It almost broke my heart when I resigned as a member from the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa last week.
It was not a decision I took lightly. Prior to making this decision I entered into extensive correspondence with WESSA management to try resolve the issue, and yesterday (post resignation) I had a meeting with the WESSA CEO Thommie Burger and manager John Wesson to try find a solution to my concerns as supported by the WESSA President Richard Lewis.
How I became a member in the first place
Readers familiar with me will remember the Triwaters Tour Eco-Expedition. To achieve my goals in the expedition I had to align with a conservation organization. After extensive screening WESSA accepted my proposal and became the conservation partner for the expedition. Through their guidance I learnt about the very powerful miniSASS citizen science tool. Through various riverside talks (some arranged by WESSA, but mostly by others) the Triwaters Team encouraged riverside communities to become active custodians of their rivers.
Triwaters Tour brought significant media exposure to WESSA, including time on Carte Blanche, publication in national newspapers, in-flight magazines, national radio and international magazines.
After the expedition WESSA invited me to their AGM, where I was awarded the WESSA Award for Individuals, a coveted award, with past awards made to Dr. Anton Rupert and Dr. Ian Player.
At the AGM many folks discussed the dwindling membership numbers of WESSA and the low number of young members in the organization. I decided to become a member and give a hand.
My life as a WESSA member
I applied for membership and paid my fees mid 2015.
From that point on I started engaging with WESSA officials, trying to initiate a project that would actively involve adventurous youth in conservation, encourage the youth to become members, and promote WESSA’s image.
December 2015 I went to the Amatikulu Nature reserve on holiday, where I had a rude awakening. More on this later.
In January 2016 I finally received a membership pack apologizing for the delay in registering me. Also included was a copy of their magazine and a bumper sticker.
22 January 2016 I resigned as a member of WESSA.
My Amatikulu Holiday
Amatikulu is a small nature reserve between Richards Bay and Durban. With the severe drought there weren’t much river paddling but the Amatikulu provided a promise of estuary and ocean paddling.
A spectacular place with a pristine environment booming with biodiversity, I can recommend a visit to this park to anyone who loves nature. WESSA loves it too, and posted identification plates on many of the trees, helping me identify and learn about them.
I also visited the rural areas around the park where I engaged with the friendly folks in the surrounds.
It was during interaction with an energetic and passionate grassroots volunteer conservationalist that I was caught off-guard. After a very passionate conversation with the individual he saw the WESSA sticker on my car and mentioned it. Suddenly the tone of the conversation changed and this person became more reserved. It is not what he said, but what he did not say that worried me. He started counting his words and became careful about what he said. He never said anything bad about WESSA, but neither did he say anything good. But this story is not about him. This merely triggered my curiosity.
Tronox Fairbreeze and WESSA
After returning home from the holiday I started searching for WESSA’s history in the area. What I found shocked me. Here’s a short summary of the events as I understand it:
- Somewhere in 2012 or earlier WESSA started fiercly opposing the Exxaro/Tronox mining application to mine the dunes North of Amatikulu (Fairbreeze) for Titanium. (It is the same black stuff you see in Umhlanga beaches, and the stuff allegedly behind activists on the wild coast being assaulted)
- Pre August 2013, some time after WESSA’s fierce opposition started, Tronox paid money to WESSA.
- It seems that Tronox paid WESSA to train the local community. Tricky to say exactly what they were actually trained on. Not sure what level of freedom WESSA had in this training either, and to what extent Tronox had control over the content of the training.
- Some WESSA members demanded the money to be returned to Tronox.
- WESSA refused refunding Tronox.
- Some members resigned.
- The story hit the press. http://www.iol.co.za/news/south-africa/kwazulu-natal/wildlife-group-under-fire-over-dirty-money-1.1570676.
- WESSA denies conflict of interest, and insists that there is no problem in receiving money from Tronox.
- Tronox confirmed publicly that this funding was not a bribe to silence WESSA.
- Tronox was awarded their mining license despite WESSA’s fierce opposition.
Tronox Fairbreeze, WESSA and I
Now jump forward to 2015
- December 2015 I visit the region, not knowing anything about the mess I described above. I met a local who started counting his words around me after seeing the WESSA sticker on my car. I became suspicious.
- January 2016, on arriving home after the holiday I did research and learned the WESSA/Tronox history.
- I emailed WESSA officials, raising my concerns.
- WESSA became defensive.
- With more correspondence I drove towards addressing the problems with a goal of finding solutions.
- WESSA remained defensive.
- I escalated the matter to the CEO, Thommie Burger.
- WESSA remained defensive, suggesting a meeting in a month’s time.
- I resigned and escalated to the Chairperson of the Board, Richard Lewis.
- A meeting was scheduled within less than a week.
- 26 January, at the meeting WESSA remained defensive, I pardoned myself from the meeting.
My reasons for resigning:
- I cannot be a member of an organization that sees no conflict of interest in opposing mining applications and receiving funding from the same mine to run projects in its immediate vicinity. However, I respect WESSA’s opinion, and they are welcome to continue down this path at their own peril.
- It does not make sense that a conservation NGO/Non-Profit’s main criteria for corporate funding is that the funder must not be a “drug dealer or a child-pornography-pimp.”
- WESSA cares for its clients, but in the meeting it does not show that it cares for the people affected by mining applications opposed by WESSA.
- Getting newly signed-on members involved is somewhere between slow and non-existent.
- Members of WESSA have practically no say in the organization. Their only voice is through the appointment of two out of fourteen members of the board, and only through a hierarchy and reporting structure. It seems that officially the board does not need to entertain the voice of individual members at all.
- Corporations can become members. Seems like this will further undermine the influence of people who become members.
- WESSA admits that there may be people who are unhappy with the Tronox/WESSA saga, but they are unwilling to take corrective actions on this matter.
- Displaying a formal association with WESSA could be dangerous to me, if the same saga repeats at grassroots level in the highly unionized environment where I sometimes do volunteer work.
Requests I made to WESSA, which were declined:
- Consider a program to develop the local community around Fairbreeze to fulfill a watchdog role, measuring Tronox’s compliance to their EMP and other approved plans.
- Consider giving members a bigger voice.
- Consider stricter requirements for corporate funders.
- Consider changing the WESSA slogan from “People caring for the Earth” to “Corporations caring for the Earth.”
I would like to make it clear that I do not think WESSA is bad. I just think they are not aligned with the expectations of members and the general public anymore. I have no doubt that WESSA still has a Nett-Positive impact on the environment.
However, it has become clear to me that “People” do not carry much weight in this corporation. Corporates however, do carry weight at WESSA. Thommie Burger made it clear that this shall not change. That is why I resigned.
I wish WESSA well on their path to care for the earth. May WESSA achieve their goal in changing corporations from the inside, may they become a strong stalwart in the new Anthropocene.