By Val Payn
One is tempted to call it Pondoland’s long walk for freedom. In essence, it was a coming together of diverse people and communities of the ‘Rainbow Nation’ to express their concern about proposals to open cast mine, for titanium, the coastal dunes of this pristine environment. All expressed apprehension that the mining proposal is an environmentally damaging type of development that none of them wanted, and that none could see much benefit from for their communities.
Eighteen kilometers is a long way to walk on beach sand, but the old and the young, the fit and the ‘could be fitter’, the poor and the better off, joined together in mutual comradeship and peace in an eloquent democratic protest to express support for development that shares prosperity amongst poor communities while keeping the environment intact.
The elders, headmen and chiefs of the five communities who live upon the land to be mined, and who therefore will be most immediately affected by the mining, expressed their concerns most eloquently. They talked of how the forefathers of their forefathers are buried in the earth there; of generational links to the land which the mining will rip apart; of the dependency of their culture and their lifestyle on an undamaged environment, with grass on which their livestock can feed, and healthy soil in which to grow their crops; of how they wish to pass their land and culture intact to future generations. They spoke with pride of a culture with deep connections and respect for the landscape, which was now threatened by a ‘foreign invasion’ from a foreign mining company. They spoke about how poverty prevented them from going to Pretoria in protest so they could have their voices heard, unlike those wealthier ones whose riches enable them to lobby for the mining in the corridors of power.
So it was also a walk about democracy; about the rights of common people and communities to be able to have a voice in the sort of future they want for themselves and their children.
Ironically, these communities managed to survive the worst ravages of the cultural and social breakdown of apartheid and they managed to survive the manipulations of the colonial era which would divest them of the power to choice over their land. Now, in the era of so called freedom, these communities face the greatest challenge yet in the form of a foreign invader who comes to exploit them in the name of ‘economic development’ and ‘poverty relief’, and with decisions made by far away politicians who will never have to live with the immediate consequences of those decisions,.
Those in the corridors of power who support such environmentally and socially destructive development as the proposed mining favour the foreign cash that the exports of minerals earns, which fills the coffers of GDP and makes the nation’s economy look good. But what those who hold GDP as hallowed neglect to mention, is that GDP does not measure how wealth is distributed, nor does it measure many of the negative costs that are unaccounted for in economic reckoning. Study after study shows that increased GDP does not necessarily result in poverty relief, and in many cases GDP is merely a reflection of increased wealth in some sectors, not necessarily a better quality of life across the board. In many cases, even when GDP is increasing, levels of poverty are also increasing if the wealth reflected by GDP is only going to a few.
Also, as the United Nations Millennium EcoAssessment report states, ‘the degradation of ecosystem services represents loss of a capital asset’, and points out that when the loss of natural capital through unsustainable use is factored into GDP, many countries that show a positive growth in GDP are actually experiencing a nett loss of capital. The impacts of loss of natural capital are felt most keenly and immediately by those with a subsistence way of life whose livelihoods depend most heavily on healthy natural systems.
The common people and elders of the Wild Coast Walk recognized this. They recognized that there can be no future prosperity for all unless there is a respectful use for the environment that upholds us all. They recognize that the mining might bring some wealth to some, but in all likelihood will bring greater poverty to many, and great social and environmental upheaval. They see that poverty relief lies in finding ways of using the resources of the earth with deference and wisdom, so that those natural systems that uphold human life are not destroyed but bring shared benefits to all.
It is a theme that is being repeated by common people in many, many areas of the world who are tired of environmentally exploitative practices that occur in the name of development and economic progress, but in reality leave locals and local environments worse off, while a few make a handsome profit out of the deal.
If authorities continue to take a short –sighted economic view ignores the rights of common people to have a voice in the future they would like to see, and the dependency of the well being of humanity on healthy functioning eco-systems, they do so at their peril.
Val Payn is a founder member of Sustaining the Wild Coast. She writes this in her personal capacity.
Val can be contacted on the following email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.