WWF and various agencies of the United Nations. The issues they address are weighty-with tiles like "Famine," "Street Children," and "The Encroaching Desert" and their authors often include such illustrious international figures as Susanna Agnelli, the Italian philanthropist and political figure, and Robert McNamara, former U.S. defense secretary and Erstwhile World Bank head, both of whom are friends of the Prince and members of the Independent Commission.
But if one wall of the office is dominated by a large Edvard Munch painting full of foreboding and anxiety, the floor of the spacious, sunny room is covered by an ornate antique oriental rug, part of the Prince's extensive collection of Islamic art. For not withstanding his commitment to alleviating human suffering, Prince Sadruddin hasn't lost his appreciation of beauty. His impressive art collection adorns the lovely residence, which occupies six prime acres on the shore of Lake Geneva, that he shares with his Greek-born wife Princess Aleya, who is known familiarly as Catherine. This is the Chateau Bellerive, from which the foundation takes its name.
in everthing else, the prince's tastes in art and antiques are eclectic and widely varied, andthe Chateau, a testament tothis variety, is decorated extensively with 16th-and 17th-century European furnishings. On the walls hang not only Tibetan, African, and Eskimo artifacts but paintings and prints by De Chirico and, of course, the hanunted Much. True to his nature, the prince is generous with his art, and much of it is regularly on loan to museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Asia Society in New york (he is a trustee of both) or to Zurich's Kunsthaus.
'I wear many hats,"the prince acknowledges. "But somehow I feel that everything I do is connected. I would describe my involvement as essentially holistic. Most of the problems I get dragged into are problems of a global mangnitude, and they have to be looked at that way. Whether it's protecting refugees, working for the United Nations, or concern for the environment, it's all connected. If you don't protect the forest, then you can't protect the wildlife. If you don't protect the wildlife, then you can't protect people. It's all linked."