The African Conservation Trust was established in 2000 to achieve self-sustaining funding for environmental and heritage research and conservation in the southern Africa region.
In the late 1990's, the environment and conservation of the region's natural resources and heritage was not considered the priority it is today. Only a handful of NGOs and foundations were receiving support for their causes and very few donor agencies and governments – both locally and internationally – viewed environmental conservation as a priority, even though warning bells were beginning to sound that southern Africa was running out of time.
The region's water sources were showing the strain of decades of neglect, and soil erosion and wetland degradation were fast reaching the critical point of no return. The damage being done to eco-sensitive areas and the wider, long-term impact this would have on all life forms – from destruction of natural habitats and the subsequent extinction of indigenous species (both flora and fauna) to the impact on human health and nutrition – was not recognised nor valued. In addition, almost no priority was being given to scientific research and monitoring of environmental degradation, nor staffing for such projects.
There was also increasing pressure from escalating levels of pollution and waste yet few were sounding the clarion call for change. Southern Africa has one of the most rapidly urbanising populations in the world and the impact of growing city populations living primarily in low-income areas with insufficient infrastructure, was having a negative and cumulative effect on the surrounding environment. The amount of unsorted household waste was growing at unprecedented levels, overwhelming existing landfill sites and municipal waste management resources. Recycling – although beginning in other parts of the world -was largely unknown and not promoted to the wider population.
At the same time, interest in and understanding of the need to preserve South Africa's heritage and multi-cultural legacy was growing. Africa's indigenous knowledge systems were gaining recognition amongst the international community and the archaeological discoveries at the Cradle of Humankind focused attention on the ancient history of southern Africa. South Africa's Koi-San heritage was considered so important to the global community that they awarded World Heritage Status to the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg region.
Yet, at the time, those who advocated using modern technology coupled with traditional approaches that included job creation and community ownership, to preserve the region's ancient and natural resources were not taken seriously. There was a dearth of funding and on-the-ground agencies to undertake science-based heritage conservation projects that included their modern day communities for sustainability purposes.
It was for these factors that the African Conservation Trust was established. For the first five years, ACT was primarily a volunteer-driven agency, one of the few that offered the opportunity for ordinary people to take part in groundbreaking environment and conservation projects in southern Africa, working alongside scientists and academic experts in archeology, anthropology, environmental protection and wildlife conservation. Not only did the ACT volunteers get to experience Africa as no tourist ever could, but their hands-on involvement in ACT projects increased their skills and knowledge in ways that would have been hard to achieve elsewhere.
ACT's reputation for successfully implementing innovative projects that pioneer new ideas and ways to protect southern Africa's natural resources has grown significantly, along with increasing support from respected agencies such as the UNDP, the National Heritage Council, AMAFA (Heritage KZN) and the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund (NLDTF); The ongoing partnership between ACT and the University of KwaZulu-Natal's Geomatics department is proving that sophisticated, modern-day technology (such as GIS computer models and 3D laser scanners) can play a significant role in preserving the heritage of our past; ACT's methodology of working in partnership with other leading environment and conservation agencies (Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, WESSA and the Wildlands Trust) helps to improve the collective impact of all involved and importantly conserve southern Africa's environment, natural resources and rich history for many generations to come.