In November 2015, the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation (SLF) joined the Making All Voices Count (MAVC) initiative. MAVC is a global initiative that aims to promote communication, transparency and, ultimately, accountability between citizens and their governments. MAVC programmes hope to achieve this change in relationship by using technologies to improve communication, and help describe and capture tensions that may exist between citizens and government. Once captured and described, these tensions can be brought to the attention of the relevant government bodies, policy-makers, funders and other interest groups.
SLF is conducting four case studies as part of our MAVC project, each of which address a different sphere of governance. One of these cases focuses on in-depth retrospective and real-time research into the experiences and opinions of Rastafari bushdoctors (or herbalists) and conservation officials on the future use of public spaces for planting and harvesting traditional medicines. This ‘socio-ecological urban regeneration’ programme, as we have termed it, emerged out of a larger SLF-lead project called Herbanisation.
Herbanisation arose from SLF director Leif Peterson’s PhD that investigated the trade of fynbos in Cape Town, and the Western Cape more broadly. Leif’s research showed that the largest population group harvesting plant material in the City of Cape Town are Rastafari bushdoctors. He estimates that a total of 1, 100 tonnes of biological matter are traded annually within Cape Town, of which 262 tons of which grow in the Cape Town city area. As most of the plants are harvested in the Cape Floristic Region, an area home to many protected indigenous plant species, it is perhaps not surprising that bushdoctors’ harvesting activities attract hostility from conservationists, police and other interest groups. These tensions are precisely what the Herbanisation project aims to address. Through planting open-access gardens that are unfenced and free to harvest, the project has successfully brought bushdoctors, conservation professionals and other stakeholders of Cape Town biodiversity together to plant gardens in previously degraded and unused public areas. Not only has the project facilitated the strengthening of linkages between the various stakeholders involved, but it has also helped regenerate Cape Flats Sand Fynbos in open spaces—promoting conservation and contributing to the physical, psychological and emotional health and wellbeing of the local community.
However, the growing bushdoctor population along with an increasing demand for medicinal plants continues to raise concerns, and in some cases, legal action from conservation professionals and other stakeholders. More than a once-off engagement between conservationists and bushdoctors, this project, titled ‘Translating Complex Realities through Technology: Lessons about Government Responsiveness in South Africa’, builds on the Herbanisation project by bringing the voices of bushdoctors to conservation authorities through personal storytelling captured in short films. The bushdoctors designed and created six videos among themselves, and another was created by Leif. Leif’s story reflects on how the Herbanisation project has developed over time, his own positionality within this conundrum and how it provided an opportunity for bushdoctors and conservationists to interact and contribute to the creation of a sustainable medicinal plants garden. While the bushdoctors were given the freedom to tell their own stories, they were prompted: ‘tell us a story about when you felt free or when you felt unfree during your work as a bossie dokter, and what do you do about it?’ Some of these stories reflected instances of conflict that arose when the bushdoctors were harassed by the police or were hounded by conservationists for illicitly harvesting traditional/medicinal plants in nature reserves. Others told of how the bushdoctors came to be bushdoctors, and provided a broader context of their everyday lives.
The stories have already been presented to an audience of more than a hundred key stakeholders, at the annual Fynbos Forum for conservation managers and scientists which was held in Port Elizabeth from 25-28 July 2016. The Forum was attended by Leif and fellow co-founder of the Herbanisation project, bushdoctor-Elder Neville van Wyk. The proposition of presenting the stories, along with being accompanied by a bushdoctor was enthusiastically received by the Forum organisers, who subsequently gave Leif a double-session—a concession rarely given—in which to present the films and open the floor up for questions and answers.
During the questions and answers, many members of the audience expressed great appreciation for the alternative perspectives presented via the digital stories. Conservationists, in particular, acknowledged how the stories effectively portrayed the bushdoctors’ worldview and everyday circumstances, which the conservationists had not understood before. One of the audience members went so far as to say,
“I am a scientist, but in those stories I learned something that science cannot teach me”.
“The digital stories had a real way about driving a message that showed who [bushdoctors] are and why they do what they do”.
Neville’s story left such an impact that he was given a special commendation at the end of the workshop. The session also provided an opportunity for SLF to raise reflexive questions and concerns about bushdoctors, the relationship of accountability in the area of conservation and land management, and the use of digital story-telling as a means of engaging with policy makers and government role players.
A number of audience members expressed concern about how to engage with bushdoctors at a policy level, because they are, ideologically and in practice, an informal group that is currently not organised. This means that while some bushdoctors might agree to terms and conditions stipulated in a wild harvesting permit, others might not. Moreover, some audience members viewed bushdoctors as stubborn and unwilling to make any compromises about where and how much plant material they harvest. What is clear is that while the digital stories provide a valuable contribution to shifting perceptions about bushdoctors, much more work needs to be done in terms of addressing the fundamental differences in the positions of the conservationists and the bushdoctors.
One of the issues for effectiveness in the case of digital storytelling as a method for greater accountability is that the topic is morally charged on all sides of the debate—meaning that presenting the bushdoctors’ points of view, whilst compelling, does not invalidate the conservationists’ concerns pertaining to ecological impact of wild harvesting. In order for real shifts in accountability that lead to effective and sustainable change, the digital stories need to be embedded into a longer, multi-dimensional campaign to exchange ideas, beliefs and values between nature conservationists and bushdoctors. On their own the stories illustrate an important perspective that has been missing from the policy debate, but the fundamental concern of conservationists of the impact of wild harvesting on plant life in the Cape Floristic Region remain unresolved. Over the course of the next six months, SLF will use these stories as a lever to lead to more discussion with policymakers and the public about how to address these issues. The bushdoctors are also developing plans for how to make use of their own stories and screen them, accompanied by facilitated dialogue, to broader audiences.
Words by: Dillon Wademan