The Garden Route Trust - Community Development and Upliftment
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The Garden Route Campaign for Sustainable Development:

A Retrospective Analysis presented by Jenny Lawrence at a Congress on “Policies and Practices supporting Sustainable Development in Sub-Saharan Africa” held in Abidjan November 1998


The Garden Route Campaign has been carried for the last three years by a small group of dedicated volunteers from the area. Their commitment is based on the fundamental principle underpinning the Campaign’s activities: that is, to create a link between the socioeconomic development of our local communities and the need for environmental protection. This principle has united the various activities of the Campaign, including protest action against insensitive developments and participation in governmental land-use planning and legislative processes. It’s implementation requires the consideration of three inter-linking pillars of sustainable development in the Garden Route, which are the need for environmental protection, the sustainable creation of employment opportunities, and the imperative for educating the public about the inter-relationships between the natural environment, economic growth and social well-being. The engagement with these principles has occurred from local level, through provincial and national, to the international community via conference presentations, and then back to the local. This cycle has proven invaluable in the learning experience for all who have participated that the Campaign. What has been achieved is a significant raising of awareness of the principles of Sustainability as guidelines for development of an ecologically sensitive biosphere.


The Garden Route Campaign was conceived to contribute to community development and the protection of the environment. Throughout, it has been driven by a group of dedicated individuals, whose involvement was motivated by their commitment to making a difference by These activities have been of a variety of sorts, but their underlying principle has been consistent: to create a link between the need for environmental conservation and the upliftment of the poor communities in the area. This paper aims to analyse in a critical manner the activities, experiences and effects of the Campaign.

To place the Garden Route Campaign in its national context, we are looking at the New South Africa within the first four years of its newly fledged democracy. It is a society in transition following more that fifty years of oppression under a political system that divided communities, favoured a small white minority and disregarded the rights of the vast majority of its people. The consequences of those dark years are now facing us as we grapple with the almost insurmountable backlog of inadequate housing, schooling and healthcare facilities, to name but three of the many serious problems. There is still an expanding rift between the very rich and the very poor at both extremes, with a relatively small, troubled and insecure middle class floundering in between. What lies ahead is a long and difficult path of healing, reconciliation and re-balancing.

With the transition of 1994, the new government committed itself to a fundamentally different way of governing. Gone were the days when government bureaucracies ruled supreme and local communities had no say in their affairs. By means of a variety of initiatives, the most well-known of which is the Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP), the government sought to allow for public participation in legislative and administrative procedures, primarily at the local level. Only due to this change, which was initiated from central government, was it possible for us to engage with local decision-making processes to affect outcomes and motivate other communities to do the same.

Within the context of our New South Africa, there is no place for a rabid insistence upon the preservation of green areas without taking careful cognisance of the real and overwhelming social challenges facing us all. Ironically, it would appear that those who are comfortably ensconced within the trappings and privileges of our consumer society might agree with these sentiments but find it difficult to cross the threshold into the real work of community building. We appeal to those who have benefited materially as the previously advantaged sector of the South African community not to be tempted to believe that we know best when it comes to our natural heritage. It is worth considering that the true cultural heritage and richness of our country lies hidden in that simple and profound word “Ubuntu”. What has warmed my heart many times during this challenging three year period has been the extraordinary wealth of goodwill and generosity of spirit that abides in our so called “other communities” despite their ongoing hardships. It is my personal belief that caring for the Earth begins with caring for our fellow human beings.

