Hope for SA's rich biodiversity
Publish date: 08 October 2019
Issue Number: 626
Diary: Legalbrief Environmental
A conference on biodiversity research, and a comprehensive study on the state of SA's biodiversity, released last week, both indicate that despite threats, there is hope for SA's fauna and flora, writes Legalbrief. Environment, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Barbara Creecy has launched the third National Biodiversity Assessment (NBA), which is a scientific reflection of the state of the country’s biodiversity. According to an SA News report, the NBA took five years to complete and involved nearly 480 South African scientists, many of them emerging scientists. Creecy launched the NBA at the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) in Tshwane last week. The study, led by SANBI, found that major pressures on SA’s biodiversity are habitat loss, changes to freshwater flow, overuse of some species, pollution, climate change and invasive alien species. ‘The study will be a valuable tool for the environment sector, government, civil society and the scientific community to inform policy, planning and decision-making on the wise use of the country’s biodiversity assets and the management and restoration of ecological infrastructure,’ Creecy said. ‘The most concerning of the report’s findings relate to our freshwater ecosystems, rivers, wetlands, estuaries and freshwater fish stocks. These are the most vulnerable of all species groups and the most threatened ecosystems in SA. In a water-stressed country such as ours, these findings are cause for serious concern. The restoration and protection of these fresh water eco-systems, or what we term eco-infrastructure services, will deliver huge returns on investment with great benefit to the communities that depend on them,’ the Minister said.
Getting ordinary South Africans to understand current conservation issues is key to the Environment Department developing evidence-based policy, Creecy argued last week. According to a Daily Maverick report, she said many South Africans don’t know enough about climate change and this needs to be addressed if the country is to become environmentally secure. Creecy announced at the 10th Oppenheimer Research Conference in Randjiesfontein, Midrand, which took place under the theme ‘Advancing Conservation Consciousness’, that following research by the department and the CSIR, the department was exploring the concept of a Citizen’s Environmental Awareness Index based on the results of an annual independent national public environmental awareness survey. Citing the results of a 2018 Afro-barometer survey, which sought to establish whether ‘South Africans are prepared to confront climate change,’ Creecy said more than half (54%) of South Africans said they had not heard of climate change. ‘An environmentally literate society is one where everyone has the understanding, skills and motivation to make responsible decisions that consider her or his relationships to natural systems, communities and future generations,’ said Creecy. Bobby Peek of groundWork, a non-profit environmental justice group, agreed that it was important that South Africans understand how they relate to climate change and how it may affect us. ‘But we cannot hide behind the issue of the public not being well informed and the issue of poverty as excuses not to take action,’ he said.
SA is one of the world’s top three mega-biodiverse nations, along with Brazil and Indonesia. An SA News report quotes Creecy, who said: ‘We are thus one of the richest countries in terms of the diversity of plants and animals (marine and terrestrial) and levels of endemism.’ The Minister was delivering the keynote address at the opening of the conference. ‘Our National Development Plan recognises this biodiversity wealth and requires us to leave future generations an environmental endowment of at least equal value to the one we have now,’ said Creecy. ‘To this end, although we are not yet meeting international targets, our conservation estate is growing, both on land and at sea,’ Creecy said. The 10th Oppenheimer Research Conference supports ground breaking research and key partnerships bringing together some of the continent’s best stakeholders to support Africa-led, innovative research that will contribute to the advancement of environmental and allied sciences.
Creecy was surprised to find out that many of the mining appeals she hears are from companies that have had their mining rights rejected by the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) on environmental grounds. That at least suggests that oversight mechanisms are working. According to a Daily Maverick report, Creecy, who became Environment Minister in May, expected that in the mining space she might spend a lot of her time dealing with conservationists opposed to the issuing of mining permits. She was in for a surprise. ‘What comes to me are the appeals,’ she told Business Maverick on the sidelines of the conference. ‘What’s interesting is that I deal a lot with appeals from mining houses that have been refused rights by DMRE. Often they have been refused because DMRE has concerns regarding the EIA,’ she said. ‘If everyone’s unhappy, the system’s working,’ she added. It certainly does suggest that the oversight mechanisms appear to be working, through Creecy did not disclose any details about specific cases. On the wildlife front, Creecy said it was vital for the African nations that are the custodians of the world’s last great megafauna populations, to derive benefit from that wildlife. ‘The great concern I would have over the recent CITES is that I think that that question is not being explored fully,’ she said.
At the conference, Dr Hayley Clements was awarded the inaugural Jennifer Ward Oppenheimer (JWO) Research Grant worth $150 000, for her research on Quantifying the Biodiversity Planetary Boundary for Africa. Her proposal was chosen from 164 applicants, from 110 institutions in 24 countries. An Engineering News report notes that the grant was set up to honour and continue the legacy of the late Jennifer Ward Oppenheimer in conservation, the environment and cutting-edge science in Africa. Clements is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Socio-Ecological Systems at Stellenbosch University. Clements’ research will develop a Biodiversity Intactness Index for Africa, through a continent-wide collaboration of biodiversity professionals. The project is intended to explore where and how biodiversity loss impacts human wellbeing, as well as to promote understanding of where investing in nature can benefit society. Her proposal was chosen from 164 applicants, from 110 institutions in 24 countries.