Guest Column

Africans care about the environment too

2018-06-03 12:07
Fishing. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

Fishing. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

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‘I owe my being to the hills and the valleys, the mountains and the glades, the rivers, the deserts, the trees, the flowers, the seas and the ever-changing seasons that define the face of our native land.” – Former president Thabo Mbeki, 1996.

The idea that black people don’t care about the environment and that environmentalists are pushing a Western agenda in Africa is utter hogwash.

It is a cooked-up narrative that plays on racial tension in our country to allow massive exploitation of our natural resources for the benefit of an economic elite.

These tactics are not new; those at the frontline of the environmental struggle have always had a bad reputation, being painted as tree-hugging junkies by businesspeople and politicians to deter others from associating themselves with the cause.

In Africa the narrative they use is that environmentalism is a “white people thing” and that environmental groups are pushing a Western agenda – because environmental protection has been corrupted to mean fewer jobs for black people.

This is by virtue of the fact that these exploitative industries are massive employers of unskilled black labour.

Positioning environmental protection as a threat to economic stability in grassroots African communities is preposterous considering that earnings from these minimum wage jobs are just table scraps compared with the wealth being stolen from right under our feet.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has time and again announced government’s intentions to grow the extractive industries, positioning them as South Africa’s saving grace. The truth is that exploiting our natural resources has never enriched the lives of those whose birthright is dominion over the bountiful land.

Hardly any of the wealth from mining actually filters down into mining communities – in fact the sector employs just 5% of the country’s workforce but accounts for a third of its exports. It is no wonder the poverty gap in our country widens with every new household survey.

A community called Kriel in Mpumalanga services two of the country’s biggest coal power plants, yet residents do not even have electricity in their homes. Since the establishment of these plants, the community has seen a sharp increase in the number of people with asthma and deaths due to respiratory-related illnesses.

Whole communities are left destroyed and the land around them barren and polluted beyond salvation. But the plight of local communities doesn’t seem to faze those looking down from their perfect Moody’s rating pedestals.

Instead, our country seems to have become a market for anyone with money to spend. That nuclear energy may be back on the table is yet another case of this – how anyone would even consider nuclear energy in light of the recent Fukushima meltdown is just mind-numbing.

With all of the safer and greener energy options that exist in the world and being rolled out across the global West, it is highly suspicious that politicians continue to push this agenda. If anything, this line of outrageous decision making is the real Western agenda being pushed in our country.

As a people, we have always had a very reciprocal relationship with the environment. It is in our nature to protect our surroundings for the sustenance they have always afforded us. We’ve always understood the importance of a healthy natural environment to our quality of life. Anything different is what is foreign. The desire to abuse and destroy our very livelihood can be the thinking only of someone who does not have a vested interest in it.

So forget about the negativities multinationals tell you about environmentalists. Wanting to stop the degradation of your heritage does not make you some weird hippie; neither do you have to chain yourself to a tree and get arrested for doing so. What is important though is to make sure you take a stand for what is yours.

As Noble peace prize-winning environmentalist Wangari Muta Maathai once said: “We cannot tire or give up. We owe it to the current and future generations of all species to rise up and walk.”

- Louw is the digital mobilisation officer at Greenpeace Africa, which is launching the open campaigning platform VUMA.EARTH on World Environmental Day on Tuesday.

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