The Challenges facing the Garden Route

The “Garden Route” is the colloquial name given to a coastal region stretching about 150 to 200 km in the east of the Western Cape Province. It is an area of outstanding natural beauty and ecological diversity, which is known world wide as a popular tourist destination. Apart from its crystal clear sea and clean white beaches, it is blessed with two majestic mountain ranges, the Outeniqua and the Tsitsikamma, which provide a stunning backdrop to the rich variety of wild flower and indigenous forest vegetation from which the area derives its name. More than fifty years ago the first attempts were made to have the whole coastline declared a National Heritage Area worthy of rigorous protection. Since then, many organisations, most notably the South African National Parks under the then leadership of Dr. Robbie Robinson, have pursued this objective to little avail. There has been a gradual deterioration of the landscape over the years. Initially, the causes for this were the arbitrary building of holiday homes and the encroachment of commercial pine forestation and monoculture farming. More recently, much damage has been caused by a wave of speculative structural development in the form of cluster housing, hotels, casinos and golf courses. What has been lacking throughout has been an adequate land-use plan to ensure that minimal damage to the natural environment is caused.
Along the Garden Route there are a number of small coastal towns. The centres of these towns are comprised predominantly of affluent, white housing. Surrounding these centres are ever-expanding communities of previously and still disadvantaged people who live on the periphery of the local economic activity. Between these urban nodes are what may be described as agricultural or rural communities made up in a similar way between the rich and the poor. Until recently there has been little meaningful social or political interaction between these sectors, the disadvantaged people being simply employed by the more advantaged landowners.

What has caused great frustration for many Garden Route residents is that local authorities have allowed many real estate developments to go ahead, which have significantly damaged the environmental quality of the area, in terms of biodiversity, ecological function and aesthetic beauty. The purported reasons for allowing these developments have been the enhancement of local economic activity and the creation of jobs. However, it is our contention that many of the thus allowed developments have been counter-productive in this respect. This is because the predominant source of economic activity in the Garden Route is tourism. This tourism relies primarily on the natural assets of the region. Already, many tourists have commented on the seemingly ignorant way that we have built up this coastline. Hence, we believe, the insensitive siting and construction of golf courses, housing and other real estate developments is “killing the goose that lays the golden eggs”.

Further, many of the claims that such developments create employment opportunities are unfounded. The only time in which there is a significant use of labour is in the construction phases. Even here, however, construction firms frequently bring in cheap labour from other regions or even provinces. In this way, not only do local communities lack the benefit, but they also have to absorb this influx of single men who represent a disruption to the social fabric of the communities. This is especially so following the completion of the construction phase and the subsequent redundancy of these labourers. In most developments we have encountered there is very little real commitment to contributing to the benefit of the local community. There is little or no training of the workforce and very little of the wealth created is channeled to the community.

Sustainable Development of the Garden Route

Sustainable development is a process and not an end in itself. Its aim is to create popular awareness and supporting behaviour so that everyone allows development to proceed in such a way as to safeguard the life support systems of the planet, whilst ensuring that all citizens are enabled to meet their fundamental need for a dignified livelihood. Underlying this principle is a triple process of:
• sharing responsibility so that the social fabric is retained
• enabling effective wealth creation to continue
• ensuring that the natural and social fabrics of the planet are not damaged beyond repair (Professor Timothy O’Riordan of University of East Anglia)

The challenges alluded to in the previous section demonstrate that there are significant imbalances in terms of the way Professor O’Riordan’s three pillars of sustainable development are aligned with each other in the Garden Route.
Much inappropriate development has and still is occurring in the name of enabling wealth creation. However, there is little consideration of what the effect of these developments is on “the natural and social fabrics of the planet”.

The Garden Route Campaign has thus considered it’s main objective to appraise development proposals or land-use plans in terms of their impact on the natural environment and the social and cultural well-being of local communities who are most affected by the development. In this sense, we do not believe that there is a necessary trade-off between environmental protection and economic development. Rather, what is needed is awareness amongst developers, decision-makers and the public, as to what is a sensitive development. Such a development will minimise its negative impact on the natural environment, while maximising its sustained benefits to the local community.

In this context it has often been said that calls for the preservation of the natural environment fall on deaf ears with those who lack adequate food and shelter. However, it has been my personal experience that those who have little material wealth have a good understanding of the implications of destroying our natural world for the sake of a quick profit. Those who are not shielded from the environment by air-conditioning or under-carpet heating have demonstrated an acute awareness of the need to preserve our natural life-supporting processes.

