The DM: 'Nature, not humanity, is the source of life...'

Published 18 October 2021 in Insights

The Daily Maverick

'Nature, not humanity, is the source of life, and the purpose of conservation is to serve Nature'

By Jay Naidoo

The Daily Maverick - Open Letter To Minister Creecy

Published 14 October 2021


A response to a call by Environment Minister Barbara Creecy for public comment on her draft policy for the conservation and ecologically sustainable use of elephants, lions, leopards and rhinos.

Dear Minister Creecy,

Something very important is happening in our country. And it relates to our Constitution, which guarantees all South Africans a constitutional right to “ecologically sustainable development”. 

That word “ecological” is everything.

Having had the responsibility for South Africa’s Reconstruction and Development Programme as a minister in Nelson Mandela’s Cabinet, I speak from experience in appreciating that all development is ultimately unsustainable if it is not ecologically sustainable.

The new environmental position presented by you, Minister Creecy, is a lynchpin in turning around how we should look at economic development going into the future. I applaud the policy position that: “Communities living with wildlife are placed at the centre of our thinking, with a focus on enhancing human-wildlife coexistence.” 

That is where your policy holds the key, Honourable Minister.

“Ecological” is a concept that supersedes human logic and a narrow focus on what human needs are. It represents the laws of the ecosystem, the laws of Nature. Simply put, if we do not uphold these laws as we redefine our human laws and legislate for the future of South Africa, our species will perish. We are facing a real extinction event. And not just ourselves — every species. 

As we reflect on our past 27 years of democracy, Minister; you and I and 60 million fellow South Africans must ask ourselves: What is it that we missed? What do we have to unlearn? And what do we learn anew? 

Global legislation today has begun to recognise that true governance depends on restoring our right relationship with Mother Earth. That we have no dominion. We cannot continue to abuse the rights of other species, slaughter forests and wage war on Nature. We have to build intelligent cooperation so that all species coexist peacefully. 

So what is the right relationship? What are the governing laws of Nature? 

Nature is a great teacher. She is abundant. Her purpose is to seamlessly serve all of her creation. It is a natural gift economy, true ubuntu, whose culture is the interconnected symbiosis in creating an ecosystem that sustains all life. Ubuntu is that recognition that we are indivisible with all of life, including the rights of animal species, trees, mountains, rivers and oceans and the very land itself. Everything has a consciousness. 

These inherent ecological laws that you seek to achieve within the principles of your new policy document for conservation are not only for South Africa’s iconic species, but for all species and all cultures.

It is appropriate, therefore, that your policy references the terms “indigenous” and “ubuntu”.

If, indeed, you carry these concepts into policy and implementation, South Africa and the global community can look forward to a future that carries the true principles of South Africa’s laudable Constitution into actual application.

The concept of ubuntu helps define true African community identity, and signifies that the “wholeness of an Africa can only be complete when the human-spiritual-nature alignment is achieved”. 

Similarly, the term “indigenous” refers to: “one who is of the Earth, and who serves the Earth, recognising the dignity, freedom, mutuality, continuance and flourishing of planetary life and health, of which humankind is an integral part”. (Worldwide Indigenous Peoples Governance Charter, World Peace and Prayer Day 2020.)  

In this sense, all South Africans of all cultures can potentially uphold the principles of ubuntu, when honouring the human-spiritual-nature alignment of collective identity. 

Nature, not humanity, is the source of life. It is the responsibility of human leadership, therefore, to ensure the continuum of natural heritage through conservation principles in service to Nature. 

This is the foundation of conservation in line with indigenous principles, both African and global, that the policy identifies as significant contributors.  

The purpose of conservation is to serve Nature, thereby enshrining Nature’s rights to regeneration as a living heritage for future generations. 

As it stands, however, the policy document can only achieve its stated objectives if it is fully committed to the regenerative principle central to true conservation. 

Shutting down the captive breeding centres and the heinous lion-bone trade is the only ethical and ecologically responsible option. But it is only the beginning.

Witnessing the scale of suffering of the 45 emaciated, burnt and wounded lions in the Free State last week — and reading the descriptions of the distraught SPCA officers who described this as one of the worst cases of animal cruelty they had ever witnessed — is a brutal reminder that the legislation around this needs to be accelerated.

In spite of some stated intentions to the contrary, the policy still adheres to a consumptive and exploitative economic model and falls short of committing to regenerative conservation methodologies. 

