Exploring Alternative Society-Nature Relationships: Learning from Urban Nature Conservation in Cape Town

Janine Eberle
Master Thesis, 2019

In conventional approaches to nature conservation, nature is usually conceptualized as an apolitical realm outside the social world. Realizing that this notion of nature is not god given, but rather produced in a social discourse, is the first step towards imagining other ways of how nature can be understood. In my thesis I look at the notion of nature as a social construct in order to enable an imagination of nature/society relationships that does not reproduce categorical distinctions between the natural and the social realms.

Following a relational understanding of space, context has to be put in the foreground. The site my case study will focus on therefore needs certain contextualization in terms of its material, socio-cultural, and subjective conditions of the Edith Stephens Wetland Park, which is an urban nature reserve in Cape Town, South Africa.

Of course there are different ways to imagine new relationships between nature and society. Drawing from my work with Edith Stephens Wetland Park, a possible link between the two in the case of South Africa is participation. Due to historical imbalances and the need of redressing damages from colonial times and Apartheid, the South African constitution enshrined the legal requirement of participation in many public issues to work away discriminatory legal mechanisms. This is also the case for nature conservation as a matter of public land use. The thematic analysis of my field notes revealed that participation at Edith Stephens primarily works through dealing with limitations of the institutional context, negotiating, coping with danger and knowing insiders & outsiders. A substantial part of the work that needs to be done in order for the nature reserve to succeed and to provide services to its users is invested in these four tasks. These tasks are all about allowing participation, and they do not reflect typical work associated with nature conservation. Nature conservation understood within a nature/ culture divide is not able to acknowledge these participatory efforts as significant, because it is not able to not pay attention to human and non-human relationships within nature conservation.

The outcome of this thesis begs the question of how such research done in the global South can inform socially responsible nature conservation in the global North and contribute to make marginalized communities visible within the work of nature conservation.

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