Our Burning Planet

HERITAGE SITE INCURSION

KZN’s iSimangaliso Wetland Park authority searches for answer to land invasion threat to protected forest

Chief executive of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park Sibusiso Bukhosini. (Photo: Supplied)

After the recent attempted land occupation of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, the CEO of the Wetland Park Authority, Sibusiso Bukhosini, says he wants to find a balance between considering social issues of farmers who have faced back-flooding from the wetland and fulfilling their mandate of conserving the unique natural landscape.

On 24 March, more than 200 people threatened to occupy and clear the Futululu forest in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a World Heritage Site in northern KwaZulu-Natal. Futululu is the largest remaining patch of coastal lowland forest in the country.

CEO of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority, Sibusiso Bukhosini, told Daily Maverick at the SANParks tourism investment summit on 31 March that “we are relying on working very closely with the local leadership, but also engaging the perpetrators themselves on what exactly is happening”. 

Bukhosini said they were working closely with the police as the attempted land invasion was illegal. And while they are taking into account the community’s perspective, iSimangaliso’s prime mandate as a conservation authority was to protect and conserve the park, which was a state asset.

“We understand that they [the community] are frustrated, and maybe they are trying to demonstrate how angry they are. But the fact of the matter is that this is not going to solve the problem. Sitting around a table and finding a common solution… is something that needs to be explored,” he said.

Already, sugar farms and vegetable plots along the Umfolozi River are affected by back-flooding — when the river mouth closes, water flows on to surrounding farms instead of into the sea.

In the past, for the benefit of sugar farmers, anglers and holidaymakers in the area, the St Lucia system was managed by artificially breaching the mouth. 

But 10 years ago, hydrologists, ecologists and estuarine experts warned the iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority that this human intervention robbed the lake of more than 50% of its freshwater flows. 

Initially, authorities took a hands-off approach, but then seemed to cave to pressure from farmers and bulldozed the mouth open again.

In response to the artificial breaching of the estuary mouth, several scientists wrote an open letter to Environment Minister Barbara Creecy, saying this was contrary to scientific recommendations.

The letter stated: “This action [artificially breaching the Lake St Lucia estuary mouth] is contrary to the recommendations which were arrived at and accepted by this same entity, the iSimangaliso Authority, as well as by the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries after a detailed scientific study was conducted.”

The letter said the study “specifically recommended that no artificial breaching of the mouth was to take place”.

Emphasising the ecological importance of the Lake St Lucia estuary — a dominant feature of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park — the letter said: “It is the largest estuary in the country and constitutes 60% of the total estuarine area nationally and 80% of the sub-tropical estuarine area, with a critical role as a fish and prawn nursery ground along the east coast. 

“Threats and impairments to its functioning are consequently significant on national and regional scales.” 

Creecy then appointed an independent scientific panel to determine whether the breaching followed the estuary maintenance plan. 

“That is what the scientists are sorting out,” said Bukhosini, emphasising that the report is considering social, commercial and business issues.

“So there is not only an ecological aspect that is being looked into, because there are people whose livelihoods depend on farming — small-scale and large-scale.”

The downside, Bukhosini said, is that due to the ongoing investigation, the iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority was unable to engage with the community in order to remain impartial. 

“And unfortunately, that gap created a sense of discomfort among [people in the area]. And that is where this whole thing [the attempted land invasion] is coming from.”

The Authority’s willingness to engage with the community doesn’t necessarily mean the land invaders will get their way.

“Our task is to conserve, to manage that piece of land, to protect the assets of the state… the fence and obviously the land itself,” said Bukhosini.

“So in cases where there are aspects of criminality, we will have to act and engage the police and set the tone because we are the government at the end of the day.” 

However, Bukhosini said that speaking to affected residents was a priority for them. “We do our level best in terms of making sure that we engage communities.”

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Striking a balance 

One solution to the impasse might be to relocate farms from the floodplains as the park needs water to come from the catchment area into the estuary. 

“From the side of conservation, we want the estuary to be functioning properly,” said Bukhosini. “From the side of the communities and the farmers, they need to make a living. How do we strike that balance?

“This is a complex and very dynamic and sensitive issue because it touches on livelihoods, it touches on the status of the world heritage site… so we do need to show those sides,” said Bukhosini. 

He said it was not just the job of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority to stop land invasions, as both the Departments of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment and Water and Sanitation needed to assist. 

At last week’s summit, Creecy was asked for comment on the forest invasion, but she referred the matter to Bukhosini. She did, however, say in her address at the 9th People and Parks Conference earlier in the day, that it was important to engage with local communities to conserve biodiversity and ecology.

At the SANParks tourism investment summit, designed to present tourism business opportunities within South Africa’s national parks to the private sector, Creecy said: “In South Africa, the very existence of national parks is an outcome of land dispossession, and this presents intricacies to our community relations and specific obligations to these communities.” DM/OBP

 

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