Greenpeace takes on Africa

Greenpeace volunteer Tshepo Peele
sells the Greenpeace concept to passersby.
(Image:Tamara O’Reilly )

The Greenpeace ship MY Esperenza
sets sail from Rotterdam harbour, The
Netherlands bound for Cape Town, South
Africa in 2005.
(Image:Greenpeace)

The dense Congo Basin Rainforest is critical
to mitigating global warming in that part
of Africa.
(Image: Michael K. Nichols
National Geographic)

Tamara O’Reilly

Environmental watchdog Greenpeace has opened its first African office in Johannesburg, and is making no secret of its arrival.

Greenpeace activists are well known worldwide for their protests, which often involve a good measure of drama and publicity. 

The organisation made headlines in 2007 when six UK volunteers attempted to shut down a coal-fired power station in Kent, England. The members scaled a building with the intention of painting “Gordon bin it” but only managed the then Prime Ministers name before being served a high court injunction – delivered by helicopter. In Canada, activists have been waging a 10-year war to save the country’s Great Bear Rainforest, this despite numerous arrests, complaints of intimidation and even beatings.

Nomawethu Mayekiso joined the Greenpeace family, who set up home in South Africa in November this year, and while she doesn’t have any ambitions to scale buildings or be beaten, yet, as a Greenpeace volunteer she is doing her bit to help.

At the moment, that means stationing herself at shopping malls around Johannesburg to ask for contributions. It’s not very dramatic, but it gets the important job done of raising money so that an organisation like this can exist.

“Some people think I’m irritating, but I don’t care. I’ve heard so many excuses; ‘my son is an environmentalist so I don’t want to hear anything more about the environment’ or they say they are ‘rushing to the bank’. Banks are closed on Sundays. We have to be persistent because although people already know about climate change and global warming, they have this idea that ‘it’s not me doing it’ or that they will be dead anyway before the worst is here.”

The organisation has 2.9-million supporters from over 40 countries across Africa, Asia and the Pacific, Europe and the Americas.  To maintain their independence, Greenpeace does not accept donations from governments or corporations but relies on contributions from individuals. Since the volunteers began their scouting, 120 South Africans have made a financial commitment to the organisation.

This figure may seem negligible, but according to Greenpeace fundraising director Michael McTernan, the response is among the best he has seen. Greenpeace mostly tackles culprits whose activities impact on the environment, but much of the money they receive is spent on legal assistance for those affected by environmental damage.  

“It’s just been two weeks and we have managed to sign up more people in this time than when we were two weeks old in Indonesia or the Philippines. We all know it’s a difficult financial time and for so many willing to help out it really is something.”

New Zealander McTernan arrived in South Africa four months ago to begin the fundraising drive. This involves arranging canvassing spots at malls, organising publicity material, screening volunteers and making the organisation’s presence known.

Focus on Africa

A second office will be opened on 24 November in Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo and a third is earmarked for Dakar, Senegal in 2009.

“While the environmental threats facing Africans are urgent and critical, Africa is in a position to leapfrog dirty development and become a leader in helping to avert catastrophic climate change and protect the natural environment. We are here to help make that happen,” says Amadou Kanoute, executive director of Greenpeace Africa.

Although the African continent is not as bad a culprit when it comes to climate change, the region nevertheless feels the environmental, social and economic effects of modern-day industrial activities. For instance, over the past 30 years Africa has been experiencing drought, unpredictable rainfall, lower crop yields due to pollution and poor soil quality. These factors in turn lead to conflicts between governments, corporations and communities and to people migrating to non-sustainable areas.

“Tackling environmental problems in Africa is vital to ensuring a future for its children and the world as a whole,” says Gerd Leipold, executive director, Greenpeace International.

“While it is most likely to be one of the hardest and quickest hit by the effects of climate change, some of which can already be seen, Africa is also a major part of the solution. Through harnessing its renewable energy potential and protecting its tropical forests, Africa can lead the way in environmental development.”

Greenpeace has had a presence in Africa since the early 90s. It aims to continue what it started in West Africa by creating sustainable fishing and fish processing operations in this region. The activities of foreign trawlers here have affected local communities, depriving them of critical nutrition and increasing poverty and food insecurities. 

The Congo Basin Rainforest – which at more than 1-milion square miles is the second largest rainforest in the world – will be highlighted as an area more valuable intact, than for the monetary value of its wood. Around 40-million people depend on the forest for their livelihoods. Currently, the lush forest is facing rapid depletion due to poaching and logging.  

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