Constructions of Nature and Environmental Justice in Driftsands nature reserve, South Africa

Doctoral Thesis


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University of Cape Town

This thesis provides an analysis of the discourses of nature conservation in South Africa and Driftsands provincial nature reserve from constructionist and environmental justice perspectives. At the outset I examine the theoretical framework on the social construction of nature and that of environmental justice. I then discuss the history of nature conservation in South Africa. Finally I analyse the discourse (nature conservation and local communities) surrounding the Driftsands Provincial Nature Reserve (DNR). This nature reserve is located one kilometre east of Cape Town International Airport, in the Western Cape, South Africa. My analysis of the first theoretical framework (the social construction of nature) confirms that a) the idea of nature is constructed over time; b) nature, as a concept and a phenomenon, is complex; c) nature discourses reveal, hide, and create 'truths' about nature which are accepted as being truthful yet are a question of social struggle and power politics; d) humans have amassed countless definitions of the word 'nature'. Those definitions are categorised by Castree and Braun (2001) into three groups: external, intrinsic, and universal. My analysis of the second theoretical framework (environmental justice) suggests that the idea of nature can be used constructively or negatively depending on who uses it and why. The link between both theoretical frameworks suggests that nature is bound up with agendas. Humans construct natures to pursue individual, social or political agendas. From this standpoint the focus of the thesis shifts from debating whether or not nature is socially constructed to examining what type of agendas were pursued to achieve those 'natural' constructions, and what their consequences were for local communities living in and around protected areas. In order to achieve this, I employed four interlinked analytical methods (stakeholder, discourse, critical and ideological analysis). My analysis of the case study of DNR and that of the history of nature conservation in South Africa suggests ideological similarities. First, in both cases nature conservation is inspired by external environmental views. In the colonial period of South Africa, nature conservation policies and practices were shaped by English and Afrikaner protectionist ideas and aimed also to address the demand of their naturalists, sportsmen, and explorers for hunting and exploiting wild animals. In post-apartheid South Africa, nature has been 12 constructed in protected areas according to universalised environmental views and to some extent has been proactive, meaning that it aimed to address some of the social challenges. Likewise, at DNR, nature conservation was adopted in the early 1980s by the white government to pursue political agendas. In the late 1980s nature conservation began to be influenced by universalised environmental views. Second, the ideological nexus of both discourses regarding nature and local communities suggests conformity with global environmental models. Under these models the normal course is: a) to fence local communities from protected areas or to fence protected areas from local communities, b) to maximise the boundaries of protected areas, or to minimise the settlements of local communities in protected areas, c) to regulate local communities' access to protected areas and natural resources, d) to promote persuasive concepts of ecotourism to achieve nature conservation goals through community participation, co-benefiting local communities from protected areas, co-managing protected areas with local communities, and local socio-economic development, e) to aim for the removal of the on-site communities from protected areas. The impoverishment of the DNR on-site communities has been effected by means of three ideological principles. Since 1990, DNR's on-site communities have been labouring under a state of emergency - the state of living below the flood line; the state of high level of house robbery and a worrying level of rape and child abuse. Their dispossession has led to the spaces of temporality - a state of informality and limited public services and hopelessness (there is no hope of sustaining settlements on the site). Currently, these communities are cornered between two choices. Either they voluntarily relocate their shacks into the surrounding townships or they live with the state of emergency, hopelessness and temporality. Local communities of other protected areas in South Africa have been similarly impoverished by these states of emergency, temporality and hopelessness. During the colonial period, South Africa's conservation discourses were predominantly white-based. Whites constructed the common sense among themselves that they own the land and wildlife. Constructing the idea that they are the people of the land meant also suppressing the non-white sovereignty over land and natural resources. For example, Until late in the twentieth century [South African children's literature in English] 13 usually endorsed the assumption held by whites that they had exclusive ownership of the land and wildlife' (Jenkins, 2004: 107). While whites were protecting South Africa's wildlife, they also alienated blacks from nature. It is just recently, after 1994 that, 'English-Language children's writers and translators of indigenous folktales for children have begun to explore traditional beliefs about and practices in conservation (Jenkins, 2004: 107). These statements do not state or imply that English literature on humannature discourse begun to explore the idea of harmony where indigenous people live and depend on wildlife. In South Africa, it is typical for non-white communities living in or around protected areas to be relocated voluntarily or by force from their land or their settlements, and to be denied resources they had traditionally used within protected areas. Finally, both contemporary discourses continue to be in line with various universalised conservation models. Although both discourses have evolved over time, the status quo of local communities has remained the same: impoverished by exclusion from protected areas, permitted participation in only insignificant co-management models and recipients of intangible benefits. Although the contemporary discourse on nature conservation appears to be more considerate of local communities, I suggest that it is early days for this young discourse to achieve harmony between people and nature. It is up to local and national governmental and non-governmental agencies to modify global environmental views rather than fully adopting them, in order to be more respectful and accommodating of local communities.