“NEXT STEP: What is absolutely necessary at this moment in time to further an open and just society in South Africa?”
“The rhino has its own doctor, its own policeman, its own helicopter, its own land and there are rangers that protect it. We don’t have these things. If the rhino goes extinct tomorrow, maybe we can finally get these things”
These are the words of a community member at a focus group held in the Greater Kruger National Park in 2017, as quoted by Annette Hübschle as she writes on Ending Wildlife Trafficking in Southern Africa. This quote has stuck with me, as a powerful expression of the deep dissatisfaction of the levels of inequality in this country. It should make us question what kind of conditions do ordinary South Africans living close to national parks find themselves in, such that they can compare their treatment to that of rhinos?
Our country is endowed with a wealth of natural resources, yet there has not been a fundamental change to the living conditions of millions in this country. If anything, inequality continues to rise. When we think of the inequality in this country, we think of the uneven ways in which mining benefits are distributed, of the crisis in access to land for housing, but seldom of the environment. How have the country’s environmental resources been partitioned? Who has access and who is left at the peripheries?
The quote by this community member is a comment on the elitist nature in which nature conservation happens in the country. Nature and its resources are a public good, and as such the protected areas in South Africa must not only serve as a way to facilitate the protection of the environment, but must also be a tool for more equitable sharing of the income and benefits derived from ecotourism. This is especially so when one considers the history of some of these parks, where communities were often moved for their establishment.
A key player in nature conservation not only in the country but the broader SADC region is the Peace Parks Foundation whose dream is to ‘reconnect Africa’s wild spaces to create a future for man in harmony with nature’. In their 2017 Annual Review, they write, “We understand that parks and protected areas in Africa only have a future if people living in these areas not only benefit directly, but also have ownership of these unique and precious resources”.
This statement is nothing new as conservation practitioners are increasingly aware that communities will use their agency to resist conservation attempts that are elitist. For a more just and open society, our rhetoric must translate into action. Now, more than ever we need nature conservation practices that not only reflect that we value the environment but also that we truly value the most marginalised in our society. If not, then we risk the integrity and success of the conservation project.
- MSc in Environmental & Geographical Sciences, UCT