Hence, the Campaign has relied upon three pillars to provide theoretical guidance.
The first is the fundamental need to preserve the natural environment. Only if economic development is furthered within the bounds set by the natural system will it be for the sustained benefit of the local communities. The second need is that of employment creation. The single biggest need faced by communities in South Africa is for jobs. Hence, in any appraisal of a development proposal, the Garden Route Trust would ask: how many long-term (i.e. sustainable) jobs will it create? Will it use local labour? Will it provide training? In the Garden Route these two requirements are inextricably linked: because our local economic development relies greatly on tourism, job creation will only succeed if the tourist draw-card, the area’s natural environment, is protected.
The third fundamental tenet of the Campaign is education. Only by means of education will local communities gain an appreciation of the above-mentioned interrelationship between their socio-economic wellbeing and the environment. With such an appreciation they would be well placed to participate in local decision-making procedures in a way that would benefit their community. At present, shrewd real estate developers frequently attempt to elicit support from poor communities, and hence gain local council support, by means of making monetary or infrastructure-related promises in the event of approval. Such temptations can only be counter-balanced if there is an understanding in all communities of the interrelationships between the natural environment, economic development and social stability.

However, the need for education rests not only with the disadvantaged communities. The privileged sectors of society cannot demand to preserve the natural environment for their aesthetic pleasure without considering the needs of the underprivileged. Hence, rather than engage in NIMBY-type activities only, environmental groups have a duty to consider the wider implications of their actions. Further, we have consistently referred to the wealth of knowledge and experience that exists in the underprivileged communities, from which the more affluent and educationally advantaged community can learn a great deal. The positive and reciprocal exchange of knowledge and experience is what is necessary to keep the principles of sustainability alive and practiced.

The Campaign: Activities and Lessons

Much of our early work in 1995,1996 till the end of 1997 was related to protest action against what we considered to be insensitive developments. Literally hundreds of letters were written and many meetings convened and /or attended by GRT members. Such action included the petitioning of local or provincial politicians, who were responsible for the approval of the developments in terms of land-use planning legislation. This legislation obliged the decision-makers to receive comment from the public regarding decisions relating to changes in land use. Although this legislation is from the Apartheid era and does thus not oblige the authority to consider the comment, the interim Constitution of 1993 and the new Constitution of 1996 created an atmosphere in which the public could demand for the accountability of decisions taken. Notwithstanding our formally objections, many of the developments we protested against were approved anyway. However, we feel that our raising of issues such as bio-diversity conservation, the dependence of tourism on our natural environment, and the use of local labour, was prominent in the media and in our appearance at public meetings and school presentations. It is evident from subsequent interactions with government institutions, as well as developers, that this has contributed to an awareness of the importance ofsensitive development. It is also apparent that this increased awareness has led to a variety of initiatives and organisations, which are aiding local councils making environmentally sensitive decisions.

In addition to developing a theoretical model of sustainable development as it relates to the Garden Route, as described in the preceding section, we publicised a “Responsible Development Protocol”, which was meant to guide decision-makers and other NGO’s in the appraisal of proposed developments. Inter alia, this required developments to allow for community participation in their planning and implementation and to commit to using local rather than “imported” labour. In many ways, we were making demands in terms of what was already considered good project planning and environmental management practice. Much of these concepts were contained in guidelines published by the national Department of Environment Affairs and Tourism. However, they were not legally required and hence frequently ignored. Our efforts were vindicated when, late in 1997, many of these requirements, including the need for public participation, were made mandatory for certain activities, including land use changes. Further, the Department of Environment Affairs and Tourism has formally recognised the particularly sensitive nature of the environment along the Garden Route by promulgating a set of specific regulations in terms of project appraisals. Another significant legislative process has been the development of the Coastal Management Policy, to which we have made substantial contributions. Although this policy is as yet contained only in a green paper it is already making a difference. An example of this is the way its recommendation to retain state ownership of land on the coastal strip is affecting local authority appraisals of development applications.

