Forestry and conservation - an unlikely partnership

August 31, 2008

Environmentalists and commercial foresters in South Africa frequently find themselves in different camps, pointing fingers at each other from opposite sides of the fence. So the pioneering partnership between the iSimangaliso Wetland Park and SiyaQhubeka Forests, who operate side by side within a World Heritage Site nature reserve, is understandably confusing. In fact this unlikely partnership may be a world first, and proves not only that these two land use activities are not mutually exclusive, but also that government and the private sector can work together.

iSimangaliso Wetland Park map

Elephants in Siyaqhubeka Quava sprayers
A herd of elephants strolling along the eco-track which separates the Park from the SiyaQhubeka plantations. Contractors spraying guava in a rehabilitated zone.

The commercial forests were incorporated into iSimangaliso for a number of reasons:

  • The commercial forestry provides additional protection from human encroachment on the western boundary by creating a 'buffer zone' or controlled access area, which is a requirement of the World Heritage Protection Act.
  • It created an opportunity for incorporating and conserving sensitive wetland areas which feed fresh water into the lake. At the same time it increased the land area available to the animals thus allowing unhindered movement over a bigger area.One of the mandates of iSimangaliso is to encourage commercial activities which create jobs and opportunities for surrounding communities. Commercial forestry operations fulfilled this function. Moreover SiyaQhubeka, which was awarded the tender to operate the forests, is a partnership between Mondi, black empowerment group IL Holdings, government and local communities, and has a similar mandate to employ people from local communities for contracting work and so on. Thus there is a lot of synergy between iSimangaliso and SiyaQhubeka in this regard.Finally, the commercial forests were already there. They were established by Safcol on the Eastern and Western shores of Lake St Lucia in the 1950s.

The question of where it is appropriate to have plantations and where they should be removed in order to secure the integrity of iSimangaliso was the subject of extensive studies and negotiation between the various role players. Given that iSimangaliso is essentially a giant wetland system and commercial forestry is a stream flow reduction activity, the decisions as to where the forestry should end and the Park begin was critical to the long-term success and sustainability of the whole project.

This work was undertaken by a Special Working Group comprising representatives of iSimangaliso KZN Wildlife, the state, NGOs and SiyaQhubeka.

The innovative solution to the problem of how to manage and delineate the interface between the commercial forestry and iSimangaliso was to create an eco-track, comprising a cleared area and an adjoining 40-metre wide firebreak. The eco-track is a clear boundary line demarcating the western edge of iSimangaliso and the commercial forestry land.

(Afforestation Zone) operated by SiyaQhubeka. It is 158 km long, and has not been drawn in straight lines. Instead it follows the natural features of the landscape, ensuring that important wetlands and catchments are protected while maximizing the area available for forestry.

In terms of the agreement, all the commercial plantations outside of the eco-track have been removed and the rehabilitation of the land to its natural state is continuing.

The total area cleared was 8 093 ha of gum and pine on the Western Shores, and 6 200 ha of pine on the Eastern Shores.

The Working Group also laid the ground rules of the working relationships between iSimangaliso, SiyaQhubeka, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and the communities, including the terms of shared responsibility for the management of the eco-track and the land on either side of it in order to effectively manage both the forestry and Park land.

In terms of the agreement, SiyaQhubeka is to pay for conservation and land management in the Afforestation Zone, which includes patrolling and maintaining the perimeter fence, eco-track, firebreaks and the rehabilitation of those portions of this zone to be rehabilitated to its natural state.

In addition, 3% of turnover from forestry operations is to be allocated to conservation management and research.

Thus in the final analysis, SiyaQhubeka is responsible for managing its own Afforestation Zone and the eco-track, and maintaining its portion of the perimeter fence, while iSimangaliso is responsible for managing the land east of the eco-track.

The wild animals, which can move unhindered throughout iSimangaliso and the Afforestation Zone, are managed by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (formerly KZN Wildlife).

