Marine Conservationist, building caring communities
Aaniyah fell in love with the ocean as a young girl and now works with international role players to protect and restore ocean ecosystems.
“Our litter belongs to us,” attests the environmental activist and founder of The Beach Co-op, an NPO dedicated to keep South Africa’s beaches clean and healthy. “Our mission is to work towards a healthy marine environment, but our approach is novel: we focus on building communities that care enough to achieve our mission.” She believes that through caring communities, we can heal both our environments and ourselves.
She bends down to pick up a piece of plastic packet wedged between the rocks. The packet has disintegrated into small, thin pieces that pose multiple threats to local marine and bird life. Aaniyah Omardien is at Surfer’s Corner, her local haunt in Muizenberg, Cape Town. Her wetsuit glistens with droplets of the ocean she loves so much, and her surfboard waits patiently on the sand while she engages in “citizen science”, collecting both litter and data for further research.
Aaniyah is an environmental activist and founder of The Beach Co-op, an NPO dedicated to keeping South Africa’s beaches clean and healthy. “Our mission is to work towards a healthy marine environment, but our approach is quite novel: our core focus is on building communities that care enough to achieve our mission,” Aaniyah explains.
New moon, new start
In 2015, wanting to give back to her community as well as contribute to local scientific research, Aaniyah organised a group of volunteers to do a clean up under the new moon, when the tide is at its lowest. It was from these monthly get-togethers that The Beach Co-op was born. “The amount of litter has definitely reduced since we started the beach clean-ups,” Aaniyah asserts. “It goes to show that dedicated maintenance makes a difference, both practically and in terms of people’s behaviour, although we’ve got a way to go yet.”
Aaniyah founded her NPO, The Beach Co-op, in 2017, after several years of successful volunteer projects around preserving the coastal environment and raising awareness among the community about conservation. “Our litter belongs to us,” she attests. “However, we first need to take ownership of our spaces in order to make that connection.”
After university Aaniyah worked for the World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF), based in Cape Town, for ten years. “It was an amazing opportunity, and a platform for me to learn and grow,” Aaniyah reflects. The job wasn’t simply about conservation, but about science and collaboration and marketing and fundraising. “It taught me what is required to really ‘do’ conservation,” Aaniyah observes. “It shaped me as a person.” At WWF, Aaniyah worked her way up to acting head of the marine and freshwater programmes in South Africa, whilst also completing her master’s degree in Marine Management.
What drives her activism
“It’s really about the intersection between people and nature,” she explains. “I’m particularly interested in the under-explored social justice aspect of conservation.” This forms the thesis of the doctorate she is currently working on at the university formerly known as Rhodes. “I’m exploring how we can inspire humans to care for our hydrocommons, especially those people who have been forcibly removed from their natural environments.” In searching for alternative ways to arrive at conservation, Aaniyah hopes to arrive at “caring through healing.”
This is the driving force behind The Beach Co-op, and what sets it apart from other environmental activist groups. Historically, there have not been many people of colour in the conservation world. “It’s seen as a luxury focus for people who have the right connections and privileges,” Aaniyah explains. But she’s going to change all that.
“Having been forcibly disconnected from our blue and green spaces, we need to take ownership of our history in order to own our future.”
The work of The Beach Co-op addresses South Africa’s checkered history around access to marine environments. The 1950 Group Areas Act mandated that people live in areas according to their race group; “the result is that hundreds of thousands of families were uprooted, meaning that to this day many people feel like they don’t belong in the country’s physical and metaphorical spaces,” Aaniyah explains.
Women and youth in particular need an extra helping hand in overcoming the resultant fears and inadequacies, she reveals. This is why she is investing her energy in designing specific women’s and youth water programmes through the NPO. “I was incredibly lucky that my parents were nature lovers and made the effort to pass that on to me, to teach me to swim, and to encourage my love of the ocean. I wanted to make a contribution towards keeping these natural treasures clean and healthy for the next generation of South Africans.
The world is taking notice
For her pioneering work, Aaniyah was selected as an ambassador for Women for the Environment in Africa (WE Africa), an organisation dedicated to highlighting the work of women in the conservation space on the continent.
Further abroad, in 2019 Aaniyah journeyed to the UN Headquarters in New York to speak at a prestigious conference hosted by the Library Study Hall. “It was so inspiring to be among the brightest and best in the world, all concerned with saving the planet,” says Aaniyah. “It’s given me renewed determination to drive the work of The Beach Co-op further in South Africa.”
GET IN TOUCH WITH THIS CHANGEMAKER
“It’s easier than you think to make small changes. And those small changes can grow and grow and grow and create something really incredible!”