For African environmentalists, time to get beyond polar bears

    2,000 children form the shape of a lion’s head on the beach in Durban, South Africa, during the 2011 COP17 climate conference. By Oxfam International, via Flickr.

    More than one black South African has told me that they saw the environment as a “white people’s issue” when they were cutting their activist teeth in the struggle against apartheid. So, in 2012, how does Greenpeace — which has historically been associated with not only white people, but often with furry, white animals — grow roots on a continent where environmental devastation has often been perpetrated by Westerners?

    “We don’t have the polar bear costumes here,” said Fiona Musana, communications director of Greenpeace Africa, which was established in November 2008. Instead of emphasizing the global campaign against drilling in the Arctic, the organization works to build local partnerships and show how environmental issues are already threatening Africans’ survival. “Dialogue is very important to us,” explained Musana, who traced this priority to the African concept of ubuntu, which defines our humanity through our relationship to others.

    Focusing on relationships, for example, was key to the organization’s recent success in limiting the number of giant foreign trawlers fishing off the coast of Senegal, where local small-scale fishermen were being hurt by the decimation of marine life. Musana explained that when they first approached the fishermen about collaborating, “we had to humble ourselves in a way and not just appear to be a huge global organization that is coming to save you.” Understanding the significance of fish in Senegalese culture was important for the group’s mostly African staff. “We said, ‘We do know how dear fish are — for your livelihood, for your culture, for your future — and we really would like to work together,’” recalled Musana. Since the Senegalese government revoked 29 trawling licenses in May, local fishermen — whose own practices are sustainable — have seen an immediate increase in their catches.

    In South Africa, the challenge is to talk about energy policy in ways that feel as directly relevant to people’s everyday lives as fish are for fishermen. Africa is predicted to bear the burden of climate change far out of proportion to its contributions to it. The 2011 Greenpeace Africa video “Weather Gods” asserts that 180 million Sub-Saharan Africans may die in the 21st century as a result of climate change, though Musana said the statistical predictions have gotten worse since the 2007 Food and Agriculture Organization report on which that number was based.

    Despite this shocking statistic, climate change can sound abstract, and average people do not necessarily understand how South Africa’s decision to build two of the world’s largest new coal-burning plants will contribute to the changes in weather that farmers are already experiencing. Mbong A. Fokwa Tsafack, Greenpeace Africa’s communications manager, noted that their campaign against the enormous Kusile and Medupi coal plants did not initially focus on the fact that they would suck water away from local communities where water is already scarce. “Burning coal has an impact on water,” she explained. By focusing on that aspect, “increasingly people can see ways in which what we’re talking about relates to them.”

    When they were filming “Weather Gods,” Fokwa Tsafack explained that they had to ask simple questions like, “Have you experienced changes in the weather patterns?” They found that rural people had indeed observed changes in the weather in the past five to ten years, though they did not necessarily understand its causes — which was also my experience traveling in both South Africa and Botswana, where I was repeatedly told that the rains had gotten unpredictable to the detriment of farmers.

    Greenpeace Africa shows a special sensitivity to such economic concerns. Its organizers are campaigning against coal and nuclear in a context where millions of people still don’t have electricity, and many more can’t afford the electricity that is now technically available to them. Despite the new housing that has been built since Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994, millions of people still live in tin shacks like the one that students at my university erected as a symbol of apartheid in the 1980s. Twenty-five percent unemployment is part of the problem, hence the organization’s effort to convince union leaders and other stakeholders that a green economy — harnessing South Africa’s abundant wind, sun and biomass potential — will be better for the country’s economy in the long run.

    Despite the emphasis on dialogue, this is still Greenpeace. In the Mpumalanga Province of South Africa last fall, activists chained themselves to the gates of the enormous Kusile coal plant and hung a banner from a crane proclaiming, “Kusile: Climate Killer.” Three were arrested. Musana observed that South Africa’s history of struggle has taught people that if they want something, they need to protest — a spirit the organization hopes to mobilize in years to come.

    Greenpeace’s International Director Kumi Naidoo is himself a South African and an early member of the Greenpeace Africa board. At a press conference Saturday on the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior, which was visiting Cape Town, he recalled courageous activists like Nelson Mandela, who served prison time on Robben Island not far off the shore where the ship was docked. “We have to challenge the power of those who are benefiting from the current system,” argued Naidoo. “And let’s be very clear: the reason the system is surviving is that there are people in the oil and coal and gas sectors, and their allies in government, that are actually making tons of money from the current system.”

    Referring to a new fishing campaign they are launching off the eastern coast of Africa, Naidoo noted, “In the past we probably would have focused on it more from a biodiversity point of view, but actually when we look at the connections between humanity’s survival on this planet and our consumption of resources, they are fundamentally connected.” Helping people to see the connections — their connections to each other and to the threatened earth — is a key part of the work of Greenpeace Africa.

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