Perhaps this partnership is best understood by considering the benefits that flow to both iSimangaliso and SiyaQhubeka from these complex arrangements.

Benefits for the Park

  • By clearing plantations from the Eastern Shores and the Natural Zone on the Western Shores, the ecosystems which sustain the healthy functioning of the lake and its surrounds is enhanced. Returning these areas to their natural state also enhances the aesthetic value and thus the eco-tourism potential of iSimangaliso. All these actions were required in terms of World Heritage Site standards.
  • Although the electrified perimeter fence in the Afforestation Zone was erected by iSimangaliso, the agreement provides for SiyaQhubeka to patrol, manage and repair the fence, which is approximately 85 kms long. Thus iSimangaliso was able to secure the western boundary.
  • The Afforestation Zone, bordered by the electrified outer perimeter fence in the west and the eco-track, established a buffer zonenecessary in terms of the World Heritage Site standards to protect iSimangaliso from human encroachment.
  • Incorporation of the rehabilitated areas and the Afforestation Zone created a bigger Park which facilitated the free movement of animals, and the maintenance of natural migration routes.

Benefits for SiyaQhubeka

  • SiyaQhubeka has access to the Nyalazi portion of the estate adjacent to the park for eco-tourism purposes. Thus SQF has an opportunity to become a concessionaire and take tourists into the park for game viewing and so on.
  • The setting aside of land as ecological zones and the management of these according to the standards set by iSimangaliso assists SQF to comply with FSC requirements. Moreover its partnership with iSimangaliso enhances its standing as an environmentally responsible company.
  • Maximises SQF's access to fibre while not encroaching on important ecological systems.

Benefits for the communities
The reality is that there are 600 000 people living within a 20 km radius of the park's boundaries, in some of the poorest areas in the country. Unless these people see the value of maintaining iSimangaliso as a protected area and derive some benefits therefrom, its long-term sustainability would be under threat.
"The creation of benefits beyond the boundaries of the park is an imperative, whether it's forestry or conservation," explains iSimangaliso CEO Andrew Zaloumis.

Thus, wherever possible people drawn from local communities are employed in land rehabilitation work and/or to provide services in the eco-tourism enterprises. This policy is adhered to by both SQF and iSimangaliso.

Communities are also allowed to collect reeds and other grasses used in the manufacture of crafts, and may graze their cattle in designated areas.

Rehabilitating afforested land back to its natural state
Anybody who went to Cape Vidal in years gone by will remember driving through the endless pine plantations on the strip of land between the coastal dunes and Lake St Lucia. The pine and gum plantations on the Eastern and Western Shores were established by Safcol in the 1950s.

But now the landscape is changing, and all you'll see on the Eastern Shores are indigenous grasslands and woodlands, and a lot of wild animals like buck, rhino, giraffe, buffalo and wildebeest.

If you look closely, however, the commercial tree stumps are still visible, though they will be completely gone in a few years.

These stumps are evidence of the massive clearing of commercial plantations that has occurred in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park (formerly the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park), as it is now known. Since 2000 a total of 14 293 hectares of pine and gum on the Eastern and Western Shores have been clearfelled and the land rehabilitated to its natural state at a cost of some R10,9 million.

The removal of the plantations and rehabilitation of the land hasbeen undertaken under the guidance of an experienced forester, Willie Lacock, who was employed by Safcol and has been seconded to iSimangaliso. SQF took over the Nyalazi and Dukuduku plantations from Safcol after the privatization process in 1999.

The work on the ground has been undertaken by two forestry contracting companies, Thuthugani and Ukula, and 22 small businesses established in terms of iSimangaliso's mandate.

The work methods employed were as follows:

Pine plantations

  • All pine felled, commercially viable or not
  • Hand pull or slash self-seeded pines
  • Burn waste
  • Treat weed invasion (Chromolaena, Guava, Bugweed etc) with an initial and up to five follow-up treatments.

