In action: Astronomy for a better world

Last month, I briefly visited the town of Sutherland with two other colleagues.

It is a town located about 350km from Cape Town. Its altitude, relative isolation and arid conditions make it a perfect spot for optical observations and hence is the pride of South African Astronomy. The town itself is a semi-rural settlement that faces several developmental challenges and economic hardships. Any visitor cannot help but notice the contrast between life in the Astronomical observatory (a few miles outside town) and in the town. Over the years, the South African Astronomical Observatory in partnership with the government and local stakeholders has undertaken initiatives to bridge this gap.

Sutherland is one of three major towns in the Karoo Hoogland Municipality in the Northern Cape province. It has a population of ~5000. Around 72% of households fall under the low income bracket and the standard of living is not high. Problems associated with any economically weaker community are evident here.

A lack of avenues and modern infrastructure has stunted growth in the region. Government statistics indicate low education levels, lack of skilled labour, a high unemployment rate¹ (23% in 2012).  and a negative economic growth (-5% in 2008-09).

For societal benefit
When the South African Large Telescope (SALT) began to be constructed a decade ago, it created more jobs for the community. It also spurred the establishment of guest houses targeted at the fledgling astro-tourism market.  In order to actively pursue a strategy for development, a program was established to channel the benefits derived from the Astronomy knowledge and technology of these telescopes for the betterment of the nearby communities. The SALT Collateral benefits Program (SCBP) swung into action “to facilitate education enhancement, science communication, socio-economic development and public engagement and thereby contribute to the improvement of the quality of life of all people within reach.”

As part of the program, the Sutherland Community Development Center was opened. It provides a space for the community to get together and a platform to run programs aimed at addressing challenges in the community. The center has computers that are free to use and share a portion of the observatory’s internet. For many, this internet connection is the only link to the outside world. There are also provisions for a study space and a small library. The community center is at the heart of activities run by the SCBP local team. Various outreach activities, star gazing sessions, talks by international visitors and even movie screenings are hosted at the center.

Most people in the community consider the center as a blessing, especially for their kids. It takes the children out of the streets and the computers are a source of life skills. For students, it is their only way of doing research and for many adults, it provides a way of developing new skills.

There is no question that SALT and the Sutherland observatory have had an effect on the community. Perhaps it is not the optimistic, fast transformation many might have hoped for in the beginning. But there is still time to go.

Astronomy and Science are catalysts of inspiration. But it is up to us to use them as drivers of development. For me, more than anything else, this experience drove home the point. Technological applications can really make a difference, not just in saving or enhancing lives but in moulding them.

As for the SCBP project in Sutherland, by no means is it complete, but the seeds have been sown.

¹ All statistics from source: Karoo Hoogland Municipality Integrated Development Plan 2015-16

This post was written by Ramasamy Venugopal, a visiting fellow at the OAD.