Neoliberalization of the commons

Over the last few months, I have been working on my PhD research in the Kuils River catchment and particularly the Khayelitsha area, a township located in the peri-urban regions of Cape Town. Within this buzzing township is a gem, the Khayelitsha Wetlands Park (KWP).

The KWP is a pleasant urban wetland park and is the poster child of sustainable development in townships for the City of Cape Town. The area was earmarked as a critical biodiversity hotspot of conservation worthy status due to it being a functional ecosystem supporting various plants and animal species, carrying out important regulatory services such as flood attenuation and water cleansing. The local communities also enjoy this wetland park for recreational activities, collection of medicinal plants, ritual cleansing, watering and feeding living stock and more. Over the months, I witnessed many changes to the wetland with the introduction of more infrastructures to benefit the local community and attract tourists.

Of interest to me was the introduction of the concrete palisade fencing. This was introduced perhaps as a border for the park, zoning of the area or to serve some other purpose. However within the short time that this fence has been up, it has already been vandalized to create access points for people and livestock not allocated in the earlier planning. In the process of creating a space for the benefit of the community, the fence and it being broken down implies the creation of parameters by the state for the use of the commons and how it is accessed.

This may seem as a bit of a leap. However in the discourse around ‘green’ development, the dominant claim is that there are many ‘unpriced’ and often unowned biophysical assets that could if inserted to the global markets, create revenue streams that would be able to support much needed socio-economic development (Dempsey and Robertson, 2012). This is the current discourse around the development of the KWP.

… discourse around ‘green’ development, the dominant claim is that there are many ‘unpriced’ and often unowned biophysical assets that could if inserted to the global markets, create revenue streams that would be able to support much needed socio-economic development

Conversely in the case of the KSW, the state’s management of natural resources using neoliberal rationalisations capitulates ‘command and control’ solutions under the guise of economic growth, economic efficiency; economic and social development for marginal and low income communities and sustainable development.

My argument is this approach fails to allow for adequate engagement in understanding the activities, importance and meanings drawn from the interaction with this natural resource. The services provided by the KWP cannot be separated from their embodiment in beings and lives. The benefits of the conservation, preservation and restoration of the KWP are often largely accrued by the state, private entities (e.g. tourist agencies) and donors and less so by the locals. Neoliberal environmental policies, in many ways like their economic counterpart, are grossly inadequate in addressing poverty and inequality.

The services provided by the KWP cannot be separated from their embodiment in beings and lives.

As mentioned by Kosoy and Corbera, 2010)

“When ES are commodified, they become the basis for new socio-economic hierarchies, characterised by the re-positioning of existing social actors, the emergence of others, and very likely, the reproduction of unequal power relations in access to wealth and … resources.”

Kosoy N and Corbera E. 2010. Payments for ecosystem services as commodity fetishism. Ecological Economics (69): 1193–1364.

Dempsey, J. and Robertson, M. 2012. Ecosystem services : Tensions, impurities, and points of engagement within neoliberalism. Progress in Human Geography 36(6): 758 – 77

 

About the author:

Nikiwe Solomon is a research fellow with the African Centre for a Green Economy and is currently pursuing a PhD in Environmental Humanities at the University of Cape Town, where she looks at the Kuils River to better understand how the relationship between the river and communities shape each other. Her interests lie in exploring the human nature relationship in the context of interacting social, political and economic systems.