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How Can Environmental Activists Get Beyond the 'Polar Bear Problem' in Africa?

Greenpeace attempts to grow roots on a continent where environmental devastation has often been perpetrated by Westerners.

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.