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Conservation in South Africa: An Interview With Belinda Reyers

Nov 22 2016 | Posted in: Research Highlight
By Stacey Solie
Dr. Belinda Reyers is chief scientist of the biodiversity and ecosystem services research group at The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), South Africa. With two colleagues, Drs. Jeanne Nel and Nadia Sitas, she has organized a session featuring their innovative work at the Natural Capital Symposium at Stanford March 23-25. Dr. Reyers kindly gave us a preview of the session.

Your session is within the symposium’s theme called “Pathways to Impact.” We hear that phrase a lot in the context of influencing policy, financial, and social change, but what exactly does it mean?


“What is your pathway to impact?” is a phrase funders like to use, and it seems to suggest a linear process – that you start here and end with impact. All of us know that isn’t true. We’re still trying to figure out what those pathways are.

This panel will be a way of exploring the more nuanced experiences of change we are all having along these pathways to impact, and some of our frustrations.


You describe your work as being about reconnecting people with their environment, and bringing the environment into decision-making. How are you going about that task in South Africa?


Each of the studies and projects we’re working on is quite different, in that we’re connecting decision-makers from the private and public sector at local to national scales, and across domains from water to food to rural livelihoods to disaster risk.

For example, South African government programs are giving land back as part of the redistribution following the process of democratization. Big lands have been given back, but we have infestations of non-native woody trees, mostly Australian acacias – we call them black wattle – which were introduced for timber and plantation forestry and have spread enormously.


How is your work helping to reconnect people with their environment in this case?


We’re working with communities on these lands to identify where the trees are limiting grazing capacity, where it’s not really viable land anymore. The invasive trees are also water-intensive [in an area with little water], so we’re partnering with the Working for Water program, which hires unemployed people to clear the trees.


You also have a project that aims to reduce risk from natural disasters?


This project is on the southern Cape coast, where many wealthy South Africans have holiday homes, but it is also home to large, poor, peri-urban communities. The southern Cape has been inundated with floods and wildfires, and this raised a big flag for a national insurance company. They asked, “Can you help us here? We’re not sure if our tools on how to assess properties are really working anymore.” So we started out with them on this journey to figure out what is causing these increases in these natural disasters and what kind of data we could provide for them. We did quite a bit of modeling with the insurance companies and emerged with some empowering findings.

We have more rain, [which contributes to flooding] and that’s driven by climate change – but often land cover change and land use change has as much or greater impact on flooding [than the total amount of rain]. Climate change is often a disempowering message, because there’s a sense that there’s not much you can do [to change precipitation levels], but watershed planning and urban planning are all part of the project.

We had brought a lot of the local government on board, where much of the urban land use planning happens. These conversations elevated to the province and led to national policy interventions.

Nadia Sitas, during her PhD in this region, used techniques from the social sciences and ran stakeholder reflection processes, which were very powerful. She did these fantastic interviews measuring participants’ preconceptions and experiences. She found that some people thought we were getting involved as green activists. There was also distrust from the scientists that insurers were only getting involved because of the money. Words like “environment” and “green” and “biodiversity” had no trust in many of the stakeholder communities, no trust, and no relevance. But the concept of risk came up time and time again. She found that the concept of risk was well understood.


If words like “environment” and “biodiversity” are dirty words to some people, which messages do resonate?


We contracted a media and advertising group to do a baseline assessment of what people thought about nature and ecosystem services and what were powerful messages for them:

1 – The first most powerful message is the natural capital message, that nature really underpins our development.

2 – The second most powerful message was that nature is our legacy as well, about future generations and wanting to leave something for them.

3 – The third was: What can you do about it? People are very tired of the environmental community telling them species are disappearing without coming up with practical solutions.


And Jeanne Nel is also going to talk about ecosystems and water security?


Water is a very important conversation in South Africa. Everyone is aware that we don’t have much of it. Jeanne did work on building consensus from the water engineers in our government to the scientists that work on little fish species. She spent two years running workshops to really make sure that whatever was produced had everyone’s buy-in. She was engaging with partners from government, the NGO sector, the conservation groups and from the engineering sector. The [coalition] came up with freshwater ecosystem priorities for the country.

She also worked with WWF-South Africa on a massive awareness campaign, called Journey of Water, about where their water comes from. The campaign slogan was “Water does not come from a tap.” They took journalists and celebrities on a four-day walk from where the water starts in the high mountains, seeing how it changes, to the endpoint in the city of Cape Town.

We’ve got a policy process called the national development plan, which outlines where the government will be investing money in the next 15 years. It’s a function of the presidency, the most powerful policy instrument in the country.

The first draft of the national development plan was a depressing read, it was all about 18 priority investments in infrastructure, etc., with hardly any words with “nature” or “ecosystems” or “catchment” or anything in it.

But largely thanks to Jeanne’s team effort [coming up with freshwater priorities] they recently added a 19th priority, which they’re calling “ecological infrastructure for water security.” It’s a massive investment for restoring our watersheds, to protect water security in those areas. We’re still waiting for the roll-out of those things. Jeanne will be presenting on that as well – about the power you get when you engage more directly outside of the environmental sector.


What in particular are you hoping to learn from others at the Symposium?


This work can become quite focused and insular. So this will be a chance to look up and discuss with others from very different contexts things like: What are the major obstacles we’ve all faced? How did you overcome them? I hope to find some golden threads.

Furthermore, recently there’s been an interest expressed by a number of African countries to use South Africa as a resource in starting to replicate this kind of work across the region. Development choices in these countries are still wide open and so it would be really exciting to help chart their courses with natural capital on the table.

There are 14 countries in Africa that are partners of the WWF Africa program, and they’re all interested in adopting these natural capital and ecosystem approaches.


You’re the vice-chair of the Future Earth science committee. I feel like I should know this already, but I don’t. What exactly is Future Earth?


Don’t feel bad if you don’t know anything, nobody really does, even the people like me who are involved in it are only now starting to get to grips with it. At the moment, Future Earth is still taking shape. It’s an attempt to mobilize thousands of scientists around the world to address some of the big challenges around sustainability, such as climate change, biodiversity loss, poverty.

We’re seeing big funders coming together and collaborating across national boundaries and asking “What should we be funding?” We’re coming up with research priorities. The Natural Capital Project would be a great addition to the work of Future Earth, joining some of the projects already moving into Future Earth.

Stacey Solie is the Communications Lead at The Natural Capital Project.



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