Something to hide? Department of Environment takes the path of least disclosure

Something to hide? Department of Environment takes the path of least disclosure

If you want information from the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries about the policies and activities it undertakes, it will stretch your patience and sanity to a snapping point. But what are they trying to hide?

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Secrecy, according to the 19th-century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, is an instrument of conspiracy and ought never to be the system of regular government. Yet bureaucracy always seeks the path of least disclosure.

That path is well tramped by the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (Deff). Transparent they are not.

Because it’s their legal duty to provide information requested of them, they’ve become masters of diversion and diffusion. It’s not that they’re uncommunicative, but that they lead you on a merry dance just to get the facts that you’d expect to be freely available to the public in a functioning democracy.

Do Deff officials have something to hide, are they terrified their inefficiency will be exposed, or is it simply because it’s a damn nuisance to answer questions? That this is happening under Minister Barbara Creecy’s watch is deeply worrying, given the initial elation by the wildlife community at her appointment to the environment portfolio. Is she aware of the problem or part of it?

Access to information is the lifeblood of any democracy and in this our law is unambiguous. Section 32(1)(a) of the Constitution provides that everyone has the right of access to any information held by the state, including provincial governments. This was confirmed in the Public Access to Information Act (Paia) of 2000, which even requires that an officer assist you to frame good questions.

Government departments are required to reply within 30 days. If they’re having trouble finding it, they are permitted another 30 days. And that’s all.

So how are we doing? When I asked environmental NGOs and journalists if they were having problems accessing information, it turned out they were – in spadefuls.

Gold-star deflections

Let’s start with rhinos. For some years, journalist Tony Carnie has been requesting the census data for Kruger Park rhinos, to no avail. Dr Salomon Joubert, a former Kruger Park warden, confirmed that his requests had also been fobbed off by Deff.

When I asked for the same data, I was told to contact the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN – of which, incidentally, I am a law commissioner) based in Switzerland. As deflections go, that got a gold star.

In November last year, in answer to a parliamentary question on the number of rhinos poached, Creecy said: “The department does not publish this information because it poses a risk in terms of our conservation efforts.”

Last month, DA Shadow Minister of Environment Dave Bryant asked for rhino numbers but Deff officials refused to answer. Then, after these refusals, the stats suddenly appeared, buried in the 2020 SANParks annual report just released. So was Creecy mistaken about the risk to conservation or simply badly informed?

The reason for prior refusals became clear – the stats were an embarrassment. Simon Espley of Africa Geographic wrote that, “after years of silence about Kruger National Park rhino populations… we can now confirm that populations in the Kruger National Park have plummeted to an estimated 3,529 white rhinos and 268 black rhinos. This represents a population reduction of 67% for white rhinos – from 10,621 in 2011 – and 35% for black rhinos – from 415 in 2013.”

The EMS Foundation, which supports environmental work, has found state departments to be maddeningly unhelpful. According to its director, Michele Pickover, in 2020 EMS spent almost R500,000 in lawyers’ fees on Paia requests that resulted in microscopically little information.

In 66 requests from May 2019, mainly to Deff, its associated National Biological Institute (Sanbi) and SANParks, the departments either failed to answer, gave partial answers that required further Paia requests or referred requests to provincial authorities, which almost never replied.

According to Stefania Falcon of EMS, “Sanbi and the zoos are better at responding but often don’t give you the proper info. Many hide behind a ‘third party non-disclosure’ [requirement],which they claim exempts them from providing the information. Ledet [Limpopo Department of Economic Development, Environment and Tourism] won’t even reply to you; SAPS, the police, didn’t bother despite many mails.”

There’s also something overly cosy about the relationship between Deff and the wildlife industry. The department publishes online all authorisations such as waste management licences, atmospheric emission licences, Biodiversity Act permits and general permits for boat-based whale watching and shark cage diving. But not those of the wildlife industry.

Heavily redacted information

Its reasoning is that wildlife permits have “third-party information”, which they say could be detrimental to those they licence. But for all other licensees, that’s not seen as a problem, to the point where they put them online. What’s the difference? Or, to put it another way, what did hunters, captive breeders and game farmers do to get special protection in pursuit of private gain?

