Coast KZN

05 Apr 2022

iSimangaliso World Heritage Site boundary fence hacked down in new land invasion bid

Tony Carnie (Daily Maverick: Our Burning Planet) Picture: Supplied. Aspiring land claimants enter the forest carrying bushknives.

A crowd of about 400 people gathered inside and along the boundary fence of the Futululu indigenous forest on Tuesday in a renewed effort to claim land within the iSimangaliso Wetland Park and World Heritage Site in northern KwaZulu-Natal.

While a contingent of police stood by at the roadside, the crowd refused to leave the forest despite appeals by conservation officials from the iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority.

A section of the park’s boundary fence was also chopped down along the road to Monzi to provide easy access to the southern section of the park, the last remnant of the Dukuduku coastal lowland forest that has been steadily chopped down and destroyed due to human settlement in recent decades.

A similar invasion of the Futululu forest began last week, directly opposite the SA Defence Force’s 121 Battalion base near Mtubatuba, with some sources reporting that people had been paying between R100 and R250 to unidentified parties to secure plots in the forest. It is understood that military officials advised the would-be occupants to leave.

But on Monday, a separate section of the park boundary fence was chopped down and on Tuesday a crowd estimated at around 400 people gathered at a new incursion point along the road to Monzi village. A large number of people entered the forest and began to clear away vegetation to mark out small plots of land.

A uniformed park official inspects part of the boundary fence that was chopped down this week by people claiming land in the Futululu forest near Lake St Lucia. (Photo: Supplied)

Sources suggest there are two factions, the first made up of subsistence farmers whose plots in the uMfolozi River floodplain have been inundated by floodwaters following the recent heavy rains and the natural closure of the river mouth next to St Lucia village. The second, larger faction, is allegedly made up of “opportunists” seeking housing and farming plots.

A local resident, who did not wish to be named, said a contingent of police were standing by at the roadside, along with conservation staff from iSimangaliso, community leaders and some community members “who do not want to come out of the forest”.

A SA Police Services contingent stands by next to the site of the latest land invasion into the Futululu forest near Lake St Lucia in KwaZulu-Natal. (Photo: Supplied)

“It started around 7 am today (5 April) and people are asking iSimangaliso to prove that the place belongs to them. Some of the community have lawyers who have instructed them to settle there.

“The police went to bring them back but they (the new occupants) never came out. Others are outside and it seems there is no solution.”

A second source from the area reported that there was a crowd of about 400 people inside or along the boundary of the park along Monzi road.

Land plot seekers arrived on foot or in vehicles from far and wide. (Photo: Supplied)

“There are two factions — subsistence farmers whose land has been back-flooded by the uMfolozi River and a second, larger faction of opportunists who have apparently paid around R100 per stand, which is illegal.”

Some of the community representatives had demanded proof that the forest was legally inside the boundaries of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. They called for the executive leadership of iSimangaliso to address them and also wanted clarity on reports that the estuary mouth had “been blocked off with concrete” to stop it from being reopened to the sea.

Part of the 400-strong crowd of people at the site of the Futululu land invasion. (Photo: Supplied)

It is understood that a small delegation of community leaders was driven to the lake estuary and shown that the mouth had not been blocked with concrete, while efforts were made to show that forest land was legally part of the park.

Sources have also confirmed that several pieces of forest land have been cleared of vegetation or demarcated with branches or, in some cases, with red and white plastic hazard tape.

Last night Albi Modise, spokesman for the national Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment, referred queries to the iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority, the delegated authority which oversees the management of the World Heritage Site.

This image taken on 29 March shows how hazard tape has been used to stake out plots of land inside Futululu forest. (Photo: Supplied)

Late yesterday, iSimangaliso park spokesperson Bheki Manzini called on local communities to work towards an “amicable solution” and be cautious about accepting “half-truths” or being seduced into buying land parcels in the park illegally.

“It must be understood that the land is proclaimed for conservation and we want to discourage people from trying to buy stands or engage in illegal activity.

“Some people are being hyped-up by half-truths… There were a number of engagements today with the community in the presence of the police and our team for security reasons, after some members of the community came with allegations that we had ‘blocked’ the Lake St Lucia estuary mouth — which is not correct. Why would we want to close the mouth? We would like to see the estuary opening and closing as naturally as possible.

“Some community members claimed that the park authority had built a ‘wall’ to block off the river from the sea. But there is no such wall. Nothing has been blocked. We even took people there today to show them, and they saw that they are being fed the wrong information.”

Rather than arresting people who had entered the park illegally, conservation authorities preferred to seek an amicable solution, he said.

“But if those avenues are exhausted, we cannot rule out the legal route, which may include arrests,” he said, adding that another meeting was planned for next week with the local chief and traditional leadership structures. DM/OBP