There are many ways to engage with the current rash of applications to explore for oil and gas.  The legislated process demands that public meetings are held with those affected by the application.  There have been many meetings held in the KZN Midlands recently, and more are scheduled in Northern KZN, Free State and North West this month.

Generally, the meetings have been lively, with very vocal opposition to the applicant and consultants, as has been recorded in these articles:

There have been a number of articles and letters published in local papers around the issue of appropriate participation – clearly different folk have different ideas about what is appropriate.  It is worth recording extracts of the various opinions.

In the Village Talk on 12 Feb,  Denis Sterling wrote: “The anti-fracking meeting last week was once again a takeover by the rent-a-crowd…. Certain people were asked to come up with their questions and some people did, however the objectors didn’t stop.  Eventually, I told these hecklers to ‘shut up’ as there were many people in the audience who wanted to hear what Rhino Oil & Gas had to say. ..The meeting was a disgrace.”

Audience asksquestions at Rhino Oil & Gas meeting

A week later, The Midlands Conservancies Forum also wrote about this issue: Much Ado About Fracking “It must be made clear that the MCF does not concur with, nor subscribe to some of the reports that have emanated from various protesting factions, nor the boorish way in which the ‘activists’ conducted themselves. There was no doubt that a vast majority of attendees were ANTI any disturbance and/or incursion in the rich bio-diverse area of the Midlands. There were, however, many  who hoped to gain a better understanding of the process and procedures involved. Sadly, due to the orchestrated and unnecessary behaviour of some individuals present, the information sought from SLR consulting and the Rhino Oil and Gas team was thwarted. The MCF and the majority of its Conservancy affiliates do not condone the ‘grandstanding’ and some of the tactics that were a dominating feature of the meetings.”

The Midlands Herald on the 19 Febuary reported on the meeting held at Howick West Hall ending with “This newspaper feels there was far too much vocal interaction from the floor to the point that some of the representatives were unable to communicate. The floor had long since made it’s point, but continued to take the meetings to depths that were just plain rudeness.”

A common refrain was that audience were somehow organised, not made up of individuals. Notices about meetings were publicised widely and anyone invited to attend. Some clearly arrived determined to make a noise, others with their questions quietly prepared.

The newspaper articles quoted above, prompted some replies which were also published.

Paul Van Uytrecht wrote: “Why does Mr Sterling think that some of the attendees constituted a “rent-a-crowd”? Because they were black? Does he not believe that black people can be passionate about environmental issues?”

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Liz Taylor wrote: “It is clear that the MCF are anti-fracking but that they felt that certain activist groups were disruptive and boorish in their protestations and denied Philip Steyn an opportunity to present his side of the story at these meetings.

If you are told ‘We are sending the authorities to rape your land and take away your children’s future, but please sit down respectfully and listen to us, because this is how it is going to be done.’  What do you feel? How do you react?   We have all heard stories from around the world of how the process unfolds  – Big company, linked to government, arrives, mines the resources, a few people get rich. The environment is left destroyed (eg. acid mine drainage) and 30 years down the line, who is going to be accountable for any damage done?

The frustrated and angry protesters erupted out of a deep sense of being tricked, of being forced to listen to something that was extremely distasteful, morally wrong and quite frankly arrogant. Each sentence that was uttered by Philip Steyn, Matthew Hemming or Naomi Padyachee about economic prospects and job creation was repugnant and full of twisted facts – it was beyond the community’s control not to burst out with loud and indignant protestations.

The veneer of well organised democracy at the meetings belying the underlying manipulative messages that we were being asked to swallow. We couldn’t swallow them. Some shouted out in horror at what we were being fed.”

Nikki Brighton wrote: “The public meetings are just part of the process. The mining company and consultants are not really interested in people’s opinions – all they have to do is hold a meeting.   While the anger may have distressed some, one greying man was overheard saying “If we are obedient and polite we are not going to get anywhere, anyway.”  Plenty of questions were asked at the meetings, perhaps Mr Sterling did not stay long enough to hear the vague answers the audience was given?  Someone raised the point that SLR Consultants had not answered any of the questions sent to them in writing.   The application for an exploration permit invites the public to participate and ask questions, but clearly, proper answers are not required.  So it is not hard to understand the frustration of many in the audience.  As someone pointed out, people of the Midlands are active, well informed and concerned citizens who have researched the impacts that exploration for oil and gas could have on lives, livelihoods and vulnerable ecosystems.  The large contingent of confident young people at each meeting was cause for celebration. This is something to be proud of – the fact that our neighbours will stand up for the environment on which we all rely.”

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The Witness published this article by Alleyn Diesel after the first round of meetings last year in November:

“The article A Moment of Truth by Louine Boothway (Witness 27.11.2015) highlights the decisive moment for “disruptive capacity” and “transgression” against “systems which have come to threaten our very existence on Earth”, specifically the proposals for fracking vast areas of KZN Midlands by U.S. based company Rhino Oil and Gas.

