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By Anam Kaleem
In the hustle and bustle of congested Pietzmaritzburg stands a small, gated cement house that serves as the headquarters of groundWork, an environmental justice association started in 1999 that campaigns nationally on issues of air pollution, energy, and climate change.
We were greeted at the forest green gate by a jolly, welcoming middle-aged man with graying hair and beard --Bobby Peek--who is one of three groundWork founders. He led us into a small room painted as orange as the setting sun where we were served coffee and tea before an animated one-and-a-half-hour briefing on the organization's work.
Although all three issues of the triple crisis are important, Peek said, energy use in South Africa is at the center. Coal is the main source of energy here, amounting to 90 percent of the total. Because of the widespread practice of indoor coal burning for cooking and heating, South Africa is the 11th highest emitter of CO2 in the world, he said.
Millions of people are cut off from electricity because they cannot afford it, Peek said. This is primarily due to high costs, with residents forced to pay seven times more than big businesses. During the apartheid years, people protested such costs by refusing to pay their bills, but the government-run electrical utility, Eskom, now uses a system of prepaid usage, like phone cards, so when people do not pay, they just lose service.
On the issue of climate change, Peek said there have been 16 negotiations under United Nations auspices, but none produced very much. He called the United States as part of the problem, arguing that by demanding there be a system of trade in pollution credits, the U.S. was seeking to buy its way out of compliance. The idea, he said, was that rich countries could pay for conservation in poor countries and not be required to cut their own pollution levels.
Peek said there needs to be a change in the system of producing and consuming throughout the world. Countries should strive for energy sovereignty--producing and using what they need in a manner similar to what the movement for food sovereignty, which now has growing support in poor countries, is demanding. He said the people who produce it should be at the heart of the system and not big business.
After the briefing, Peek surprised the Simmons group with gifts of black hats with the logo "groundWorks Union" stitched in red oval, making us all a part of the campaign for worldwide environmental justice.