19 June 2014

Cultivating Community

tl;dr: We're forming a local conservancy with the goals of preserving our neighbourhood's natural and historic environment, and, hopefully, as a tool to help us build a community with some resilience against climate change and post-carbon energy descent. Yay (maybe).

Self-sufficiency is not a loner's game. It would be impossible for a single family to live completely self-sufficiently; at the very least self-sufficient living is a village-scale affair, and, even then, many niceties of modern life will elude even the most dedicated and hard working bunch of souls. Stuff like MRI scanners, space telescopes, quality reference libraries and large-scale semiconductor integrated circuits. Meanwhile, we can approach a reasonable level of self-sufficiency only if we work together with like-minded neighbours. (Reality dictates, though, that many of my neighbours are unlikely to be all that like minded, especially in a neighbourhood like ours. Anybody who chooses to live outside the fringes of urban life is, by definition, likely to be a bit iconoclastic; strong-minded and opinionated. And get the hell off my pasture.)

Over the past few years we've seen a number of changes in the regulatory climate that surrounds us. Mostly we don't like those changes. Some of us fear them in some degree, and generally it just rubs us the wrong way that the authorities won't just leave us alone to get on with our slightly hermit-like lives. From being outside of any municipal boundaries, and thus "deprived" of all services like piped (but fluoridated and metered) water, garbage collection and libraries, but free of property taxes, we have, against our will, been incorporated into the local municipal boundaries. So now we get to pay rates and use the library gratis. We still don't get garbage collection, and we (thankfully!) still don't have to buy municipal water or sewerage connections.

Another big change has been the promulgation of the Garden Route National Park as an enclosing super-entity managing many of the pre-existing National Parks in the region. I believe it is considered a world-first, since the super-park encompasses towns, industrial areas, shopping districts and commercial farms agri-factories, along with traditional nature-reserves. I think that nobody is sure how this is going to work, but it's a noble experiment. The close-to-home effect was to see the management of the indigenous forest transferred to SANParks – the national nature-reserve authority. All this means that both the national provincial governments, as well as local Municipal government want to "manage" us and design Structure Plans around us in mysterious, undefined and largely unwelcome ways.

For a long time we were able to stick our heads in the sand, pretending that life carries on as it did before, but the bitter truth is that the wider world has chosen to take some notice of us. Time to respond, to organise in a common cause.

We have decided to form a local conservancy: the Bibbey's Hoek Historical and Nature Conservancy (or some such name, if and when we ever get around to agreeing on it).

Several weeks ago we organised a community meeting to gauge the appetite for forming a conservancy. We held it on a Sunday evening so that the maximum number of people would be able to attend without excuses like work obligations. The weather played foul, and we ended up with a fairly small turnout – only about eight properties represented out of the thirty in the neighbourhood. Consensus was that we lacked a broad enough representation to take any decision likely to impact the entire neighbourhood, so we decided to try again.

Now, things move at Bibbey's Hoek speed here... next year is just as good as next week. Newcomers to the area are frequently frustrated at the relaxed1 attitude we have to time and calendar, accusing us of allowing our brains to become infested with Outeniqua Rust. Consequently our plans for another meeting were a little bit overtaken when SANParks management requested a community meeting (held a couple of weeks ago). Our neighbourhood and its rich history is inextricably entangled in a relationship with the forest. Indeed, our properties were carved out of the very forest itself back in the mid-1800's; some older maps even show the forest boundary as enclosing our smallholdings. It seems reasonable that SANParks management and scientists regard the area as an important buffer zone between the natural forest they manage2 and the adjoining larger farms and urban areas.

All this culminated in (yet another!) meeting last evening where we were given an interesting talk by a chap from Cape Nature ‒ the provincial environmental department ‒ on conservancies. Rather than arrange yet another meeting, we went ahead and formed a Steering Committee, tasked with drawing up a constitution for the conservancy and generally getting the ball rolling. Actually, there's not a whole lot for us to do: I had already drawn up a draft constitution, so all we really need to do now is give everybody a chance to discuss and change it to suit some consensus view, and then we can go ahead and appoint an Executive Committee and register the conservancy with Cape Nature (which gives it the status of a legal entity). Then we can get on with trying to implement whatever nature and historical conservation projects we choose. Clearing alien vegetation from water-courses and dealing with some very aggressive and destructive Baboons seem to be the highest priorities.

I have been pushing for us to also include climate-change and energy-descent adaptation as an explicit goal for the conservancy, and, so far, there seems to be reasonably broad acceptance that this would be a good thing ‒ including vigorous nods from the SANParks and Cape Nature people. Quite a large proportion of Bibbey's Hoek's residents are permaculturally minded, and quite conscious of these issues, so it hasn't really been a hard sell.

So: an interesting (and long overdue) step along the path of self-sufficiency. Having to deal with otherwise-minded neighbours and government authorities... not so much fun. But necessary.

[1] No, "comatose" is probably closer to the truth.

[2] I have some uncertainties over the notion of "managing" wild areas and just what that might mean, but that's a discussion for another day...

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