ESG knowledge without ESG wisdom is like water in sand
There are many lessons in nature and wisdom is often found where we least expect it, writes Leon Louw, owner and editor of WhyAfrica
The environmental sustainability and ESG noise on social media have become deafening. Conservation, environmental management, and community development are suddenly trending topics. The best spin doctors use phrases like ecological restoration and biodiversity conservation lavishly to attract more ESG investment.
Green energy, renewables and sustainability continue trending on social media, topping the hashtag charts day-in and day-out. PR practitioners on the hunt for trending topics, churn out the ESG spin in a never-ending cycle of #keywords, #tag phrases and #SEO’s.
It seems that covid-19 changed more than what we had bargained for. Suddenly, multinationals, extractive industries and government officials around the world have become champions of conservation, fighting climate change in a deadly battle to the end. Overnight, CEO’s and politicians who, until about two years ago, were not always convinced about the extent of their environmental impacts, became well versed in terms like #carbonemissions, #decarbonisation, #netzero, #ESG, #ecology, and #climatechange.
Conservation in a fight to survive
The sad truth is that while social media has been abuzz with the new normal and the long-lost green credentials of the extractive industry, the real conservationists, those on the ground with the most knowledge about what we should do to mitigate our environmental footprints, are hanging on for dear life just to survive.
Indigenous communities who made a living from tourism before the onset of covid-19; scientists and researchers in national parks and nature reserves; anti-poaching units across Africa; game rangers and tour guides in the private and public sectors; and thousands of others employed in the natural sciences and in the tourism and conservation industries have been severely affected by covid-19 lockdowns and harsh travel restrictions. These are the real champions of conservation. Maybe it’s time we block out all the noise, sit in silence for a moment, admire nature, and listen to the real experts. Wisdom cannot be found on social media. In fact, the best minds in the world do not even have access to the internet.
Nonetheless, they are well versed in conservation. They instinctively know when nature’s rhythm has been disturbed. We should take time out to go and visit them, listen to them, and learn from them.
Conservation in Africa is a tough business. Protecting natural areas across the continent has a long, tumultuous, and distinguished history. In most African countries, national parks are regarded as colonial constructs and remnants of the colonial era. The early pioneers faced extreme opposition, not only from local communities, but also from politicians and expansionists. Communities had to be moved, in some cases forced from their ancestral land, to accommodate wildlife that subsequently destroyed their crops and livestock, and often took their lives.
That hasn’t changed much in modern times. In fact, conservation is arguably more difficult today than ever in its chequered history. Apart from human-wildlife conflict, poaching wildlife for the pot, and communities in need of expanding their pastures, funding is the most pressing constraint. When governments cut budgets, environmental and conservation departments are the first to feel the pinch. Covid-19 decimated government budgets and with it the industries that kept conservation alive. Without asking for it, the most important role-players in conservation got a double whammy, and it has been devastating.
Buy-in from communities needed
Yet, through it all, those involved in the protection of nature across the continent have soldiered on and managed to protect large swaths of land and biodiversity critical for the welfare of the continent and for the planet. These protected areas are phenomenal carbon sinks, and in most cases, local communities are actively involved in the management of these national parks. In some cases, they own the land. Communities eventually bought into the idea of national parks and in some African countries these areas have become lucrative money spinners (before covid-19 of course).
However, success didn’t happen overnight. In some instances, it took longer than 100 years. Management of national parks and reserves have built extremely good relationships with local communities over the years, and in the process acquired wisdom about the natural resources (wildlife, vegetation, water, and soil) they are responsible of protecting on behalf of the people of that country.
The buy-in of adjacent communities are the building blocks of successful conservation efforts. Respect for indigenous beliefs, culture and heritage is non-negotiable, and this value permeates throughout conservation organisations, whether private or public endeavours. Moreover, the battle for the hearts and minds of the local people is never won on Twitter, Instagram, Linkedin or Facebook. It is won in the shade of a huge Amarula tree on a sunny, hot day in Africa.
Companies looking to offset their environmental and social footprint should consider investing in conservation, tourism, and community development in Africa. These sectors are in dire straits after a global pandemic, and in the long term, the benefits far outweigh those of an expensive social media campaign.
Leon Louw is the founder and editor of WhyAfrica. He specialises in natural resources and African affairs.
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