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The Department of Agriculture, Environmental Affairs and Rural Development’s decision has been lauded as “pioneering, progressive and in line with South Africa’s signed commitment to expand the country’s protected areas”.
The scientific and planning staff at Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (EKZNW) greeted the landmark decision with delight, saying it took four years’ study and research, motivated by a growing urgency to preserve critical ecosystems and habitats in KwaZulu-Natal.
“This is a remarkable decision. As far as I am aware it is the first development application to be rejected … on biodiversity grounds alone,” said Jenny Longmore, principal conservation planner of EKZNW.
Longmore said more than 80% of the South Coast’s coastal grasslands have already been destroyed.
Debbie Jewitt, Ezemvelo’s ecosystem ecologist, said that over the past 15 years more than 72% of the South Coast coastal belt has been adversely transformed. “In 1994 this figure stood at 50%, so you can see the accelerated development that has wrought havoc on this coastline’s natural landscape and ecosystems. The impact of this over the years, on the loss of individual plant and animal species, as well as damage to the natural functioning of natural systems, is incalculable.”
While small in scale, the 18-hectare site, fittingly called “Fairview”, represents a microcosm of the original South Coast landscape: a mosaic of grassland, bush clumps, coastal forest grading into swamp forest, wetland and estuarine habitat. Saving this property is a start, say the conservationists.
Dr Clinton Carbutt, Ezemvelo’s protected area scientist, said the provincial government’s decision needs to be contextualised: “After all, South Africa has international and local commitments to biological diversity and the expansion of its protected areas. For example, we are signatories to the Convention on Biological Diversity, a global convention inspired by the world community’s growing commitment to sustainable development.”
The decision is “particularly significant” if viewed within the context of SA’s commitment to expanding its network of protected areas from its present eight percent of terrestrial land coverage to 17%, said the conservationists.
For Longmore, who has been at the heart of the environmental impact assessment (EIA) process, the decision to reject development of the site was “wonderfully enlightening … and perhaps the dawn of a realisation that critically endangered habitats should … be preserved”.
It is also topical, she said, given the notoriously transformed state of the South Coast’s coastline, a region Longmore said has historically witnessed a withering destruction of natural landscape, especially grassland.
All the intact ecological processes that function effectively within these habitats house a number of critically endangered and endemic plant species. Special consideration was given to the grassland coverage that comprises more than three quarters of Fairview’s 18 ha.
By protecting this parcel of land for conservation, Ezemvelo will also be able to safeguard the ecological integrity of the Umzumbe estuary. With about three-quarters of the region’s estuaries having been harmed by excessive off-take of water, wastewater disposal, agricultural development in catchments and habitat loss through development on floodplains, among other factors, the proclamation of Fairview as a protected area is considered critical to its health.
Both the estuary’s banks are considered to be in a natural condition, something that is particularly rare on the South Coast.
Recognising all of this in its finding, the department said that Fairview and neighbouring properties along the Umzumbe River estuary have “long-term … high conservation potential”.
Dr Carbutt said the challenge is to find the means to acquire the Fairview property and ensure its conservation status, either by buying the land outright, fund-raising for this purpose or placing the property under Ezemvelo’s stewardship programme, provided there is a willing landowner.
“This is …a significant interruption to rampant development at all costs. I sincerely hope it sets a precedent for development proposals that pay little heed to preserving our open spaces and the biological diversity and habitats they contain,” Dr Carbutt said.