‘We’ve only got one planet, and it's ours'

2012-08-08 00:00

ANDREW Venter heads up the Hilton-based NGO Wildlands Conservation Trust, which recently won the top Partnership Award at the 2012 FNB KZN Top Business Awards, for its public-private partnerships built around community-based environmental projects.

Anyone who knows Venter will tell you he breathes enthusiasm, energy and commitment, and is far from being the stereotypical greenie. I suggest he represents the new generation of greenies — the ones with MBAs and law degrees.

“There is a new generation,” 44-year-old Venter agrees, “but I’m the transition generation. I grew up with the old image of the rugged ranger and the focus on species.” An image and focus that sees humans and the natural world as separate, since overtaken by a more holistic response to the environment, one that sees people as part of it.

“There is a generation of engineers, lawyers and doctors now, and they are the first generation of professionals with an embedded environmental consciousness. They are all green. It’s just who they are. My six-year-old daughter, Caitlyn, has no choice but to be an embedded greenie and her peer group will grow up to be natural custodians of the environment.”

Venter grew up in Johannesburg. “I was born in Braamfontein and spent the first three years of my life there, then we moved to Mondeor, in southern Johannesburg.”

Venter attended Mondeor Primary, then went to the elite St John’s College. “It was a big step, and a long way from Mondeor,” he says. “My parents made this decision to throw all their resources into the education of myself and my two brothers.”

Venter’s mother was a secretary and a housewife, his father a manager, moving from Trek Petrol to Trust Bank, which was later absorbed into Absa. Venter recalls how the modest family car would be parked out of sight of the school. “But despite all that, St John’s taught me that people are all the same. We are all the same flesh and blood, with the same vulnerability.”

An understanding that sees Venter interacting with everyone on a basis of equality.

Was there a light-bulb moment that sparked his interest in the environment? “No,” says Venter, but then adds: “I was a scout. I became a troop leader and a Springbok scout. At St John’s, they didn’t know about scouting. Scouting was not cool. But from the scouts, I developed self-confidence and leadership skills. I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for scouting.”

Venter also belonged “to one of those families that did the annual trip to the Kruger National Park. Whether it was in an old caravan or a tent, we would go every year.”

His initial career choice was to be a vet. “My matric marks were not good enough to get into Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute, so I went the alternative route — doing a Bsc at Wits in botany and zoology, and using that to sidestep into Onderstepoort.

“In 1987, I walked into Wits and that was my political awakening, but I still didn’t get the depth of racism in South Africa.” After completing a BSc, Venter registered for a Masters degree, mainly to avoid conscription. “But I didn’t do it; instead I went to London. At the time, I wasn’t sure if I was coming back. I managed to bluff my way through customs and then I worked underground. I did all the menial jobs, cleaning toilets, you name it. And every weekend I would go to Trafalgar Square and look at the flag flying above South Africa House and cry. I was so homesick.”

In London, Venter found a sense of direction — south. “The moment came when I knew I was going back and that I wanted to do something with people, as well as using my hard science background.”

Venter did a Masters in botany and zoology. “But the big buzz was about community conservation, particularly the Campfire Movement in Zimbabwe. We would all talk about it. I fell in love with the community stuff, and decided to do a PhD centred around it.”

Rather than choose a topic for his PhD, Venter set about choosing a supervisor, and he picked Charles Breen, head of the Institute of Natural Resources on the Pietermaritzburg campus of the then University of Natal. Breen was doing research into the water balance in the Kruger National Park, and with his blessing Venter put together a doctorate proposal involving the communities around the park and duly won a BP Environment Scholarship and funding from the WWF Nedbank Green Trust.

Venter also married Andrea Wilson. “We had met at Wits, where Andrea was a Masters student in marine biology. We got married and went off to Kruger.”

“There I was, a 23-year-old Masters student, arriving at Kruger and telling them they need someone to work with the communities around the park.” But Venter had come at the right time. The ANC had just issued a policy document, stating that the park was being underutilised and that consideration should be given to downing the fences and allowing community grazing.

“At Kruger I got a real sense of the real Africa — meeting the black communities around the park. I was the first person in a park uniform they had ever met and I was the first to identify the 61 communities around the park — up till then they only knew who the white farmers were ... And it broke me. I had to leave.”

Partly, it was the bureaucracy — “I was emotionally young and totally out of my depth, above my ability to deliver” — but mostly it was the overt racism Venter encountered. “You were faced with real poverty on one side and an absolute lack of humanity on the other; they honestly didn’t care.”

Despite all this, Venter managed to leave a legacy behind him: the partnership forums created between National Parks and those living on park borders — “these forums still exist and function today” — and the Social Ecology Unit, created to build good relationships with those communities.

His wife Andrea got a job at Maphelane Nature Reserve with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife while Venter wrote up his PhD. Then he went to see Ezemvelo chief George Hughes and proposed doing something similar for St Lucia along the lines of what he had done in the Kruger Park. He got a receptive hearing: “They were in a different space and already doing things.” As a result, Venter spent the next five years in the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park (now iSimangaliso Wetland Park), working with communities on issues around land claims and ecotourism, while also creating community conservation strategies. He was also drawn into the process that saw St Lucia become a World Heritage Site.

Venter was beginning to feel “I couldn’t flap my wings enough” when fortuitously he met the distinguished conservationist Ian Player, who was on the board of the Wildlands Trust, as well as Andrew Ewing, its chairperson. “We found we had a shared passion in developing an NGO with a focus on community conservation.”

Wildlands Trust had been founded to look after the parks and reserves in the old KwaZulu — “but KwaZulu no longer existed” — so Wildlands was refashioned to focus on community conservation and Venter was appointed CEO, with a part-time assistant.

Wildlands was quick to attract donors and set up projects, but it took a giant leap in 2004. “First we merged with the old Natal Parks Board’s Conservation Trust and, secondly, and it was a pure fluke, we discovered it was relatively easy to grow indigenous trees on the eastern coast of South Africa.”

Wildlands was running a community project in Khula village, just outside the town, of St Lucia when Venter asked to organise a volunteer weekend with staff from one of Wildlands’ donors, Unilever. It so happened hundreds of monkey orange seeds had been given to Khula by a company that made decorations from the distinctive hard outer skin of the fruit. The volunteers, with pupils from Silethukhukhanya High School, planted them over the weekend. “Three weeks later we went back and found that all the seeds had propagated.” Venter realised this could be the key to success: “Imagine if we could help the poorest of the poor grow indigenous trees and benefit from it.”

A pilot project was initiated with the community of KwaJobe in northern Zululand. “Six months later we found 187 people had grown 18 000 trees. We had found a project in a poor community that worked.”

Since then 1,4 million trees have been grown via Wildlands’ Trees for Life project that saw the NGO pioneer the idea of “green-preneurship”, which has seen “tree-preneurs”, “waste-preneurs” and “food-preneurs” active in township and rural communities all over the country, helping to create sustainable communities that will support a sustainable future.

“We’ve only got one planet, and it’s ours,” says Venter, neatly encapsulating the inclusive Wildlands philosophy that embraces the protection of natural resources while acknowledging that basic human needs have to be met, even while those resources dwindle. “It’s important for the planet, and it’s important for my daughter.”

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