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The Green/Brown Debate

Author: Danie Van der Walt ~ Executive Producer 50/50

( Article Type: Explanation )

The so-called ‘Green/Brown Debate’ only became prominent in the early to mid 1990s when community environmental Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) entered the wildlife/ environmental debate. ‘Green’ means a more wildlife focus while ‘Brown’ refers to a more people’s approach. Concerns were raised that the environment is seen as something that is all about saving species of plants and animals – mainly ignoring the urban environment and people’s basic right to a clean and healthy environment.

The ‘Green’ environmental NGOs were initiated because of real concern for the dwindling number of species and loss of habitats. Until the late 1890s, subsistence hunting and the eradication of predators that posed a threat to livestock by the earlier European settlers and then later the indiscriminate slaughter of game by socalled ‘sport hunters’, caused an alarming drop in wildlife numbers. It was this fear that there may not be wildlife left to hunt that was the catalyst for our first ‘green’ NGO, the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa . A more genuine interest in the conservation of bio-diversity, locally and internationally, is the driving force behind many of the more modern ‘Green’ movements. With slogans such as ‘Save the Whale’, ‘Save the Rhino’, etc. these organisations raise enormous amounts of funding to preserve species and wilderness for prosperity. At the turn of the last century another dimension was added when ‘animal rights’ groups joined the fray – some of them demanding that animals be accorded rights on an equal footing with humans.

The ‘Brown’ environmental NGOs have their roots in the political struggle against apartheid. The apartheid laws and most specifically the Group Areas Act forced most South African citizens into over-crowded residential areas. Lack of clean water, inadequate sanitation, insufficient housing and poverty created ghettos in many places with appalling environmental standards. Understandably people living in these conditions would view the environment from a completely different perspective. To make matters worse some rural communities were also uprooted in certain provinces to make room for wildlife parks.

Wildlife at the expense of people did nothing to foster a ‘Green’ feeling amongst those who were negatively affected by the system. A host of community-based organisations sprung up to improve the lot of people and to tackle air and water pollution, sanitation, illegal dumping, toxic waste, food security, recycling, etc. The name of the most prominent of these organisations, The Environment Justice Networking Forum, perhaps describes the aim of this movement the best. Of course in reality ‘the environment’ includes both people and wildlife and it is very unfortunate that our history has politicised the debate to the extent of polarising organisations into two entirely different camps. We need to heal this division and work toward mutually beneficial ‘Sustainable Development goals. Our Constitution protects every citizen’s right to a clean and healthy environment and because of the legacy of apartheid, much effort is needed to fix what is wrong in some residential areas. On the other hand, South African is also a signatory to the International Biodiversity Treaty, which means we have to protect species and habitats critical to their survival – the world is still losing species at an alarming rate.

Some organisations have broadened their base to become more inclusive. The Wildlife Society of South Africa changed their name to the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (WESSA). Some of the rural organisations have made wildlife their main activity – forfeiting ancestral land to maintain wilderness areas.

The environment’s worst enemies are poverty and greed. South Africa needs economic growth – which could however easily lead to the further exploitation of our natural resources if we do not have these ‘environmental’ watchdogs to keep the greedy in check. Whilst our potential to manufacture and export products to create wealth is severely limited, our priceless natural heritage holds the key to a better future as ‘ecotourism’ provides a wonderful and sustainable activity to can alleviate poverty – for the present and future generations.