Kader Asmal’s Working for Water Programme – cutting out alien invasive vegetation in water catchment areas to serve a biodiversity need, free up water and give people jobs – opened my eyes to the relationship between nature and people, conservation and job creation. It’s still the most successful job creation project in our democracy.
So I got a job working for them in the Western Cape mountains (we operated in eight areas) mountains, abseiling with chainsaws, training Xhosa women and young men from the outlying areas to cut down the “seeder” trees higher up on the mountain. It was simple, hands-on stuff, contributing to a bigger picture, and it felt good.
I then ended up working for the Ukuvuka Campaign, in response to the fires in the Cape in 2000. My brief was to come up with ways of reducing runaway shack fires on the Cape Flats and figuring out how to get fire trucks into townships to put out shack fires when there were no roads.
Dealing with the problems of over-densification and people living on top of each other in unnatural situations, I saw the damage the fires did, the burnt bodies, the hardcore side that the numbers don’t reflect. It was an intensely frustrating experience watching the same thing happen over and over again.
I tried my best to initiate proactive, education-based responses. We turned fire engines into classrooms and initiated the “Learn not to Burn” programme, focusing on behavioural change rather than spending more money on fire engines – empowering communities to respond and react to the fires themselves by training teams of firefighter volunteers.
I then had the priviledge of helping to build the Hoerikwaggo Trail by recruiting and training people from townships around the Table Mountain chain. Our job was to consolidate the 1 200km-long network of formal paths and informal trails between Cape Town and Cape Point, and create a route that people could hike, for five days and six nights, through the city wilderness.
We weren’t just building paths, we were building people. Fynbos, fyn mense.
We built the Hoerikwaggo Trail with the sweat of 350 people – most of whom had never been on Table Mountain before – over four years. By including previously excluded communities, we hoped to engender a feeling of custodianship to a mountain that was particularly vulnerable to the threat of urban expansion. We tried to make this meaningful by creating jobs, and putting food on tables.
We built all of the overnight camps using exclusively alien invasive timber, sourced off Table Mountain, thus creating more space for fynbos to grow and increasing water run-off in those areas. We also built them without bricks and cement, and tried to get most of them off grid. The result is something quite beautiful.
I was privileged enough to be awarded the SANParks Kudu Award – for promoting the philosophy of “touching the earth lightly”.
I made too much noise for only being a contract worker and not a permanent member of the team. At a day’s notice I had no job and nowhere to stay. I was cut – shattered by this as it had been my life for four years.
Touching The Earth Lightly
I was determined to continue doing what I was passionate about, so I started a company called Touching The Earth Lightly. My first job was to build a tented camp for WWF in a national forest in Cambodia. Since then I’ve narrowed the growth and development of my company to three things: conservation, design and people; and trying to find synergy around those three elements in practical, unpretentious ways.
My focus is on green design and how it can address real, socio-economic problems. How can design help prevent flooding on the Cape Flats each year? How can design meet the needs of blue-collar workers with real-life problems in a way that benefits them and their environment? From open bucket toilets in townships to runaway shack fires, we need to look at these problems as opportunities, think like socialists, and act like designers.
The backbone of the work I do is about using the opportunity of job creation to change mindset. Jobs are the only way. You can’t expect someone sitting in a township with no income to recycle. So we need to find ways, using design, to initiate these projects.
We have no greater responsibility as designers than to find creative ways for poor people to make money. In the action of working with their hands and earning money, there are opportunities to further behavioural change around living on this planet in a sensible, responsible way.
For the City of Cape Town, and then again for the Tourism Indaba in Durban, we won tenders to build a stand clad with recycled milk crates and milk bottles that showcased the concept of recycling. This was successful and led to us designing a stand for COP17 that told the story of Table Mountain’s Camissa River.
We were the only stand there that was entirely off-grid, and the surplus electricity we created we put back into the City of Durban. We got that energy from the wind and the sun. We collected all the rainwater to drink and to irrigate the 3 500 vegetables that formed the base of our stand, the seeds of which we’d planted in recycled milk bottles, and had been grown by a local women’s group in Natal five weeks earlier.
Schoolkids would come in their thousands and we’d hand these milk bottles to them, giving them three simple messages: water comes from clouds, not taps; plants come from the ground, not from shops; and you can grow your own plants in the ground with water from the clouds, and those plants will make you healthy and strong.
The stand had a natural cooling system, so unlike everybody else, we didn’t need aircon. We created a natural space, not an artificial one. We won the award for the best overall stand, as well as for the best green-designed stand.
The stands are springboards to suggest to the government how to do things differently. That eco-stand can just as easily be a classroom or a clinic. The opportunity is for the government to create an off-grid safe space, made out of recycled materials, that generates its own electricity, and that meets the needs of rural people with limited access to resources.
In the democracy of design, I see nature as the leader. We can’t improve on the simplicity and complexity of nature – we can only emulate it in a humble way by following it, by watching and listening quietly. Nature offers those opportunities freely, all the time. And so, nature is truly democratic.
A leader is a lifestyle; a way of doing things, designing things, that is in line with the principle of custodianship and respect for all things living, and how we interact with those things in a mindful way. These days a conservationist isn’t an award-winner. It’s someone who turns the lights out when they leave the room.