Environment, race and social justice intersect
Jul 8, 2020
Dear Freedom Climbers,
Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the US has been an emotional undertaking for us on a few levels. Procedural inequalities have thus far seemed to be an issue for the adversely affected races and this unity in all races denouncing racism is welcome. We unequivocally support BLM movement and we are hopeful that the commitments being made to bring change are not just declaratory.
While the movement is centred around the racial profiling of black people by the police in the US, it brought up the sad reality that even walking outside is a systematic privilege, and I wanted to share some of our views regarding the human element of black lives that is often overlooked in environmental justice.
As an organisation, we work to increase the number of black participants in the outdoors. Central to this vision is the idea that we should all thrive in nature. Racism, exclusion, and discrimination of any kind are incompatible with this vision. The role of governments in shaping culture is often overlooked and it is critical to understand how organisations like ours exist. In South Africa, colonial and apartheid governments displaced thousands of black people from their ancestral lands to make way for game parks. Alternative recreational facilities were not provided for the locals and anyone who wishes to explore the parks has to pay a hefty entrance fee for a safari walk with a ranger. The locals cannot afford to participate as a result.
In an area where AFC operates around Pilanesberg National Park in North West, South Africa - the game reserves were created and declared protected areas without the locals' concent in 1977. Some of the 'big 5' animals that are in this game park are not indigenous to this area and were brought in for reasons that are unclear - and yet, alternative recreational spaces were not created for the locals. This is an undeniable issue of racial and social injustice and can help explain the most common stereotype that we are often confronted with: "black people are not into the outdoors". All these developments were despite the fact that there was a tribe of Batswana who had resided in this area since the 1600s. So, the tribe had to be re-settled, all buildings in the area except the magistrate court building and a missionaries church were demolished.
The same area has several platinum mines that have been operating for decades. South Africa's mining industry is one of the largest producers of solid waste. In fact when we were growing up, we couldn't understand why older people had brown teeth - but there was a well accepted "myth" that the discolouration was caused by the water. This makes sense as we now understand that solid waste accounted for about two-thirds of the total waste stream from this area - so high levels of Fluoride caused the discolouration. Additionally, those who live next to mines experience poor quality of air and water. These communities had little choice over the placement of mines near their homes or realised any economic benefits of these establishments.
Today, in post apartheid South Africa, the mines and the game reserves remain. Environmental justice is still geared towards wildlife conservation and very little effort and budgets are made available to include social and racial justice in that mix. At AFC, we try to instill stewardship in our youth by introducing hikes "around" the Pilanesberg hills and we advocate for recreational spaces (budgets for recreation and recreational spaces are often redirected by local governments).
We hope that conversations around race relations and the racism that is often disguised as conservation will be easier to have as a result of the BLM movement.