Of utmost importance to the Campaign has been the role of the media. For any development application that was due to go through a public participation process, we would alert the public to this process by means of the local press. If we thought that the decision making process was not transparent or accountable we would challenge the local authority as well as the developer on the grounds of the public’s constitutional right to fair and accountable decision making. In the case of one or two highly controversial and environmentally detrimental projects, we would make use of national newspapers to bring these to the wider public’s attention. Our media exposure was crowned by a prime-time television programme on World Environment Day, 5 June 1996, brilliantly documenting the threats posed to the natural environment of the Garden Route. This was an important turning point for the Campaign, as it created a ground swell of support for the cause to find more sensitive ways of developing the coastal areas of the country.

If one of our greatest successes has been the fruitful interaction with the media, then our biggest disappointment has been the problems experienced with creating an organisational base for the Campaign. This base was to be provided by the Garden Route Trust, which was to carry the Campaign forward and raise funds for it. However, it failed to do so, for a variety of reasons. These reasons are at the heart of what might be seen as some of the root causes for the lacking civil, broad-based community participation in developmental and environmental issues in South Africa. By trying to explicitly link the environmental question to that of community development, we placed ourselves in between two “camps”, which are not necessarily opposed to each other, but are in many ways exclusive and lacking in interaction. On the one hand, there are the “green” groups, made up of predominantly wealthy, white residents. On the other, there are community development groups who have the enhancement of the living conditions in the poor communities as their main objective. Due to our orientation we did not fit into any of these types of organisations. Amongst the “greens” our insistence on community development sounded too much like some kind of socialist project. For the poor communities, little support was to be gained for an environmental agenda. Commonly, environmental incentives are seen by the disadvantaged to be a smokescreen for an elitist concern to maintain white privilege. One of our main objectives was to create a link between these “camps”. However, we did not succeed in such a way that secured a sustainable inflow of funds for our activities.

The result of the successful exposure of our ideas and principles on the one hand, and the difficulty of creating a solid local support base on the other, brought about a re-orientation to focusing on our immediate surroundings. In many ways, then, we had come full circle in the three years of the Campaign. Starting with local protest action we engaged in ever increasing scales, as the awareness grew that the facilitating structures for the type of developments we were fighting existed beyond our local level. Hence, our dedicated participation in provincial planning bodies and national legislative processes. Similarly, our relationship with the media moved from local newsletters with limited distribution to the exposure to millions of TV viewers. But our level of engagement also went beyond national boundaries. By means of visiting international conventions and workshops, we have endeavoured to provide our perspective on local issues of global significance. The experiences gained at these different events have been invaluable in our work at the local level. Our interaction with South African and international activists and academics has directed, molded and cemented our understanding of what needs to be done here in the Garden Route. In our localities, we can successfully implement these lessons and spread the knowledge gained.

One example of how our re-focusing on our localities has contributed to sustainable development is the Small Boat Harbour in Plettenberg Bay. After having been initiated in typical fashion according to the principles and objectives of the developer, the wider community of Plettenberg Bay has now taken ownership of the entire process. A widely representative and legitimated steering committee has been formed, which has set up the principles and objectives of the development. With these principles in place, it is now appraising a wide variety of applications made for the implementation of the project. This is an important pilot project demonstrating that development can be initiated and managed by means of community consensus, in terms of the social, economic and environmental needs of the public, and not the narrow economic interest of the developer alone.


It is difficult to state clearly the results of our Campaign. Many of the effects of our actions are subliminal and may surface only long afterwards. However, one can safely say that the repeated exposure of our fundamental principle – the linking of community welfare and environmental protection – has contributed to a much more sensitive approach to development appraisal by local authorities and communities. There is also awareness amongst many of the local communities for the need to participate in decision-making processes. It is also the feeling of many local residents, as illustrated, for instance, in the local press, that the authorities do show more respect for public input than four years ago. At the same time, the experiences gained during the Campaign have provided invaluable lessons that can be applied in our localities. Projects such as the Small Boat Harbour and the Soetkraal Working for Water Project have gained a great deal. As such, the Campaign has contributed, together with many other initiatives, in that great learning experience called “South Africa in transformation”!


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