The National Society for the Protection of Animals (NSPCA) and local SPCAs are state-sanctioned enforcement agencies but are required to put in Paia requests for information related to their legal mandate. According to a society official, when they do get the information, it’s often heavily redacted to the point of being almost useless.

Dr Bool Smuts of the Landmark Foundation says government departments hide behind the claim that providing information will expose someone’s right to privacy. “Mostly it’s fabricated and shields them from accountability,” he said. “That way they become unaccountable to the general public.

“Departments have been granted rights to issue permits concerning wildlife and these get issued under a cloak of secrecy. What’s inexplicable is that government departments are giving private parties permits of use or ownership of our biodiversity assets, but hide behind third-party confidentiality to avoid accountability for these allocations.

“It’s hard to avoid suspicion of corruption. And you can’t get the information. Hundreds and hundreds of Paia requests are being ignored. The claimed right to confidentiality is denying the public access to information that affects their right to a healthy environment. It is being abused to hide governance actions of state players for the secret gain of private parties and concealment of accountability. I think it’s ripe for a constitutional challenge.

“And here’s a further problem. If your demands for accountability get uncomfortable, officials turn on the ‘agitators’ by weaponising the permitting system. They cancelled our leopard research and conflict mitigation permits. We’re going to the high court over these issues and we’re quite happy to proceed to the Appeals Court and Constitutional Court because I think it’s fundamentally a constitutional matter that must be settled. But it’s expensive. Who or what are they shielding and why? They feel they’re above accountability.”

Louise de Waal confirmed that Blood Lions has similar problems. “Many of the provinces have no dedicated Paia officer or don’t advertise such a person. Information on websites is often outdated and/or people within those positions are moved so often that a steady contact is difficult to identify.

“Once the Paia officer’s contact details have been found, the emails go unresponded to, or an automated non-delivery email is received. Follow-up emails and phone calls end up in a big black hole or promises are made that are not kept. If requests are answered and Paia fees are paid, extensions are requested by the Paia officer for a variety of reasons and, again, the request is not fulfilled within the extended period.

“After eight months of sending emails, making follow-up phone calls and receiving empty promises, we received satisfactory responses from only three out of the nine provinces approached – Western Cape, KZN and Free State.”

Audrey Delsink, the wildlife director of Humane Society International-Africa, says: “In the last two years we made 14 Paia applications directly to the relevant entity, except for two that were made on our behalf by our attorneys. Our requests included information regarding quotas, numbers of captive breeding facilities, permits (CITES and local), transfer of hunting rights, permission to hunt species including lion, elephant, Cape mountain zebra and giraffe.

“Of the 14 Paia applications, we received one complete response with documents as requested, two rejections which we appealed but did not receive any further communications, had one response stating that information would not be supplied as we had not supplied a reason for the request.

“Our legal counsel provided a counter-response stating that you don’t have to provide a reason for the request. But, despite several attempts, there has been no further response from the department concerned.”

Other information blockages abound. Journalist Elise Tempelhoff said she had been trying to get an interview with Creecy since May 2018; requests were not denied, just flatly ignored.

“Whose environment is it anyway?” she asked. “Why do we have to put in Paias to get answers on our environment? And, besides, we pay these people’s salaries.”

Increasingly, NGOs and journalists have turned to Parliament to find answers. It’s laborious – you have to find an MP prepared to ask the questions in portfolio committee meetings, then wait for the written replies. Even then the results are not always satisfactory. Analysing parliamentary questions, it’s apparent that even when government departments do provide input, they use semantics to avoid answering. Here’s an example:

When Deff was asked in Parliament about hunting in the Associated Private Nature Reserves, the private reserves open to the Kruger National Park, they first answered that they did not “recommend” hunting offtake numbers, but only “comment and support” them (even though the Annexure B to the cooperation agreement refers to both). When then asked in a follow-up question what numbers they “supported”, Deff said they “were not at liberty to release the offtake requests”.

Why so cagey?