…..

Wide-scale environmentally destructive action is a crime, not just against humanity, but against all life on this fragile planet, our only home and perhaps the only planet in the entire universe inhabited by highly-evolved, rational, ethically-aware beings – the consequences of this that we are under a categorical imperative to respect other rational beings, as well as all life.

A threat of this magnitude with the potential to decimate the Earth as we know and love it, demands major disruptive transgressive activism – vigorous campaigning and confrontation of forces hostile to our survival. “We will not tolerate this injustice!”

However, there are some remarkable precedents for radical, powerfully symbolic offensives from the fairly recent past, employed by women campaigning for global justice, that could have contemporary relevance.

For nineteen years from 1981, the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp in Berkshire, UK, embarked on a protest initiated by a Welsh group, Women for Life on Earth, against the British Government’s decision to allow nuclear cruise missiles at an American base. The women camped outside the base, where they devised creative solutions to thwart the operating of the base and to expose the lies of the government about the safety of nuclear weapons, thus changing the nature of peaceful protest in a warped society. They frequently mustered groups of thirty to eighty thousand to encircle the entire base, they lay down across the road leading to the base blocking the path of missile-laden trucks, and on New Year’s Eve 1982 cut the fence and entered the area dressed as teddy bears to emphasise the need to safeguard the future for generations of children. They lit candles, wrote poems and songs.

In the 1970s, protestors embarked on innovative activism against the dumping of nuclear toxic waste adjacent to a residential area in New York State near the Love Canal, where polluted groundwater caused alarming health problems, although government spokesmen assured there was no danger. They organised marches with posters, petitions, and street theatre, publically burning effigies of the responsible state officials. Careful documenting of all developments allowed informed challenges to be published. On one occasion they held officials hostage until they agreed to engage with protestors.

A disruptive protest in 1980s southern California at the Stringfellow Acid Pits, a liquid toxic-waste dump, arranged weekly deliveries of barrels marked POISON to government offices, and presented a plate of “algae cookies” made with the waste water to officials who had claimed that this was safe for human consumption.

In 1973 in India the Chipko protestors – “Tree Huggers” – linked arms to protect trees from chainsaw gangs felling indigenous forests, when the government granted rights to an international sports company. They coined the slogan, “Ecology is permanent economy”.

There is an increasing urgency for a respectful, symbiotic relationship between humans and the earth, acknowledging humans as one part of the fragile web of life. This challenges the traditional assumption that humans and nature are separate, often in conflict, striving to own and control Nature, exploiting its resources to satisfy human needs.

We need to revolutionise our thinking about the Earth and its finite resources, brought to the verge of collapse, acknowledging that humans are not superior to the rest of nature, that all life is interdependent, and our responsibility to do all in our power to protect its integrity.”

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Public participation means exactly that.  Everyone is entitled to have their say.  From those who shout loudly, to others who mutter ‘this is a dog show’ and individuals who simply take over the microphone and job of translation from the facilitators.  That the manner of expression varies from person to person simply makes the debate richer and, hopefully, ensures that the general anti-exploration voice is heard loud and clear.

Pia Sanchez “I am disturbed by the criticism of the protesters.  It’s crucial for people to publicly demonstrate opposition to any threat to our environment and this should be expected at any meeting proposing such destruction.  We can only triumph if community activists join hands and demonstrate the power of people.”

Pandora Long ” Obviously, some members of the audience (who are critical of others) have not struggled for a personal freedom or undergone a long and hard struggle to realise that no authority will defend our water or our land, it is up to us.  They still need to realise that NO-ONE will take up the fight for us, that is what we need to do in whatever way we can.

The story that needs to be told is how we were treated at these meeting, talked ‘down-to’ and ‘put in our place’ by both the facilitator and members of the Rhino and SLR team. I have never witnessed such disrespect and inability on the part of trained facilitators to understand and practice proper participation processes including the listening skills required for this kind of engagement. What happens when you don’t feel heard?  What happens when you don’t feel recognised?  What happens when your own intelligences are made to be inferior?  What happens when you are disconnected from the very processes that are suppose to be in place to ensure your voice?”

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Public Participation?

2 thoughts on “Public Participation?

  • March 3, 2016 at 2:02 pm
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    Remember that we are all affected by this application, not only the users and owners of the land in the target zone. Our lives and livelihoods are at risk. We all have to respond in the way we see fit and stop it we must, no matter where it is proposed! When it comes to extraction of fossil fuels, there is no “far away”.

    Reply
    • March 16, 2016 at 3:14 pm
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      Than you Judy, for your commitment to keeping our country Frack Free.

      Reply

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