Save Our Limpopo Valley Environment: A 5-stage-plan to engage with decision makers

Often, activists need to persuade decision makers to make decisions that reflect the needs and wants of the community they represent – instead of making decisions that benefit others, like large companies. This is something SOLVE are experts at: engaging with decision makers, even if it’s difficult, and it always requires various stages.

SOLVE is a community based environmental activism organisation based in Louis Trichardt (Makhado, South Africa), engaging with locals and decision makers for environmental justice. Currently, SOLVE is campaigning to stop the development of South Africa’s next “Coal belt” and instead, to unlock the potential of an eco-economy by working together with the indigenous communities in the region. David is an environmentalist with a passion for community engagement and is part of the Save Our Limpopo Valley Environment (SOLVE) organisation, below he shares SOLVES multi multi-layered approach.

Step 1: Understand the people, understand the context in which everything is happening. At start, we study and research the issue we are challenging: Who are the affected people? Then we go to the communities, inform them about the plans. It’s crucial to go out to the different communities and explain to them what the impact of such a project is, because in the public participation meetings, the project developers always sell the project as a benefit to the community, they talk about the jobs that will be created in the community, and that automatically attracts people. So we try to bring a different perspective. We make sure that the community is informed and well prepared for the public participation meetings and can use the opportunity to get heard.

Step 2: Build the narrative together so it fits the audience and make sure to not over promise. Together with the communities we develop a campaign narrative which creates empathy on the local impacts. When we go to these communities, the first thing is to tell them that we are an NGO, we are not not for profit, we do not have any money, but what we bring to the table is knowledge and experience that we have on how to work in political arenas. And from there on once they engage with us, that is when we share our knowledge on how to translate the message to fit the audience.

Step 3: Go public. Then we go on our social media and write about the project or the campaign that we are dealing with. From there, we engage with our local newspapers and local radio stations. We notify them of the challenge that we’re facing, what’s going on and what as an organisation, what we stand for and what we’re doing. And luckily, we usually do get that coverage.

Step 4: Identify the agents and targets of the policy change – know your allies and enemies. So then we call out the policymakers, and we invite them to come, engage with us and meet the people affected. If they don’t want to, then it’s time for drastic action. We protest and demonstrate an action. We at least try to force them to come to the table and engage with us.

Step 5: And that fails, we go to the court systems. Our judiciary system still works and is still very efficient. So once we do get there, then they are forced to engage with us. And once they do, most of the time, we end up achieving what we set out. It might not be 100% and there might be some concessions and some compromises, but we achieve our goals.”

Deep Dive: Stopping a coal mine from opening.

“We successfully stopped a coal mine from opening in our region. We heard through the grapevine that they were holding public participation meetings, to engage with the stakeholders, as required by law in South Africa. And from there, we started voicing our objections. These objections were totally ignored, as you would expect. Because governments stand to benefit from these types of projects.

We organised a protest march at the provincial head offices where the authorisation for the coal mine was given, wrote an article, a newspaper article, voicing out all of our grievances, and a colleague sent them out to the investors and also sent it out to the local and regional press. Timing is crucial and our timing was perfect, as that article ended up in the national newspapers, because we were in the midst of a water crisis.

And they want to bring in a project that is water intensive, water hungry. This ultimately hit the company hard, and the share price plummeted quite a bit. And that was the final straw that broke the camel’s back. And we stopped that mine before we even went to the courts (we had already opened the review process to challenge the environmental impact of the environmental authorization) because of the newspaper and public attention that we were able to build up around the project, the investors saw that it was no longer worth their investment. So we won.”