/ 22 December 1995

Greens versus the rainbow nation

This year, the greens have incurred the wrath of rural communities who put economic development above environmental conservation, writes Eddie Koch

IT has become a truism to say that struggles to protect the environment have, in recent times, created some of the rainbows that now cross class and racial divisions in South Africa’s social landscape. But conventional wisdoms always have the danger of masking more complex realities.

This was a year in which some sections of South Africa’s green movement ran the risk of breaching these emerging alliances — and becoming extremely unpopular, especially with black people in rural communities — by blocking a number of new development projects with knee-jerk ecological arguments.

The most spectacular example of the unifying power of environmental campaigns this year was the way in which an alliance of some 180 civic, labour and green groups were able to stop a ship loaded with highly toxic industrial waste from offloading its cargo on South African shores.

The strength of this campaign against toxic waste dumping also signalled that this country’s environmental movement, while still small in relation to Greenpeace and some European green parties, has now become strong enough to have major impacts on national politics and the Cabinet’s style of

The Environmental Justice Networking Forum (EJNF), which co-ordinated the battle to prevent hundreds of tons of dangerous cupric arsenate from being landed illegally in the country, forced the government to appoint a commission of inquiry to examine why private consultants working for the Department of Environment Affairs and Tourism were able to issue permits for the waste to be brought

Consistent vigilance and pressure from groups like the EJNF have shown Environment Minister Dawie de Villiers and some colleagues in the Cabinet, who believed they could run their ministries in the old autocratic way, that they now have no choice but to consult with those organisations that speak for a wide range of groups in civil society.

In this sense, the green movement, along with organised labour’s insistence on having a say in the formulation of economic policy, have forged a deep-seated style of democracy that goes way beyond the formal mechanisms of Parliament and national elections.

But there have been other examples where environmental organisations opened up potential gulfs with civic organisations and poor communities because their hard-line opposition to new industrial projects failed to take into account the desperate need for jobs and development in parts of the country.

The most dramatic example was the vociferous campaign by a number of mainstream conservation agencies, and also green activists close to the African National Congress, against Iscor’s plans to build a new steel mill at Saldanha Bay on the Cape West

Parliamentarian Jenny Schreiner, who services the Saldanha constituency for the ANC, was so incensed by these organisations’ insensitivity to the need for an improvement in working class people’s quality of life that she publicly lashed out at conservationists involved in the anti-Iscor campaign, calling them “arrogant” in protecting the interests of middle-class landowners while ignoring the needs of the poor.

“The development of the area could be an RDP dream. It could be people-oriented, empowering and environmentally friendly. The area could get housing, roads, schools, clinics and most importantly, jobs,” said Schreiner in an interview with the Mail & Guardian earlier this year.

This would only happen, she insisted, if conservation organisations stopped paying lip service to the notion of consulting with civic groups and found effective ways of accommodating their demands for bread-and- butter with environmental safeguards.

The controversy over plans to prospect for diamonds in the Madimbo Corridor of the Limpopo River Valley, one of South Africa’s last tracts of unspoilt wilderness, is another example of how predictable responses by environmentalists to the possibility of mining in the area earned the wrath of people living in rural settlements nearby.

The National Parks Board, for example, has lodged an official complaint against a prospecting permit being granted to the Madimbo Mining Company. There may well be strong environmental grounds for doing this, but members of the board acted without consulting any of the rural groups that have lodged claims for land ownership in the Madimbo to be restored.

To make matters worse, this was done even though the Parks board has established a forum to facilitate negotiations with rural people living on the border of the Kruger National Park near the Madimbo area. The response?

“You should tell these people who like wildlife that they should come here and speak to us before they make statements about how our land should be used. And, when they come, they should remember we suffered greatly when our villages were destroyed and our homes burnt down so that Kruger could be made bigger,” an elder from one of these settlements told the Mail and Guardian.

“Now that we have a chance to get some wealth from that land, we are being told to put even more animals there. It will be very difficult to convince our people that wildlife is better than mining — and it will be even more so if we are not spoken to properly.”

The campaign to save St Lucia on the KwaZulu- Natal coast from strip-mining is another example of how a heady debate, mainly between middle-class environmentalists and white industrialists, has raged on while the depressed economy of the area remains undeveloped and rural communities, many of them removed from St Lucia in the apartheid era, are left out of the debate.

This problem at St Lucia is being corrected. The Land and Agricultural Policy Centre, at the request of Land Affairs Minister Derek Hanekom, has begun a programme to canvass the opinions of those groups that have until now not had an effective voice in the debate so that the Cabinet can take these views into account before taking a decision against or in favour of mining there next year.

That is a process that needs to be repeated elsewhere, says Barbara Schreiner, adviser to Water and Forestry Minister Kader Asmal. “Many environmentalists shout about their need to be consulted but they fail to follow through on this themselves. This can perpetuate the myth that the white rhino is more important than people … A popular resentment could build up against the green movement that we can ill

Schreiner (sister of the MP) argues that robust campaigning is vital to ensure development is accompanied by environmental protection. “The hard-line stance taken over Saldanha won enormous concessions from Iscor around waste management and water use. But had the conservation lobby won and the plant not gone ahead, there would have been serious economic consequences for the people of that area,” she says.

“The solution is for local communities to always be part of environmental campaigns. More organisations have to, like the EJNF has done, try to redefine the environment as quality of life issue rather than a matter of saving the white rhino. And to do this they have to do more than pay lip service to the idea of consulting with disadvantaged