Monday, September 26, 2011

South Africa Day 1: Responding to Climate Change and Rural Poverty

Blog Entry #20: South Africa Day 1: Climate Change and Rural Poverty

Friday, September 23, 2011

It was hard to contain my excitement and nervousness over this day: the first “FDP” (Faculty Designed Practicum; i.e., field trip) that I had designed.  Knowing a year ago that South Africa would be hosting COP 17, the 17th U.N. Conference on Climate Change (recall the high hopes for COP 15 in Copenhagen 2 years ago) at the end of 2011, I contacted a Capetown NGO working on Climate Change issue with faith communities.

SAFCEI – the Southern Africa Faith Communities Environmental Institute – is a small non-governmental organization directed by Geoff Davies, a bishop in the South African Anglican Church (the church of Nobel Prize winner Desmond Tutu).  Although they are terribly busy preparing for COP 17, now only 2 months away (although to the disappointment of the Western Cape, the meetings will take place in Durban, rather than Capetown), many months ago SAFCEI agreed to host my field class on our first day in South Africa.

With my students & Pat heading to SAFCEI and Goedgedacht.
L-R Back: Shelbi, Anthony, Glenna, Pat, Martin, Will.
L-R Front: Rosie, Kaitlyn, Dan, Logan
Ten of us gathered on the ship shortly after we docked, gathered our passports, passed through Customs, and met Sean, our guide for the day.  A bit disoriented to begin with, driving through Capetown on the left side of the highway (British style), served to remind us we are in another country.

The Green Building
Porch of Green Building at SAFCEI
We drove south of Capetown around the backside of Table Mountain, which dominates the skyline here, to the suburb of Westlake, where SAFCEI has its offices in the new “Green Building.”  The Green Building is just what it says – a new office building constructed according to “green principles” – passive solar design and skylight lighting, local materials, etc. so that it uses only 13% of the energy of a typical office building its size.  And it is aesthetically stunning, with large open spaces, green plants, local bamboo and woods.

Bishop Geoff greeted us when we arrived, but his wife Kate, director of the Eco-Congregations program, hosted us in the morning.  We soon were sitting down to fresh muffins and coffee in the conference room, and Kate explained to us the work of SAFCEI (check out

Kate Davies, SAFCEI
Convinced that resolving South Africa’s tremendous challenges of rural poverty and inequality – the ongoing legacy of decades of apartheid – Bishop Geoff began three decades ago to encourage his fellow bishops to take environmental issues seriously, that resolving social justice and environmental sustainability must go hand in hand.

Hence at the heart of SAFCEI’s work are the twin commitments of Eco-Justice: ECOlogical Justice and ECOnomic Justice.  SAFCEI works on both policy and advocacy, at government and local levels, partnering with government institutions on energy and environmental policy, as well as fostering grassroots commitments through its innovative Eco-Congregations program.

Following Kate’s presentation, we met Liz McDaid, the Climate Change policy coordinator for SAFCEI.  She gave us an excellent overview of energy policies in South Africa, and the challenges of transforming an economy largely run by the “mineral industrial complex” – think diamonds, mining, and coal – to one run by sustainable energy.  South Africa has tremendous potential in this area, with vast solar, wind, and wave energy potential, but coal continues to dominate energy generation.  In fact, just recently the South African government signed on with the World Bank to build the world’s second largest coal-fired generating plant, a big step back in the context of global climate change.

Entrance to Goedgedacht
After our morning with SAFCEI, Kate & Geoff’s daughter Christen, a graduate student at the nearby Sustainability Institute in Stellenbosch, accompanied us to Goedgedacht, (, an extraordinarily innovative rural project working on what it calls an “olive agenda” of green and brown issues: helping rural children to escape poverty and social injustice while also preparing agriculture for the warming and drying climate that already is impacting South Africa.

Looking South to Cape Point from False Bay

We drove a couple hours north from Westlake, initially along the stunning beaches of False Bay where we could look to the right to see Cape Point where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet, and to the left over acres and acres of the township shantytowns where the black population was forcibly removed from Capetown under apartheid.

Vineyards near Stellenbosch
Then we traversed the wine country around Stellenbosch, with fields of vineyards nestled beneath the stunning Hottentots Holland mountain range to the east.  This region brings back childhood memories for me of growing up in California’s oldest winery region when vineyards still nestled the San Gabriel mountains of my youth – now, sadly, long gone.

We eventually reached Goedgedacht, where we were greeted with a delicious lunch made entirely from products grown on the farm.

One of the many innovative things Goedgedacht has done is to create a “Climate Path” designed for schoolchildren to walk through the farm and learn about climate change and how we can prevent it.  After sampling a medicinal tea made from local plants, we walked the path ourselves, which also took us through the organic garden where they are working to implement elements of permaculture and biodynamic farming.

Children in the Paths Out of Poverty After School Program
The “brown” part of Goedgedacht’s mission is the POP program: Paths Out of Poverty – and extensive afterschool program in several locales where they work with children to give them nutrition, but also to prepare them to be leaders for the future.

Pat at the main Farmhouse, Goedgedacht
Garden at Goedgedacht

We were all struck by Goedgedacht’s long-range vision: preparing the leaders of tomorrow with the agricultural technologies and crops that will be needed in this region in the future if it is to cope successfully with climate change.  The predictions are that Africa as a continent will be affected up to 200 times in intensity the effects of warming and climate change than the more moderate (but still serious) effects we can expect in much of North America.

While governments stall and procrastinate, leadership in preparing for this is taking place at the grassroots level in many places and ways.  But as Kate Davies reminded us, much of what Southern Africa will face in coming years is being shaped by policies – or the lack of them – coming our of our Congress.  “Surely there must be some reasonable people in your House of Representatives?” she asked?  Perhaps time will tell.

1 comment:

  1. How hopeful to hear of all of these long-term efforts in South Africa -- and how frustrating to know so much of the success of their work depends on finding similar long-range vision in the US Congress...