Eucalyptus plantations

  • All gums felled – commercially viable or not
  • Chemical treatment of all stumps or coppice
  • Burn waste
  • 2nd coppice treatment
  • Treat weed invasion with an initial and up to five follow-up treatments.

Except for the presence of old stumps, which are rapidly disappearing, and stacks of slash here and there left over from the more recently clearfelled compartments, there appears to be little difference between the rehabilitated land and undisturbed land, and they blend seamlessly into each other. Certainly the presence of wild animals in significant numbers indicates that there is plenty of natural food in the rehabilitated areas.

However there are some differences, which can best be seen from the high coastal dunes which overlook the Eastern Shores. The undisturbed grasslands are more open, whereas the rehabilitated lands have more low woodlands emerging. Careful land management by iSimangaliso, under the guidance of Land Care Technical Manager, Mike Bouwer, is aimed at restoring the natural balance between grasslands and woodlands.

However on-going monitoring and follow-up treatment is essential to keep the weeds out of both the rehabilitated and undisturbed areas, particularly on the Western Shores where Guava is a major problem.

Another indicator of the changing landscape is the presence of water in countless pans, vleis and streams in the rehabilitated areas that were dry during the forestry years. According to Willie and Mike, the water was back within months of the trees being taken out. It's this flow of fresh water which is so important for the health of Lake St Lucia, especially during dry seasons when salinity levels in the lake are high.

It is these considerations that informed the delineation process which identified land suitable for forestry and land which needed to be returned to its natural state.

Regular liaison meetings are held between SQF, iSimangaliso and Ezemvelo Wildlife to align their activities and iron out problems. Issues that arise in these meetings range from sharing information about firebreak/conservation burning, alien weed clearance operations to contingencies around the introduction of new animals to the park, community grazing rights and poaching.

SQF foresters and contractors busy working in the Afforestation Zone receive training in how to behave around wild animals, and contribute information relating to animal conservation and management.

There are no lions in the park, but there are leopard, cheetah and hyena which can be dangerous to humans. Elephants also cross freely from the Park to the plantations, and are frequently seen in the eco-track. The elephants can damage the commercial trees, and there has been one incident of a security guard being killed by an elephant. Such issues are potentially divisive and must be carefully managed.

In the final analysis, the success of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park in protecting an area of rich biodiversity, generating revenue and jobs for the benefit of local communities and maintaining a viable partnership with private forestry will contribute immensely to the success of the region.

Some interesting facts about iSimangaliso Wetland Park

  • The Greater St Lucia Wetland Park was established in 2000 in terms of the World Heritage Convention Act, and became the mandated authority to manage the Park. It's name was subsequently changed to the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.
  • The park was created from a consolidation of 16 parcels of previously fragmented land into a single protected area covering approximately 325 000 ha, and extending 230 kms from Mapelane in the south to the Mozambique border in the north.
  • The iSimangaliso authority reports to the Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism.
  • 100% of the park is subject to land claims. At the time of writing, nine land claims covering over 75% of the Park have been settled. In terms of the settlements the successful claimants do not get occupational rights, but get a portion of the revenue generated by the park, access to jobs and the opportunity to be partners in economic development.
  • All unnecessary buildings and structures within iSimangaliso are being removed. These include the old missile testing and training base used by the national defence force at Hells Gate on the Western Shores.
  • iSimangaliso is an important component of the Lubombo Spatial Development Initiative established in northern KwaZulu-Natal, southern Mozambique and eastern Swaziland as a trilateral development process between the governments of the three countries. The main aim is to stimulate development by focusing on tourism. A spinoff of the initiative has been a massive government/private sector partnership to eradicate malaria in these areas.
  • The clearing of commercial forestry inside iSimangaliso, the rehabilitation of wetlands and the development of new trails and tourism experiences has resulted in a 59% increase in business over the past few years with bed occupancies now above the national average.

Published in July/August 2008

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