OPINION | Building back better for nature and people

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Dasgupta review reveals that humans are an emergent feature of nature and functional diversity. Photo: Danielle Stassen and Jason Barham.
Dasgupta review reveals that humans are an emergent feature of nature and functional diversity. Photo: Danielle Stassen and Jason Barham.

Socio-economic challenges have ravaged Africa, but there are small environmental wins to celebrate, such as increased marine protection in South Africa, writes Ruth Mthembu.


A well-functioning economy is the backbone of any country.

As a young, 28-year-old African woman who is passionate about ocean conservation, this statement is both factual and frightening at the same time.

The Dasgupta Review reveals what the African consciousness has been expressing for a protracted period. Humans are an emergent feature of nature and functional diversity. The independent global review, published in February 2021, led by Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta, ultimately highlights what our diverse cultures have commonly taught for many centuries - growth is only real and possible when shared with nature.

While socio-economic challenges have ravaged Africa, there are small environmental wins to celebrate, such as increased marine protection in South Africa, the country I am proud to call home.

The word "resilience" now forms part of our daily jargon. Africa is all too familiar with resilience, enduring centuries of colonialism, civil war, and political unrest. Even when natural resources have been overexploited, leaving lands and water spaces almost barren, Africans have always practised Ubuntu, an isiZulu term defined as a quality that includes the essential human virtues of compassion, resilience, and humanity.

Protecting nature

What is the most important asset in the world? Nature.

The Dasgupta Review hopes to achieve action to protect nature. Resilience alone cannot restore nature. Africa needs regeneration – politically, economically, socially, and environmentally.

The Dasgupta Review states that it is less costly to conserve nature than to restore it.

Expanding and improving protected areas have an essential role to play, especially in the ocean. This type of protection would ultimately renew and regenerate the very environment we depend on.

Globally, the ocean has been estimated to contribute to a total of $21 trillion per year to human welfare, with approximately 60 percent of this from coastal and shelf environments.

Zooming in on Africa, the Dasgupta Review states that "biodiversity and natural capital underpin the major sectors of the economies of many African countries, including agriculture, health and tourism".

When people speak of Africa, its richness in coastal tourism often dominates conversations. It may underpin the major sectors of the economies in African countries but unfortunately, the economic benefit has arguably not trickled down to those who need it most, making it difficult for many Africans to see the connection between nature and the economic benefits derived.

The Dasgupta Review uses many collectivist terms to describe humanity's impact on the planet, creating the link between environmental destruction and our actions. What has fuelled Africa's current state is large debt, weak economies, a legacy of colonialism, a high poverty index and a high dependence on direct use of natural resources.

This has made it difficult for Africa to play its part in catching up to the global goal of 30 percent ocean protection by 2030. Difficult, but not impossible.

After having painted quite a grim picture of Africa's current state, allow me to share a win that South Africa recently secured for the environment.

Benefits of the ocean

As a woman who was born and raised, and currently resides, in South Africa, I have had first-hand experience of the benefits the ocean provides.

Prior to 2018, only 0.4 percent of the waters around South Africa were protected. The continuous hard work of scientists, civil society organisations and government, took us to 5% ocean protection in the form of marine protected areas (MPAs) in October 2018. This is a win for biodiversity because we have a representative network of MPAs, more protection for critical biodiversity, increased fisheries yield, and a boost for much-needed jobs and livelihoods.

In South Africa, the combined economic benefits from coastal resources are estimated to be around 35% of the country's annual GDP.  Coastal tourism has been estimated to generate approximately R13.5 billion to the South African economy annually. One cannot deny the importance of nature underwriting functioning societies.

GDP though, is not indicative of a country's economic growth or wealth according to the review, as it does not consider natural assets. The review calls for new methods in determining the economic wealth of a country. The global financial system needs an entire makeover – one that will see the inclusion of natural assets and a more transformative method of calculating a country's economic growth.

READ | Opinion: We don't need our oceans

The ocean faces overfishing, oil and gas and mineral extraction and habitat destruction. Behind these threats is an enemy, one we all know too well – human selfishness.

In Africa selfishness has replaced selfless leadership, and Ubuntu is becoming more of an archaic term rather than a daily lived-out quality.

One could liken the ocean to someone fighting off Covid-19. If you have pre-existing conditions, the likelihood that you are going to fight the disease is slim. However if you are healthy, the chances are high that you will fight off the disease. The ocean, if healthy, resilient, and sufficiently protected, will be able to fight off anything we throw at it and continue to give us everything we need and take from it. 

READ | Opinion: The impact of Covid-19 on conservation

Addressing the socio-economic challenges of Africa is a dance that previous generations have done, a dance we are currently doing, and if no change is made, it will be a dance for future generations too. We must change our relationship with nature. We must acknowledge the interconnectedness of people and nature. We are the wild.

Biodiversity must be considered in every major economic conversation, and the same goes for every major social conversation. We must curb the stressful human demands on nature, as the review repeatedly highlights.

We need to understand the implications of driving species to extinction, remembering that we are one of those species. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us that addressing challenges one way, just because that is the way it has always been done, is futile. Instead, we have been shown that transformative change is possible – particularly in how we value our planet and every living thing on it.

One size fits all doesn't work

The Dasgupta Review repeatedly outlines the ever-increasing human reliance on nature and what should be done to ensure that we do not destroy the very thing we need to survive. A one-size-fits-all approach does not work for a continent as complex as Africa. The unique nature of every country does not put us all on the same playing field.

Africa is bombarded with challenges, such as gender-based violence, corruption, human trafficking and poverty.

It does not mean we cannot forge ahead with looking after our planet, but our seemingly laissez-faire approach to the challenges mentioned is what has resulted in us not achieving reform, healing and ultimately, protection of humans and nature.

If I, as a young woman, do not feel safe to walking down the street, how can I advocate effectively for protection of the environment when my own life is at risk daily?

Regeneration requires action, and action, according to the Dasgupta Review, would be the realisation of the crippling challenges we face, a determination to solve these (stronger laws and stronger enforcement), and the ability to give the environment the attention it rightfully deserves. This would be in line with what the review shines a light on – that we cannot tackle the world's biggest challenges without our most important asset – nature.

Two of the major challenges facing humankind (climate change and Covid-19) illustrate the need to link economics to the environment and to rethink how we will become more prosperous and healthier in the future.

Drive for marine protection

Is there a way to address these challenges in 2021? In South Africa, there is a drive for marine protection to increase to 10 percent. This would send a strong signal to other African states to support increased ocean protection and achieve the global target of what science tells us we need – at least 30 percent fully protected global ocean space by 2030.

There is no space for sizobona phambili (a Zulu phrase meaning "we will see how it goes in the future"). Africa needs to craft and promote mechanisms that ensure sustainability of natural assets for Africa's people.

The continent needs to think 'glocal' – globally in the greater scheme of things, but locally with tailor-made solutions for a beautiful, diverse, tailor-made continent.

As we build back better and greener, I welcome the framework in the Dasgupta Review and see it as an excellent example of delivering future wealth and planetary and human health.

- Ruth Mthembu is the Wildoceans Strategic communications manager for the Wild Trust.


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