Why not? In fact, they’re legally not at liberty to refuse. This despite the fact that, in their own letter, they refer to having “supported” the animal offtakes. The implication: No, we’re simply not going to tell you, but because we’re obliged to answer parliamentary questions, we’ll play word games.

So, it’s fair to ask: What’s going on with our public institutions? Why are they so cagey? Who are they protecting and why? To quote the Swedish philosopher Sissela Bok: “If officials make public only what they want citizens to know, then publicity becomes a sham and accountability meaningless.”

I sent this article to Deff for comment and got a reply from its chief director of communications: “The Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries responds to all media inquiries received. Deff tries to meet deadlines set by journalists. In instances where the Department is not able to meet a deadline, it is communicated to the journalist.”

I think they may have forgotten to read the article. Or maybe they just don’t want to acknowledge (or, worse, realise) they have a serious communication problem. People trying year after year to source legitimate information from Deff are in no doubt that they do. What are they trying to hide?

To echo Tempelhof: Whose environment is it anyway? DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Colleen Dardagan says:

    Barbara Creecy cannot be seen to be doing anything. There is no political will from the ANC to tackle environmental concerns. If she sticks her head above the parapet, she’s dead! Politically speaking that is. And then of course, she is white! That’s also a problem. Until the protection of our environment and the development of a more carbon neutral economy becomes real ANC policy, rather than just lip service, any environment affairs official is considered a bit of a joke, not to be taken too seriously and even less so if they are white. Barbara Creecy is a joke-of-an-appointment in the most important department in any country worldwide. She is not going to be able to do anything significant all the while the clock is ticking. Climate Change is waiting for no-one and let this ANC government look away, don’t worry, soon their bums will be burning. And then all their shenanigans will look like child’s play. What is happening in the natural world is the end game and we need warriors like Fikile Ntshangase, not wets like Barbara Creecy.

  • Gerrie Pretorius Pretorius says:

    These are all anc deployees (Yes – even barbara creecy), what else did you expect? Co-operation?

  • Ritchie Morris says:

    Two quotes of relevance:
    Margaret Mead: ‘We won’t have a society if we destroy the environment’.
    John Muir: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”Simplified and adapted to mean: “When YOU tug at a single thing in nature, YOU will find it attached to the rest of YOUR world.”
    I am not sure DEFF is still ‘connected’ to the environment.

  • jcdville stormers says:

    Seems similar to SAPS, who has always used the cliche “No comment” to many times. O my i forgot to mention there is a moratorium on stats, as it is published quarterly. If you are there for the people, (in todays plastic world that sounds outdated) you take your citizens on board with transparency. What have you got to hide. While the banks launder money of drug lords and wild life smuggling, and nature conservation dept just want to be seen as compliant with luthuli house wishes(they are a bible unto themselves thinking for the masses, similar to the old apartheid regime), wildlife and the middle class and poor will bear the brunt of their secreteniveness. Scarcest thing nowadays is a moral compass, nowhere to be found. At least not with any politician worldwide🙄

  • Andrew Blaine says:

    Maybe coordination of the poaching effort needs secrecy for success? Who polices the policemen?

  • Mike Monson says:

    There can only be one logical conclusion and that is that the department responsible for the management and safe keeping of South Africa’s natural environment and wildlife are colluding with the criminal enterprises. No other explanation makes sense. Their hearts, minds and souls have been sold to the highest bidders for thirty pieces of silver. Shame on them all!

  • Moraig Peden says:

    Hugely disappointed by Barbara Creecy and DEFF. She has just approved exploratory oil and gas drilling offshore KZN coast. Is DEFF also blind? Do they know that we have a climate crisis?

  • Peter Worman says:

    Jeepers but this is depressing!! Are we one day going to wake up to some Armageddon type situation where nothing works and everything has been stolen or are we experiencing the frog in increasingly warmer water situation?

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

home delivery

Say hello to DM168 home delivery

Get your favourite newspaper delivered to your doorstep every weekend.

Delivery is available in Gauteng, the Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, and the Eastern Cape.

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.7% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.3% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.3% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.3%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.