Who will replace Edna?

The late Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa. FILE PHOTO: ANA

The untimely death of Edna Molewa means that someone else must now be appointed Minister for the Environment. This seems an appropriate time to assess the state of conservation in South Africa.

Edna was highly regarded in ANC circles as ‘a good comrade.’ She no doubt did her best to discharge her duties within the straight- jacket of the doctrine of Sustainable Use. However, she never attempted to escape that straitjacket in order to put animal welfare on the agenda and to assume a broader responsibility for preserving the natural environment.

The doctrine of sustainable use has been imposed on us by the Convention on Biodiversity. That doctrine is a licence to destroy living wild species with the proviso that the destruction must not be immediate but rather restrained so that agents of destruction can come back and keep doing it year after year. In fact it is the antithesis of conservation, because true conservation requires not the exploitation of natural resources, but rather their preservation.

Like most other countries around the world who adopted that Convention we sleepwalked into it without asking what vested interests were behind the promotion of such a restricted doctrine. Nor did we ask ourselves what the unintended consequences would be of adopting such a narrow and unrealistic mandate.

Sustainable use puts conservation in a straitjacket. ‘Just count the numbers’, it says: ‘everything else is irrelevant.’ To look at the consequences, let us look no further then captive lion breeding and the canned lion hunting industry.  During Edna’s tenure of office, the number of captive lions in South Africa being bred for the bullet mushroomed from a few thousand to something like 10,000 (no one knows the true number)

Thus a whole industry that inflicts suffering and death upon helpless animals for fun was promoted by government because it fell neatly into the straitjacket: hey, lion numbers were increasing as the doctrine requires. What could possibly be wrong with that?

What was wrong was that outside the straitjacket, ordinary decent people in South Africa and around the world were repulsed by the senseless cruelty and many responsible tourists are boycotting South Africa. Did Edna intend to sabotage the Department of Tourism and put people out of work? Of course not! But without taking a broader view of conservation and looking at the condition of the animals and how their lives fit in with the preservation of natural functioning ecosystems, it was an inevitable consequence.

By remaining firmly within the straitjacket of sustainable use, the Department of the Environment, (DEA) has rendered itself largely irrelevant and a total waste of taxpayers’ money. Under Edna’s watch, the wild was being taken out of wildlife, which is now becoming domesticated as alternative livestock, confined by fencing on more than ten thousand game farms. What could be a sadder betrayal of true conservation than the erosion of wildness as a deliberate policy of the Department of the Environment.

We cannot fairly lay the blame for this state of affairs at Edna’s feet. Vested interests of obscenely wealthy industries such as the hunting industry ensure that conservation structures all around the world are controlled and manipulated to preserve not wildlife, but rather hunting privileges. The industry uses its wealth and political clout particularly in the United States to lobby and litigate furiously at any attempt to alter the current conservation narrative – which is that controlled destruction is conservation.

Those who call for a more intelligent conservation paradigm are routinely demeaned by hunting industry propaganda as ‘greenies’, or ‘radicals’, or ‘extremists.’ The chairman of the Portfolio Committee of Parliament for the Environment, Mr Mapulane, has shown himself to be more able than most at seeing the weaknesses in current DEA policies. Is it too much to hope for that someone like him be appointed Minister for the Environment?

Chris Mercer is the Director of the Campaign Against Canned Hunting