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

Sunday Tribune - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

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