To be a genuinely indigenous-inspired environmental model, this policy has to set its sights beyond “sustainable use” and “sustainable development” to regenerative methodologies that are leading global conservation strategy today. 

“Sustainable” would indicate that the current levels of our environmental decline and rampant species extinction are acceptable — this is far from the case. The current climate and environmental catastrophes we face render mere sustainability — maintaining the current world crisis on the brink of system collapse — insufficient. 

This policy seeks to, first, prevent “the loss of biological diversity” and second, “ensure continued and future benefits that are fair, equitable and meet the needs and aspirations of present and future generations of people”.

In today’s global ecological crisis, responsible governance structures are recognising that sustainability is not attainable through extractive and consumptive-use economies. Sustainability is only attainable through the responsible application of regenerative economic principles. These principles are leading global conservation strategy and implementation today.

The restitution and benefit-sharing of previously disadvantaged communities should not be premised on further exploitation of natural resources. Rather, restitution and regeneration of rural communities should take place simultaneously with environmental regeneration. As rural communities restore their own indigeneity, they are able to restore their environment because their welfare and that of their environment are entirely interdependent.

Accordingly, the term “use” with regard to iconic animals and Nature in general is inconsistent with authentic indigenous practice, since “all species are to be treated with the respect due to family members, elders, or ancestors”.

What is of great concern to me, Minister, having spent many decades working and learning from indigenous communities, is the position taken in your policy document where “community” and “indigenous” are conceptualised as disadvantaged, needy and lacking resources. While historical erosion of indigenous peoples’ value systems creates challenges to indigenous community regeneration, commercial trophy-hunting practices and other extractive use of wildlife, proposed in this policy, would further undermine cultural identity and the self-determination and self-sufficiency of such communities.

Unlike the colonialist legacy which separates people from their culture and cultural connection with our natural environment, authentic African and global indigenous communities should rightly be recognised as authorities with the potential for self-sufficiency in relation to regenerative land use, for the reason that they serve Nature as a living sentient holistic system, and recognise that in so doing they serve a Higher Authority. 

South Africa’s historic model for wildlife management has been one of exploitation of land, animals and local communities. While it was relatively successful in helping to set aside large tracts of wilderness land for conservation purposes, it was based on a colonialist trophy-hunting paradigm, benefiting the elite at the expense of the majority, alienating communities from their wildlife, and commoditising their living heritage.

Going forward, it behoves government to set aside wilderness-for-wilderness sake, while shifting from an exploitative to a regenerative model, thereby reviving indigenous and local community wellbeing, which, in turn, will support the dignity and wellbeing of iconic animals.

Dominion-based models do not serve Nature’s law. To kill in order to conserve is neither logical nor ecological. To “conserve” means to cherish Nature as a precious living legacy for future generations, and thereby reinstate a loving and respectful interrelationship.

Ecological sustainability is dependent upon restoring “the dignity, freedom, mutuality, continuance and flourishing of planetary life and health, of which humanity is an integral part”. (Worldwide Indigenous Peoples Governance Charter)

I draw on the wisdom of Gogo Rutendo Ngara, chairperson of the Credo Mutwa Foundation:

“From a universal indigenous conservation perspective, iconic animals should be protected, not as commodities in cages nor stuffed on walls, but as a living heritage performing their unique vital roles both within the biodiversity of their natural ecosystem, and ‘alive and well’ within the hearts, minds — and souls — of humankind. Heritage animals are essential for the well-being of any culture that respects and celebrates Nature.” 

Honourable Minister, this policy has the potential to establish South Africa at the forefront of global conservation strategy, allowing us to join the ranks of the pioneering legislators in New Zealand, Ecuador, India and the Netherlands.

However, in order to achieve the policy’s stated objectives and outcomes, there are a number of inconsistencies that must be addressed. To achieve “secured, restored, and rewilded natural landscapes with thriving populations of the elephant, lion, rhino, and leopard as indicators for a vibrant, responsible, inclusive, transformed, and sustainable wildlife sector”, it is essential to incorporate regenerative economic models that are leading a progressive conservation strategy globally today. 

Jay Naidoo, Elder DM/OBP


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Image Credit: From left: An African elephant at Joburg Zoo in Johannesburg. (Photo: EPA / Kim Ludbrook) | A leopard at Mala Mala Game Reserve. (Photo: Gallo Images / Chris Daphne) | A rescued male lion. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Kim Ludbrook) | Rhinos in Waterberg. (Photo: Gallo Images / Foto24 / Lucky Maibi)