Wilderness – a positive force for social change

WildSwans (1)The Wilderness Foundation, partner of the Beyond Forgiving initiative, hosted the South African protagonists, Ginn Fourie and Letlapa Mphahlele, in Northern Ireland on the Beyond Forgiving UK Tour.

The Belfast visit was facilitated through Irish and English partnering organisations: The Wilderness Foundation, Hazelwood Integrated College (HIC), Start360 and INCORE (International Conflict Research Institute). All partners recognise the role that wilderness can play as a medium for effective change in conflict resolution and leadership development and how models for this can be shared across the world.

The Wilderness Foundation is a socio-environmental charity who use the power of nature to educate, address social issues, and measure the benefits of nature to society and individuals. Major projects include supporting young people ‘at risk’ to change the destructive course of their lives to become valued contributors in society; cultivate a network of young leaders to lead their communities to a better future; evaluate the impact of wilderness on the reconciliation process between former political adversaries and ex-combatants in Northern Ireland and South Africa.

Jo Roberts, CEO of the Wilderness Foundation, believes the role of the wild is vital in ‘retaining our sense of humanity’ given the frenetic nature of today’s society. She comments: ‘The Wilderness Foundation has been a pioneer in using wilderness as a positive force for social change. This has been achieved by taking political, business and community leaders, as well as historically disadvantaged youth, through our programmes which allow them to experience wild nature – often for the first time. The basic belief is that wilderness is the foundation stone upon which society has existed from since time began – it is a blueprint for life. This sense is often lost when people become highly urbanised and do not have access to nature or wild areas in which they can escape the pressures, noise and activity of our cities.’

The Wilderness Foundation’s Wild Swans Programme is committed to promoting the values of women’s leadership and addressing the gender gap in business, environmental and social leadership

Youth at Risk

Young people from Hazelwood Integrated College, one of the first interfaith schools located in the middle of Belfast’s peace line, and Start360 (formerly Opportunity Youth), met with Ginn and Letlapa on the tour. Kathleen Gormley, Principal of Hazelwood College, commenting on the pressures and need for strong leadership in Northern Ireland says, ’the visible sign of reconciliation is in our school crest and the journey which has been made by Hazelwood is a lesson to anyone in leadership to have the vision and stick to it and not bow down under a weight of negativity.’ To hear the Beyond Forgiving story was a chance for the young people to voice their opinion around healing and forgiveness.


Professor Brandon Hamber

‘Even with the best of intentions, erasing the past can prevent new generations from learning critical lessons while forever compromising opportunities to build a peaceful future.’

Speaking at the event, Roberts highlighted how adolescents can commonly face peer pressure with regards to gang involvement, violence, alcohol, drugs, sex and pregnancy that potentially place them ‘at risk’. Wilderness and Start360 both provide services to young people including peacebuilding and justice programmes, personal development and self-esteem growth.

Anne-Marie McClure MBE, Director of Start360 and a former nurse, who helped set up the organisation in 1993, says, ‘Our aim is to make a real difference to young people’s lives and to build a safer community in Northern Ireland.’ Their work involves acting as mentors for young people in custody, and working with adult prisoners who face drug or alcohol addiction, amongst their many services.

Drawing on the Foundation’s flagship initiative, Roberts outlined the compelling benefits for wilderness intervention for the youth at risk, using examples from their project in Essex: ‘The TurnAround Project in the UK is an intensive intervention that aims to address negative behaviour in youth at risk. Over the course of a 12-month period, project beneficiaries engage in wilderness trails; monthly nature-based activity workshops and regular mentoring sessions with community-based volunteers. The aim or outcome is for youth to return to education or employment on an ongoing basis on which they average an 85 per cent success rate each cycle.’

Commenting on the psychological and social benefits that wilderness can offer participants, she says, ‘It represents a personal growth process and the majority of participants learn how to manage their behaviour and express their emotions (ranging from anger to love and affection) constructively whilst being pushed well out of their comfort zone. As the programme progresses, the frequency of negative events reduces, criminal activity declines, substance abuse improves and they display less anti-social behaviour. Thus, major differences in their behaviour are observed between the beginning and end of the programme.’ The Wilderness Foundation measure their outcomes in a key partnership of many years with the University of Essex.

