Grassroots Ecological Economics in South Africa
Article by Wayne Visser
South Africa’s recent political transformation is like a hard won gift which keeps giving, and the environment is one of its greatest beneficiaries. For example, South Africa is now one of the few countries in the world to have the environment enshrined in its Constitutional Bill of Rights, according to which:
“Everyone has the right:
(a) to an environment not harmful to their health or wellbeing; and
(b) to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures that:
(i) prevent pollution and ecological degradation;
(ii) promote conservation; and
(iii)secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development.”
From this basic premise has flowed a stream of national policy reforms, culminating in a host of new and emerging environmental legislation, including, for example, the Environmental Management Bill, Water Bill, and Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations. As important as the results of these, has been the multi-stakeholder participative process followed.
On the Agenda
Fortunately, the role of economics in this environmental revisioning process has been included on the political agenda. Towards the end of 1993, the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism established an Environmental Resource Economics Steering Committee, which issued a number of discussion documents on the use of economic instruments in environmental management. More recently, a discussion document on “A National Strategy for Integrated Environmental Management in South Africa” was released which contains a whole chapter on market-based instruments, covering the following items:
Resource charges, non-consumptive user charges, pollution charges, product charges, land-use charges, input charges, investment credits, accelerated depreciation, product/service subsidies, basic needs subsidies, tradable permits, tradable quotas, tradable shares (resource shares), deposit refund system, environmental performance bonds, green funds and environmental valuation.
The implementation of these various concepts remains to be seen, although they are already finding expression in the anticipated changes to the water laws. In essence, South Africa will be moving towards a “true cost” pricing of water (to reflect its scarcity and ecological value) and effluent charges will increasingly be linked to levels of pollution. In addition, to address the “tragedy of the commons” and inequitable access currently associated with the country’s water resources, the practice of riparian rights will be replaced by a system of regulated water leasing (amidst much political and commercial controversy).
Hence, at least in theory and partially in practice, environmental resource economics has secured a sound basis on which to justify its importance in the national macro-policy arena. That is good news, but not the whole story.
A New Perspective
What interests me equally is the way in which ecological economics is finding applications at a grassroots level – especially in local communities, and among South Africa’s most marginalised people.
This is as important, if not more so, than the government-led national policy initiatives. It is what will decide whether protection of the environment can escape its historical “white, colonial, nice-to-have” image and become a relevant developmental movement enjoying the support of the wider …
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Cite this article
Visser, W. (1998) Grassroots Ecological Economics in South Africa. The Ecological Economics Bulletin, Fourth Quarter.