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December 18, 2013

Reflecting on the Environmental Legacy of Nelson Mandela - Part 1

Nelson MandelaBy Leslie Fields, Director of the Sierra Club's Environmental Justice and Community Partnerships Program.

A great man was laid to rest on December 15, 2013. Like millions around the world, I was inspired by the life and work of Nelson Mandela, his colleagues, South Africans, and the international movement fighting against apartheid and fighting to create a diverse and inclusive and just South Africa. As a college and law student, I demonstrated against the apartheid regime and supported the economic boycotts against the Afrikaner Nationalist government of South Africa.

As in the United States, the environmental justice movement was gaining momentum in the 1990s in South Africa. Former president Mandela, brought his particular frame of justice to these complex problems arising from South Africa's colonization, exploitation for extractive industries, privatization and industrial development. According to my colleague Bobby Peek, the director of groundWork, in 1995 then President Mandela met with activists protesting the Engen refinery's pollution in Durban.

Mr.Mandela also understood that the plight of workers dying from mercury poisoning from working at Thor Chemicals was also a part of the environmental justice movement, as he visited those sickened workers.

My chance to support the environmental justice struggles in South Africa came in 2001 as a delegate with the National Black Environmental Justice Network (NBEJN) to the UN World Conference Against Racism, Xenophobia and other Intolerences (WCAR) in 2001 in Durban, South Africa. We collaborated with the South African Environmental Justice Networking Forum (EJNF), the S. Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA), groundWork and other organizations. Black, Indian, coloured and poor communities in Durban were and are still exposed to pollution and hazardous wastes from the huge Port of Durban, two oil refineries (Engen and SAPREF) and about 300 hundred other smaller industrial facilities. Environmental racism and injustice were raised up at the WCAR to a level never seen before on an international level.

Nelson Mandela was not able to participate in the WCAR as he was battling prostate cancer at that time. He was however well enough to open the WaterDome at the UN World Conference on Sustainable Development (WSSD), which I attended as the International Director of Friends of the Earth in 2002. On August 28, 2002, his voice rang out clear:

When I return, as I often do, to the rural village and area of my childhood and youth, the poverty of the people and the devastation of the natural environment painfully strike me. And in that impoverishment of the natural environment, it is the absence of access to clean water that strikes most starkly. That our government has made significant progress in bringing potable water nearer to so many more people than was previously the case, I rate amongst the most important achievements of democracy in our country.

Amongst the many things I learnt, as a president of our country, was the centrality of water in the social, political and economic affairs of the country, continent and indeed the world. I am, therefore, a totally committed "water person."

Nelson Mandela also co-founded the Peace Parks Foundation. He claimed, "If we do not do something to prevent it, Africa's animals, and the places in which they live, will be lost to our world, and her children, forever. Before it is too late, we need your help to lay the foundation that will preserve this precious legacy long after we are gone."

Robben Island a former leper and penal colony, where Mandela (along with many other activists and political prisoners) was imprisoned for 18 of the 27 years is now a UNESCO World Heritage Center. Robben Island is protected by the National Heritage Resources Act, the Cultural Institutions Act, the Environment Conservation Act, the National Environmental Management Act and the World Heritage Convention Act. Only 1,400 people are allowed to visit a day.

When my mother and I visited the island in 2007, we were pleased to learn of an Integrated Environmental Management Plan. Robben Island is one of three sites in the world where the population of the African penguin (an endangered species) is increasing. Robben Island hosts half of South Africa’s Swift tern, one-third of the world's population of Hartlaub's gull and two percent of the world’s population of the African oystercatcher. Its stark beauty however does not make up for the evidence of all deprivation and hardship all the prisoners faced in their long years of captivity. Actually seeing Mandela's prison cell and limited view made me admire him all the more because he did not lose sight of a long view toward a democratic nation.

Nelson Mandela statue in Washington DCWhile in South Africa this summer traveling to Swaziland to visit my friend the ambassador, I experienced rural Mpumalanga province as we traveled to Kruger National Park. During the apartheid era, Kruger Park was off limits to blacks except for those working for the white management and a few poor areas set aside nationals of neighboring countries. The Makuleke tribe was forced out and have since made land claims. As part of their settlement, the Makuleke have chosen not to resettle but are now working in tourism activities with the park. Due to this history, attracting a diverse crowd of tourists and conservationists has been challenging and is similar to diversity issues of the national parks in the U.S. Our trip exposed us to all of animals (the poor rhinos have their own security detail due to the poaching!) up close and personal and as equally amazing - the night sky of the winter southern hemisphere unobstructed from light pollution. I felt like I could grab fistfuls of stars as the Creator unveiled them to us.

This past week mourning Madiba (Mandela's clan name) with the rest of world brought all these experiences back to me as I went to the candlelight vigil in front of Mandela's statue at the S. African embassy, and a screening of the new movie, Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom (and Transafrica Forum sponsored reception). Nelson Mandela made no separation between the ideals of democracy and the ideals of the environmental justice movements that should be included within the rubric of sustainable development. I hope we call can keep working with Madiba's life example as a guide:

"We in South Africa have ourselves faced hard questions and had to make hard choices in this regard. We know that political freedom alone is still not enough if you lack clean water. Freedom alone is not enough without light to read at night, without time or access to water to irrigate your farm, without the ability to catch fish to feed your family. For this reason the struggle for sustainable development nearly equals the struggle for political freedom. They can grow together or they can unravel each other. Threats to our governments in the century ahead will come from poverty, if anything."

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