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© Koos van der Lende
© Koos van der Lende
KZN conservation jewel sets pace again

6 April 2005

THE Greater St Lucia B Wetland Park has been badly scarred in places. Along roads and on the slopes of coastal dunes are patches where only tree stumps remain, with such new growth as there is finding it hard to cover the earth.

But it is not all bad. The scenes of devastation are where commercial plantations have been removed to allow back the natural habitat.

Already there are spots where kudu browse among the indigenous plants that have replaced the pines and bluegums. And apparently water is again starting to seep from the ground in old wetlands that used to be sucked dry by these thirsty exotics.

The changes mark yet another turning point for a park that is an enigma of South African conservation.

Having barely survived some of the threats that have come its way over the years, these days it is at the forefront of meeting the challenges presented by our new society.

It has come a long way. Its original St Lucia parcel of land, now forming part of a protected area patchwork of 16 sections, has pride of place as South Africa‘s oldest game reserve, having been proclaimed as such under British colonial authority in 1895.

In 1999 the park was declared a World Heritage site, one of the the first three sites in South Africa to achieve this status, along with Robben Island and the Sterkfontein Caves.

Some environmentalists regard it as the jewel of our parks, consisting as it does of a 300 000ha ecological tapestry of lakes, wetlands, grasslands and forests, a rich variety of animal life, including about half of South Africa`s bird species, and a magnificent coastline and marine reserve.

Now it is setting the pace in devising innovative ways of balancing conservation requirements with community needs so that each contributes to the welfare of the other.

This pioneering role has been shaped as much by its setting among culturally diverse communities as by its rich history.

The park has survived rough times. There we were, not so many years ago, arguing heatedly over whether Richards Bay Minerals should be allowed to mine its dunes.

The politics of conservation have changed, from hostility to a more collaborative spirit between environmental agencies, communities and big business.

It is what has been happening on a grand scale in the case of St Lucia, as the park remains popularly known.

The mining dispute coincided with the worst political violence in KwaZulu-Natal, making it remarkable that the anti-mining campaigners were able to hold their lines against the machines, long enough for the new government finally to decide against mining in 1994.

Integrity

It perhaps came down to a choice between principle and practicality, but the decision to uphold the park‘s integrity as a protected area has much to do with its trend-setting role.

Ten years ago it was a mess. Part of it was being used by the old army as a missile-testing range. Large sections of its indigenous wildlife had long made way for commercial forestry. And adjacent communities, some of which had been forcibly removed from the park under the old regime, were adding pressures in the form of poaching, wood gathering, grazing and even land invasions.

Andrew Zaloumis, Chief Executive of the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park Authority, is among those who believe the successful public campaign that saved the 25 000-year-old coastal dunes from mining is mainly responsible for the special spirit of public care that has come to sustain the park.

He talks about the no-mining decision having paved the way for a broader, more positive reorientation of the way we value and manage our conservation assets, and he believes St Lucia provides a model for other initiatives around the country The park has certainly been getting some useful backing, much of it for purposes of meeting the requirements of its World Heritage status.

It is governed by a special Act of parliament which also set up its administrative authority It enjoys the involvement of Kwa- Zulu-Natal provincial conservation and has the support of nongovernmental organisations like the influential Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Wildlands Conservation Trust.

It also has the backing of the two powerful forestry companies, Sappi and Mondi, which are striving to compensate for their habitat-altering ways by helping to conserve important nature spots and supporting ecotourism projects.

Ecologically, it has seen a major turn-about.

Recovery

About 15 000ha of commercial forests have been making way for the region`s exquisite natural vegetation to start the long, hard process of recovery

Recently national Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, celebrated the plantation-clearance programme by ceremonially cutting down what was said to be the six-millionth pine tree.

Along the inland shore of Lake St Lucia, Siyaqhubeka, a Mondi-backed empowerment consortium that took over the state forests, has donated a strip of land to the park that runs for 158km in a jagged line along the shore to include special-habitats like wetlands. So trusting is the relationship that the forestry consortium‘s outer-security fence also serves as the park`s barrier, allowing elephants, rhinos, buffalo and other game to forage in its plantations.

But it is in the field of community involvement that St Lucia is claimed to offer the best case study.

Fragile

Zaloumis says the prime objective is to help develop the region‘s economy and so, in return, to encourage conservation of its fragile ecosystems.

To make it accessible to tourists, the new Lumbombo Road has been tarred right up to the Mozambique border. The proliferation of stalls along the roadside tell the story They sell pineapples, mangoes, bananas, vegetables and the usual crafts. Some, however, are also starting to offer increasingly sophisticated artefacts to suit a new brand of tourist customer.

With the road-building and other projects have come work opportunities, some permanent, most temporary But key to the plan is to make the communities actual business partners.

It is not easy. Lingering suspicions, politics and different systems of dealing and consultation make negotiations cumbersome and complicated.

Last year came a major breakthrough with the opening of the Thonga Beach Lodge, an upmarket resort hidden among the dunes north of Sodwana, in which the nearby Mabibi community has a substantial financial stake and business role.

Andre Oberholzer, corporate affairs head of Sappi, a leading sponsor and facilitator, says it THONGA Beach Lodge, which opened last year north of Sodwana. The local Mabibi community has a financial stake in the lodge and guaranteed employment opportunities took about nine years of negotiations to accomplish.

The project is one of eight concessions awarded for the development of nature-friendly ecotourism projects inside the park. A condition is that they should have a 75% black-empowerment factor, of which 20% should consist of local communities .

The projects amount to an estimated R450 million investment and about 4 500 temporary jobs are already said to have been created.

Zaloumis says much effort has been placed in turning round perceptions created by the forced removals of the past for conservation purposes. This has been done by settling land claims and by ensuring that people who once lived in the park became active partners in the infrastructure, delivery and economic development programmes.

If imaginative plans for northern KwaZulu-Natal succeed, St Lucia could become part of a contiguous conservation area joining several of the region‘s other exquisite reserves and even end up straddling the border with Mozambique as part of a massive transfrontier park.

Sunday TribuneLeon Marshall

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