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Bertchen Kohrs courageous champion of the environment: Bertchen Kohrs carefully nurtures her garden, the small piece of earth that she calls her own, using no chemical fertilizers or pesticides, making her own compost, recycling glass, waste paper and cans.

But her interest and concern for the environment go way beyond her garden walls. As chairperson of Earthlife Namibia, she has challenged government and industry on controversial projects including the Epupa Hydro-Electric Scheme on the Kunene River, the Ramatex clothing factory in Katutura, and the current development of a new uranium mine in the Namib-Naukluft Park.


She has stood firm over the past years calling for proper environmental impact assessments to be done and made public, braving a volley of attacks on her personal integrity by former Minister of Trade and Industry, Hidipo Humutenya, and threats of dismissal by former state president Nujoma against civil servants campaigning against the Epupa Scheme. "Earthlife really lost some members then, which I can understand," says Bertchen. "I was a civil servant at the time, but I didn't have kids. I was only responsible for myself and I didn't have so much to lose as the others."

Where did this gentle and soft spoken woman, who first came to Namibia from Germany in 1973 to work for the government veterinary services, get her convictions and her courage?

"I grew up in a small village in northern Germany, after my mother fled from Poland as a refugee with us five children while my father was away fighting during the Second World War. Living in the village meant having close contact with nature, and so my caring for my environment started very, very early. We had a vegetable garden and there I learned from my parents how to garden in an environmentally friendly way, using natural fertilizers and understanding the importance of birds and the micro organisms in the soil. I believe that if you grow up like this you develop the right values to guide your lifestyle, and this is what we need to teach our children."

During her secondary school years she spent her holidays on a small island in the North Sea, where her father was a teacher for agriculture. "I think those holidays on the island also shaped my life, Bertchen recalls. "It's a bit like Namibia, you have to make a plan, because not everything is there, you have to improvise."

She went on to study food science in Braunschweig, and began her working life in a pharmaceutical company, but soon moved into scientific research at the Veterinary University in Hannover, followed by cancer research in Amsterdam.

"This is where I started seeing beyond my personal life and work and becoming involved in political issues. I read a book from the Club of Rome on the limits to growth and the impact of modern industrial development on the global environment. Although many people scoffed at the ideas in this book at the time, it made a deep impact on me, and a second publication twenty years later showed that the environmental degradation was actually worse than had been predicted.

"Also, through Amnesty International I learnt about the situation in Third World countries and I joined a group that provided public information, collected items like clothes to send to communities living in poverty and supported the sale of products from Third World countries in Europe."

This kindled Bertchen's interest in working in an African country, and she came to Namibia (then South West Africa) in 1973. "I loved this country from the very first moment--I arrived here on a humid and overcast day in November with the first rain clouds gathering. Even though it wasn't the perfect blue sky I had been expecting, the minute I put my foot on the soil I knew this was my country. It was such a strong feeling, which has never left me."

"I got an offer from South West Africa Veterinary Services. It wasn't my line but I was ready for a new challenge. But I was scared because of what I had heard about apartheid, and I found it hard to see the white people who were born here, living here for many generations and taking it for granted that black people were servants. I also saw situations in the laboratory which I found inhuman and which I challenged. But there were also positive experiences, meeting people who supported the struggle against apartheid and for independence."

In 1976 Bertchen moved to the North with her fiance, working for Water Affairs in Oshakati. There she witnessed some of the atrocities of the South African army against people who broke the curfew. "I got to know and respect those they called 'terrorists' as freedom fighters, and this may be the reason why my partner and I were given 24 hours notice to leave Owamboland a year later. I was sad to leave this beautiful place with its forests, large herds of cattle, friendly people and clean environment, there was none of the degradation that we see today."

The couple married and moved to South Africa, but divorced some years later. The intensity of the anti-apartheid struggles there led Bertchen to return to Germany, "but I wasn't happy there, I never unpacked more than my clothes, and in 1988 I returned to Namibia and got my job back at Veterinary Services. I will never forget the excitement and joy we experienced at Independence in 1990, there was no black or white at that time."

Bertchen attended a meeting on environmental issues held in Katutura that year, out of which Earthlife Namibia was born. "I'm the only one left from that time, members have come and gone for different reasons. We often have short term members who come from different countries and share their ideas and experiences with us--environmental issues are global! But we are also trying to involve more Namibians in our work. It's difficult because it's voluntary work that we do in our free time, we don't have funds to pay people. I think the feeling for volunteer work is not really a Namibian issue yet which I find regrettable. We have so many unemployed people; if some of them would be willing to volunteer their time they would gain valuable experience that might open doors to paid work somewhere else. But I know that lack of money for transport is also a problem."

However, Bertchen believes that it is not only for the above reasons that Earthlife Namibia is still a small group. "In Namibia we have a culture of fear. Politicians try to intimidate us through threats and personal attacks to protect their own short term gain. I often ask myself, do they have children, do they have grandchildren? What do they think about future generations--aren't they worried about their well being and what they will inherit from us?

"Seventy percent of our population is in some way working in agriculture. They can see with their own eyes what is being done to our country. They see the desertification. They see the erosion. They see the deforestation and they have their own ideas about how we could protect the environment. We need the civil courage to speak out before it is too late, because the environment is linked to everything. It is the most precious thing we have and we have to keep it in balance."

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Title Annotation:Earthlife Namibia
Author:Frank, Liz
Publication:Sister Namibia
Article Type:Cover Story
Geographic Code:6NAMI
Date:Oct 1, 2005
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