Getting To Know Coastal Community Engagement Champion Neville Van Rooy And His Journey To Protecting The Earth And Empowering Communities
The Green Connection has achieved excellent results in supporting and empowering communities to stand up for their environmental rights. The key to this success sits with the passionate and dedicated Community Outreach Coordinator, Neville van Rooy. Christy Bragg spoke to him about what keeps his fire burning, his interest to protecting the earth, and his travel journey.
What Work Did You Do Before You Worked With The Green Connection?
I worked with the Support Centre for Land Change, supporting farmworkers and working with land issues, emerging farmers, and food gardens. I also gained a lot of experience working for Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (SAFCEI) on the Karoo fracking issues.
Where Is Home For You And What Is A Typical Day For You At Work?
I was born in Eastern Cape.
Most of my days are spent travelling to different coastal communities. When I arrive at my destination, I usually go to the sea and spend some time chatting with fisherfolks. The next days usually consist of formally engaging with community leaders, members and fisherfolks through having meetings and workshops. These meetings can take place on the stoeps, over a pot of tea, or in community halls. Some stakeholders and potential partners, like tourism or nature conservation authorities attend these meetings. Our goal for these meetings is to stimulate networking and agreement. It means that a lot of the time we are helping to solve conflict, and find working solutions. The next day I might spend the morning doing interviews with the media, either on radio or television. Other days consist of attending meetings with The Green Connection team via Zoom. Along with planning meetings, engagements, events or protests with our partners specifically, South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA), Masifundise, Eastern Cape Environmental Network (ECEN) or working with The Green Connection Legacy Programme participants and champions.
Why Do You Do This Work?
I have a passion for people and nature. I love to work with people from different walks of life and I aspire to protect natural resources, and make sure they are not harmed. From a cultural perspective, we know that indigenous people are connected to nature and have healthy interactions with it. My interest for people and the environment led me to study Theology. Along with a Game Ranger and Tourist Guide studies.
Do You Have A Special Bond For The Sea?
Oh yes indeed. The ocean is key to my heart. When I was very young, my mother was a domestic worker with a family in Seapoint and we would often go the beach with them. I also spent some time in Gansbaai in the Overberg, which is a small fisher’s village. I came to understand the fishing communities’ livelihood challenges through my time there.
How Do You Encourage People To Stand Up For Their Rights? How Would You Advise Other NGOs To Communicate With The Community?
One of the most important things to understand is that community people are tired of NGOs and other organizations approaching them with promises, creating hype and then not coming back. The Green Connection operates differently. We find assistance for communities, or connect them with possible assistance. Thus, creating credibility and trust. People know that we are behind them. Some community members do not know their rights. This may lead to officials and companies bullying communities. We believe in empowering people to know their rights. Therefore, we teach communities to take a stand for their rights, and we help them find creative ways of taking a stand. It also builds credibility when we ask them to speak on the radio about their issues, amplifying their stories. Although we cannot be there for every meeting, they can implement what we have taught them and have the power to stand up for themselves.
It is important to build relationships and earn community member’s trust. I have learnt from years of experience with other organizations that you have to approach each community differently. You can’t treat them all the same, the problems and conflicts are different and hence the strategies and approaches will be different. It cannot be anything but a long term process of ongoing communication and talking, in the form of a journey to resolve issues. Many of the issues are very sensitive and one has to tread cautiously too.
What Is The Secret Behind Your Energy?
I have to manage my energy carefully to avoid burnout. I make sure I get a lot of sleep, and take breaks, when I get exhausted. The Green Connection Strategic Lead, Liz McDaid understands the challenges associated with this work, particularly as one sometimes needs to change plans quickly or be available at short notice for crisis. We don’t know what Monday will bring.
We have a system where I take breaks when things are quiet. I have found that my energy and major learning comes from the communities themselves, I have received a lot of value from working with communities. The people are my school of experiences. As much as they learn from us, we learn from them.
What Makes You Happy?
I am fulfilled when I see the community gaining confidence in raising their voices and taking on their rights, all the way up to court cases. I am delighted to see people own their struggle, become champions in their community for their struggle, to see people elevated from a shy individual to being out and about and talking to the media.
What Makes You Unhappy?
The lowlights are when people get divided along petty political agendas and don’t see the bigger picture. It is hard to watch government not respecting the rights of communities, nor even listening to them.
Where To Next?
I would really like to see National recognition of community voices, to build the case for environmental protection and secure livelihoods. Perhaps a programme on National television on the need for environmental justice. This could be a series based on communities talking about their needs and lives, the need to protect the environment which they depend upon. We need to grow the platform to have people’s voices brought to light.
Written By: Christy Bragg
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