WESSA standing strong and caring for the earth at 90

In 2016 WESSA celebrated its 90th birthday. While the organisation can trace its roots back to 1883, it was officially formed as The Wildlife Protection Society of South Africa in 1926, when a group of passionate individuals (several of them big game hunters) joined forces to campaign for the creation of a National Parks Board (now known as SANParks), to ensure the proclamation of the Kruger National Park, and to advocate for the formation of other national parks in South Africa.

Today WESSA continues to play a strong role in shaping conservation practices throughout South Africa, engaging proactively with the challenges and opportunities presented by our country’s unique natural heritage and the social and economic systems that depend on it. Although the organisation has changed its name and focus several times over the years, one very important aspect of its mission that remains unchanged is articulated in its logo, “People Caring for the Earth”, and with it the need to “promote public participation”.

WESSA’s achievements have been well documented. The book The Conservationists and the Killers, first published in 1982, covers the organisation’s history for the period 1926 to 1980. To celebrate its 60th birthday in 1986, a “Diamond Jubilee” issue of its then African Wildlife magazine was published. “A celebration of 85 years of Caring for the Earth” was compiled in 2011, and a commemorative publication celebrating the organisation’s 90th birthday will be released later this year.

A campaigner for environmental conservation and education

WESSA’s most notable early successes include the establishment of the Addo Elephant Park (1931) and the Mountain Zebra Park (1937), achievements brought about after significant campaigning and petitioning. In 1948 WESSA became a founder member of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), one of only two founder members from Africa. Twenty years later WESSA introduced one of South Africa’s first official environmental education projects at Umgeni Valley in KwaZulu-Natal, and is acknowledged today as one of the leaders in this field, both in South Africa and in the world. The organisation successfully campaigned from 1964 to 1968 to save Mkuze Game Reserve from de-proclamation, and campaigned again in 1972 to have the Eastern Shores of Lake St Lucia included in the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park (now iSimangaliso and a World Heritage Site). In the 1980s, when plans were afoot to dredge mine the Eastern Shores of St Lucia, WESSA crusaded successfully against the operation. This year, St Lucia was in the spotlight again, when WESSA supported iSimangaliso in its battle against farmers who were trying to force the opening of the St Lucia mouth, an action that would have prevented floodwaters from filling the drought-stricken estuarine wetlands. Throughout the years WESSA has also crusaded for the establishment of many lesser, though important, nature reserves.

WESSA volunteers surveyed the Transkei coast in the late 1970s, made recommendations for its conservation and also pioneered the areas first public hiking trails. In 1980 the organisation produced the first Environmental Conservation Strategy for South Africa – the first NGO in the world to do so – and in 1985 initiated the successful “Friends Scheme”, whereby volunteer groups conserve local areas. In 1997 WESSA’s office at Howick in KwaZulu-Natal was selected by the 14 member states of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) for the establishment of a regional SADC office to promote environmental education throughout the region. At the Japan World Summit in 2014, the programme was selected by UNESCO as one of the five most significant Sustainable Development projects in Africa.

In 1997, WESSA achieved a major legal precedent when the Western Cape High Court confirmed its assertion that environmental issues must take precedence over development planning in decision-making. This legal victory, in the Paradyskloof Golf Estate, preceded the promulgation of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) regulations and the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA).

Forging ahead in the 21st century

The new century dawned, bringing with it the country’s continuing socio-economic and environmental challenges and tensions. WESSA campaigned against the development of the Pinnacle Point Golf Estate near Mossel Bay, citing destruction of endangered fynbos and damage to uniquely important Stone Age caves that record human history dating back some 70,000 years. Although WESSA lost the court case, the international media attention led the Homeowners Association to help protect the caves.

The World Summit on Sustainable Development was held in Johannesburg in 2001.  The event was globally significant in that it marked the transition from nature based ecology towards sustainable development. This summit saw the large-scale involvement of civil society organisations and WESSA led a sustained process of consultation and lobbying in the time leading up to the summit, as well as during and after the event.  This lobbying ensured that priorities such as biodiversity; water and waste management; and energy issues reached centre stage. In the same year WESSA introduced the international Blue Flag ecolabel into South Africa – the first country outside of Europe to run the programme – and in 2003 the international Eco-Schools programme was initiated, also with WESSA as the implementing agent. In 2013 the Department of Basic Education formally thanked the organisation for the Eco-Schools programme and its contribution to quality and sustainable education in South Africa. Further successes followed when a WESSA Eco‐Schools water project established in partnership with the Department of Water and Sanitation won the ‘Water for Life’ United Nations Water Best Practices Award in 2015.

WESSA’s ‘Stop the Spread’ campaign, initiated in 2009, was created to encourage the public to get to grips with the threat of alien invasive plants and animals. Today this initiative, which now focuses on the rehabilitation of life-supporting ecosystems, is a key area of WESSA’s work.

The majestic beauty and critical biodiversity of the Wild Coast has proved no deterrent against those wanting to strip mine and build a coastal highway through the region’s virgin coastal forests, endemic habitats and grasslands. WESSA campaigned in the early 2000s against both the proposed Xolobeni Titanium Mine and the coastal section of the Wild Coast N2 Toll Road. Despite numerous court challenges, the Toll Road was approved, although it remains unbuilt. Along with other NGOs and community groups, WESSA succeeded in preventing the mine. However, the mining house MRC is trying to revive the application, which has caused great conflict resulting in bloodshed in the Xolobeni community.

