Where recruits jump for job joy
Outreach project does more than check up on frogs, it provides skills and protection of natural heritage systems. By Myrtle Ryan
CHERISE Acker-cooper, 40, and her team have trained more than 80 community members in a variety of skills: as herbicide operators clearing alien invasive plants; in occupational health and safety; as specialist frog guides; or officers collecting data on the biodiversity of specific areas.
But how do they go about selecting candidates?
“We have a very robust selection system,” said Acker-cooper, who works with the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Threatened Amphibian Programme. This outreach does not just deal with creatures that go croak in the night but encompasses many environmental aspects.
“We work closely with various authorities which recommend people who are seeking work in an area. They then undergo a three-stage interview process,” she says.
The would-be recruits are given insight into how wetlands function, then tested on the general knowledge they have assimilated, as well as their practical skills, culminating in a one-on-one interview.
Those chosen then serve as local environmental champions and are able to gain support from the community.
“To enable positive social change, we need to be people-centred and build healthy relationships based on mutual respect, integrity and tolerance,” said Acker-cooper.
She finds the most positive response comes from the older generation. “I think this is due to traditional knowledge systems and past knowledge of the state of natural heritage systems.
“The younger generation needs more intensive engagement strategies to deepen their understanding of the value of natural heritage systems – what they should look like and how they can benefit and support society.”
Various team members are based in satellite offices around Kwazulu-natal. Acker-cooper, while situated in the emanzimtoti area, covers ethekwini and Ilembe. She has worked in the environmental field for 20 years, and has experience in environmental science, education and social change. Energy, water, waste, climate change and biodiversity have all claimed her attention. But her speciality is engagement strategies and the facilitation of social change within environmental programmes.
Part of her task is to deal with traditional leaders. She believes all people have embedded, inherent knowledge of the environment, be they at the top, or lower down the totem pole. Understanding different views, and being consistent when engaging with people is crucial to success.
Alien plant eradication is an ongoing problem. “It requires consistency and massive economic resources with little economic return,” she says.
However, it does provide mass job opportunities within the government sector, with the spin-off of reclaiming key biodiversity areas. Sadly, the lack of economic returns, outside specialist small to medium enterprises, makes it difficult to gain community commitment. Nevertheless, there is a positive response towards the environment, especially when a project meets team member’s social needs.
A typical day for Acker-cooper and the three members of the programme is hectic. They spend hours in the field, but also have to process data and compile reports. Problems are best resolved (and most effective) when taken in conjunction with stakeholders, she says.
Frogs are a flagship. As Red Data species, they are used to address broader environmental issues such as wetland degradation and habitat loss.
“The basic message is if frog existence is under pressure, so are humans. We need to reclaim and secure frog habitat… ultimately, this means an environment which will ensure the survival of human beings.”
Lindelani Ndlovu, herbicide officer in Isipingo.
Thulani Sibiya, biodiversity officer at ilembe, studies a frog.
Ian Little, senior habitat manager and EWT’S Cherise Acker-cooper studying an amatola toad.