Roberts states: ‘The project instigated positive change for all concerned and young people leave the programme with better self esteem and communication skills; enhanced psychological health and wellbeing; a new set of coping skills; strengthened family relationships, greater awareness of personal behaviour patterns, a renewed interest in school and a set of future goals and challenges to address. They are also more hopeful about life which is a key to continuing to move forwards.’

Peace cultivation

Wilderness interventions for reconciliation have long been used by organisations such as the National Peace Accord Trust (NAPT) in South Africa working with former combatants from the Apartheid struggle. Roberts recalls her youth: ‘Growing up in Apartheid South Africa, and luckily from a politically aware family, encouraged me to be deeply interested in people, justice, politics, inhumanity/humanity and the meaning of life in general. I could not be bland, or disinterested in life, because each time I looked out of a window I was confronted with the reality of South Africa and what was going on between its people. At 16 I remember hearing about the riots in Soweto on the radio… whilst feeling disconnected from the reality of the situation, as we were in an all-white, privileged private school and had never met with our black 16-yearold counterparts in the townships… We were so far apart socially and geographically we could have been on different planets. This was something I wanted to address and be sure my children were never so cut off from others in the same way.’

Working with peacebuilding partnership programme, The Sustainable Peace Programme, Roberts pays tribute to fellow South African Wilhelm Verwoerd’s work, and says: ‘The Sustainable Peace Network in Ireland emerged from the Glencree Survivors and former combatants programme… to promote dialogue and sustainable relationships between victims/survivors, ex-combatants and the wider society in Ireland and Britain between 2002 – 2008.’

The development of the ‘excombatants programme’ has built ‘bridges across the world divides’ as it took one loyalist and one republican ex-prisoner to South Africa. Roberts comments, ‘The visit included exposure to South Africa’s political transition and the socio-economic inequalities arising from Apartheid. A central feature was a shared wilderness experience, facilitated by the Wilderness Leadership School.

For a few days two former enemies were walking together in a place of unspoilt beauty, crossing crocodile infested rivers, sleeping on the ground, protecting each other while on guard duty against dangerous animals. The friendship that grew out of this experience echoed similar results achieved with employing Wilderness to bring South African ex-combatants together.’

It was fitting that the Beyond Forgiving Tour ended at 174 Trust (a new Healing and Reconciliation Centre) in the centre of Belfast. This part of the tour was in association with INCORE as part of ‘The Accounts of the Conflict’ project based at the University of Ulster, and its Director Professor Brandon Hamber.

Hamber who also worked as a key facilitator and lead on SPN, commented: ‘Even with the best of intentions, such as to promote reconciliation after deeply divisive events by “turning the page”, erasing the past can prevent new generations from learning critical lessons while forever compromising opportunities to build a peaceful future.’ With a sentiment for responsibility towards change Mphahlele also comments: ‘History is just in process… we cannot wait for politicians or leaders to make the decisions to pave the way. It is the chance for each and every one of us to take part in the on-going processes of change.’

Wilderness: a symbol of humanity

Out of discussions and storytelling around campfires in the wilderness grew the idea of the Wilderness Foundation – to acknowledge and honour the web of relationships, interconnectedness between wildlife, wild places, human beings and urban environment.

The symbol of the Wilderness Leadership School is the Erythina Tree (Msinsi in Zulu) – a natural trinity of life. The ethos of the Wilderness Foundation is: ‘The Msinsi is a tree found in the wild and also in the settlements. It is our job to take people from the settlements to the wild and then bring them back again. The leaf has three points and each point contains a message – Man to God, Man to Man and Man to Earth.’


Jo Roberts with Ginn and Letlapa at South Africa House on the UK Beyond Forgiving Tour.

As our two South African protagonists continue their journey and carry the message of forgiveness across world divides they share much with the Wilderness for the ‘restoration of humanity’ and social change.

by Yee-Liu Williams