In 2007 the United Nations University (based in Japan) awarded WESSA’s office at Umgeni Valley Nature Reserve “Regional Centre of Expertise” status in the field of Education for Sustainable Development. In 2010 WESSA played a significant role as a founder member in the establishment of the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER). CER continues to grow as a shining light for environmental justice.

A year later, the Local Government Skills Education Training Authority designated WESSA as an Institute of Sectoral or Occupational Excellence. This development enabled the organisation to work with government and municipal officials on conservation issues and to help develop education and training in the field of water resources and other ecosystems, and the importance of their maintenance; essential knowledge for municipal managers and staff.

As a result of more than 20 years of robust compliance monitoring and environmental advocacy in the West Coast area of Elands Bay and Piketberg, in 2013 WESSA began implementing a focused on attaining formal protection status for the Ramsar site of Verlorenvlei and its main catchment, the Moutonshoek valley. The Verlorenvlei Protected Areas project, a joint effort by WESSA, BirdLife South Africa, Cape Nature and local landowners, contributes to WESSA’s proud tradition of supporting National and Provincial Protected Areas Expansion Strategy. Another example of how we have supported this strategy is the contribution WESSA has made – since 1975 – towards the protection of the Magaliesberg, which was officially designated a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 2015.

The period 2012 to 2014 saw the organisation benefit from USAID support to set up a number of Sustainability Commons in South Africa, allowing any person to get information about and benefit from demonstrations of “green technologies” designed to reduce carbon footprints, save water, reduce waste and conserve both soil and biodiversity. The project has now been extended to four other SADC countries and is being closely linked to the recently published and internationally endorsed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

In 2012, WESSA became a significant partner in the SANBI Groen Sebenza Jobs Fund Programme, a major skills development and job creation pilot programme aimed at developing skills in the biodiversity sector to create sustainable job opportunities for 800 unemployed graduates and matriculants.

Funds received from the National Department of Environmental Affairs enabled WESSA to launch the Western Cape Youth Environmental Services Training Programme the following year. This three-year plan offered 300 underprivileged young people exposure to accredited and non-accredited training, mentorship and an opportunity to gather practical experience in the environmental sector.

Along with other concerned NGOs and scientists, WESSA has successfully prevented the most important of our existing Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) from being plundered after several attempts by the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) between 2007 and 2015 to open up the Tsitsikamma National Park MPA to recreational and subsistence fishing in response to severe political pressure. WESSA has voiced strong support for the proposed creation of 22 new MPAs to protect our coastal biodiversity and critically important fish breeding grounds.

Since 2014, WESSA has joined forces with the iMfolozi Community and Wilderness Alliance to oppose Ibutho Coal’s application to develop an anthracite mine within 40 metres of the fence-line of the world-renowned Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. WESSA has protested against the serious deficiencies in the Environmental Impact Assessment investigations and the high risk of community disruption, water pollution and erosion of one of KwaZulu-Natal’s most important tourism attractions. The decision is pending.

In March 2015 WESSA advocated against the proposal by the DEA to request CITES to lift the ban on rhino horn trade. This is a highly controversial and polarising conservation issue. Although WESSA supports the sustainable harvesting of natural resources, in the case of rhino horn, we warned the DEA Committee of Inquiry that re-opening trade significantly risks exacerbating rhino poaching. Early this year, the DEA announced that it would not seek resumption of the trade.

Today WESSA is working towards meaningful and sustainable capacity-building solutions that enable individuals, communities and government to make more-informed lifestyle and environmental management choices for a more sustainable future. WESSA has become a leading implementer of high-impact environmental and conservation initiatives in southern Africa, and a trusted and effective project implementation partner working with the public; local, provincial and national government; the private sector and other environmental organisations. WESSA is also an integral part of the international environmental community. We have been entrusted with running three international Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE) programmes in South Africa and work with UNESCO to strengthen its Global Action Programme for Sustainable Development. The critical focus areas of our work include the international Eco-Schools and Blue Flag ecolabels, environmental training to address the scarcity of skills in our country, the conservation of life-supporting biodiversity and water resources, climate change mitigation, environmental governance, and the WESSA Rhino and Elephant initiatives.

WESSA has recently contributed to shaping the strategic plans of the Operation Phakisa national blue economy programme, focusing particularly on coastal and marine tourism initiatives. This programme drives significant development in the coastal zone and is currently entering into an exciting partnership with the National Department of Tourism on a new coastal tourism project to improve the quality of our Blue Flag beaches as tourism destinations and provide youth employment opportunities.

The organisation is made up of an extensive network of professional staff, dedicated members, Branches, Friends Groups and other affiliated groups throughout the country. During the past few years, there has been a conscious and determined drive to revive and grow WESSA’s membership and its active involvement in environmental work, making our members more diverse, attracting more youth and building on the volunteer efforts of the past to address new challenges with the passion that fueled our past achievements.

At 90, WESSA is proud of its history and we are gratified to have earned significant local and international recognition for our efforts over the years. We are also excited about what we are achieving through our current projects and partnerships and – in spite of the significant challenges facing our environment – we look forward to the future and to all the opportunities it will present in our ongoing quest to be champions of the environment.

A number of special activities are taking place this year to mark WESSA’s milestone event. These include the 90th AGM taking place in Kruger National Park in September, a photographic competition in partnership with SANParks and a number of regional branch celebrations. Details of these activities are shared on WESSA’s social media platforms and the WESSA website.