A woman farmer in Guguletu, Cape Town, South Africa. AUSAID South Africa

Context is key: how environmental change-makers are bringing equity and cultural context into the picture

GLFx Cape Town highlights equity in speakers series

By Skye Ayla Mallac, freelance writer

Photos by Schalk Hanekom

When it comes to ecosystem restoration, one of the words most thrown around these days is ‘equity’, the quality of being fair and impartial.

This might initially seem a strange narrative for an environmentally-centric movement. I mean, shouldn’t regenerative action have a holistic positive impact? But nevertheless, when it comes to the matter of place and socio-economic realities, equity is often overlooked, despite standing at the heart of it all. This is particularly true when it comes to the unique context of South Africa: a major carbon emitter and emerging economy, still recovering from the grim socio-political after-effects of apartheid, with a 34 percent unemployment rate and high reliance on the unsustainable yet economically necessary sectors of agriculture, forestry and mining.

Well-meaning restoration strategies often don’t account for their ripple effects on surrounding communities. In many ways, environmental action comes from a place of privilege – of time on one’s hands to engage in this movement. So, it is important to realize the realities of those who don’t have the same privilege.

To simplify the question: how can we implement environmental strategies that will not only positively impact the landscape but also bolster and benefit the communities within the chosen area?

In April 2022, the GLFx Cape Town Speaker Stage at Greenpop’s Reforest Fest posed this question to a series of speakers, inviting them to discuss the topic of landscapes and food systems in a series of talks. 

Kaspar Paur spoke on how organizations such as Oceaneers, who advocate for clean, healthy oceans as well as a sustainable and cruelty-free diet, are turning the conversation toward topics such as the realities of the small-scale fishermen in Cape Town whose entire livelihoods rely on fishing. They are looking to find a balancing point between activism and equity. 

Kaspar Paur, Oceaneers
Kaspar Paur, Oceaneers

In the rural villages of the Eastern Cape, Mercy Nqandeka works for Viva con Agua to provide clean water access and sanitation at schools. But she’s also looking to return local villages to what they were in her youth – replete with thriving food gardens and dotted with trees rather than soil stripped of nutrients and an increasing reliance on cheap spaza (convenience) shop staples. Her vision includes the introduction of agroforestry, which would provide food as well as financial incentives to grow trees in the villages, while taking into account local needs, culture and superstitions.

Hombakazi Mercy Nqandeka, Viva Con Agua
Hombakazi Mercy Nqandeka, Viva Con Agua

Also in the agricultural sector, Gray Maguire and the Climate Neutral Group are incentivising the move toward regenerative farming practices by generating carbon credits from decreased negative environmental impact resulting from such transitions, and feeding those funds right back to farmers themselves. This creates a carbon credit feedback loop that supports agriculture rather than condemns it.

Gray Maguire, Climate Neutral Group
Gray Maguire, Climate Neutral Group 

Food often lies at the heart of equitable projects. Tasneem Karodia and Mzanzi Meat are  producing lab-cultivated meat as a sustainable and cruelty-free alternative to traditionally farmed livestock. Having just unveiled Africa’s first cultivated beef burger, Mzanzi Meat’s end goal is to sell cultivated meat at a competitive price that makes it accessible to all.

Tasneem Karodia, Mzanzi Meat
Tasneem Karodia, Mzanzi Meat

These days, sustainable solutions taking equity into account are a necessary priority. While initiatives like the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration and the Global Landscapes Forum continue to spearhead global awareness on this issue, the onus also remains on everyone to ensure actions, perspectives and projects are operating within the context and relevance of their local environments. Think about it like this: how might entirely boycotting the fishing industry affect the livelihoods of small-scale fishermen who have been providing for their families like this for generations? How will afforesting an area on the doorstep of a rural community assist them in any way, unless food crops or alternatives are also included? How can we incentivize moving together toward equity and restoration?

Systemically shifting away from unsustainable models and providing an inclusive and appealing alternative with broad benefits is far better than flattening industries entirely. There can be no environmental justice without social justice. Aligning the needs and interests of local communities with the environmental movement might just be the most effective and revolutionary act of the climate crisis.

With that in mind: within your own personal environmental journey, how are you making decisions or engaging in projects which are equitable for all?

Watch this space for further blogs and content on the speakers featured at the GLFx Speaker Stage in this series on landscapes, food systems and equity.

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