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Durban - One of the country’s oldest conservation groups has come under fire for accepting “dirty” funding from a major mining group, and for cutting back on its watchdog role because of funding shortfalls.
Several members of the 87-year-old Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (Wessa) have urged the society to return a R56 000 sponsorship to the Tronox group.
Tronox is building a major opencast mine next to the Zululand town of Mtunzini and neighbouring Umlalazi Nature Reserve, while its parent corporation has left a 70-year trail of radioactive waste and chemical pollution across large parts of the US.
Wessa has also scaled back its environmental watchdog role in KwaZulu-Natal because it cannot afford the salaries of full-time staff to critique up to 400 environmental impact assessments (EIAs) a year.
News of the Tronox sponsorship emerged in a mining company newsletter which hinted at further “co-operation opportunities” with Wessa, raising the ire of members who fear this could weaken the society’s independence.
Bridget Johnsen, a senior Western Cape member, has announced her resignation, in protest over the donation and partly because of a conflict of interest between her Wessa membership and that of another environmental group which is planning legal action to stop Tronox mining at Mtunzini.
Johnsen agreed Wessa could accept funding from mining and petrochemical companies, but there were unique circumstances in this case and many Wessa members felt “betrayed”.
The sponsorship came at a time when Wessa was appealing against the Tronox environmental authorisation for its proposed mine at Mtunzini. It was also the first time Tronox had offered money to Wessa, which had been accepted without the transparency required for similar controversial donations in the past.
“It is about the timing and lack of transparency. We warned them (the Wessa management and board) about being compromised… that this looks like a bribe. It’s like taking 30 shekels of silver. I feel very strongly Wessa’s authenticity is placed in peril in this case.”
But senior Wessa officials have defended the decision to keep the money and denied independence would be compromised. Chief operations officer Mike Ward said the issue of corporate sponsorships was debated recently by the Wessa board after questions from Johnsen and other members.
The board repeated its long-standing policy to “accept donations/sponsorships from any organisation as long as they are not involved in illegal drugs or child abuse”.
“The rationale behind this policy is that it is impossible to know where to draw the line between companies which are acceptable, in terms of their environmental impact, and those which are not. It is also more beneficial to build a relationship with an organisation and decrease their environmental impact.
“In negotiations with companies it is always stated that Wessa retains the right to criticise that company’s environmental behaviour,” he said.
“Rather than paint ourselves into a corner where we are unable to accept any funding at all, and to avoid the potentially endless discussions on where to draw the line, Wessa has a policy to accept the money and focus our attention on the best possible use of that money to achieve our mission.”
Ironically perhaps, the Tronox money was to sponsor a series of Wessa courses to empower ordinary members of the public to engage in the complex EIA process.
In KwaZulu-Natal, Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa staff have played a vital watchdog role over developers, by scrutinising EIA applications.
“Corporates are not keen to fund work around EIAs,” said Ward.
“It’s a real dilemma. We were among the last NGOs (non-government organisations) fighting the EIAs in a big way.”
Di Dold, who chairs the Wessa-affiliated Coastwatch group, said she was worried developers would “run riot” if NGOs no longer had the capacity to scrutinise projects thoroughly.
On Thursday night Tronox dismissed suggestions that its sponsorship was intended to “buy off” Wessa.
“Tronox is an active sponsor for a large number of educational organisations in Zululand, including other organisations in Mtunzini. This activity falls within Tronox’s corporate social investment strategy mandate and Tronox will continue to identify and facilitate support for institutions influenced by its operations under this mandate,” it said.
The company said Wessa’s request for sponsorship created an opportunity for Tronox to make a “meaningful contribution and we are positive our investment into the EIA training facilitated by Wessa will positively assist in educating the public and other role players on their right to contribute meaningfully to decision-making in EIAs”.