iSimangaliso - Remarkable Victory for Nature
Judge Mohini Moodley has dismissed the application by uMfolozi Sugar Planters UCOSP and two farmers against the iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority, and the Departments of Environment Affairs, Water and Sanitation, Rural Land Reform and Development and Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries. In her closing on Friday 20 May 2016, Moodley concluded that the interim relief had run its course and dismissed the main application along with two others. Reasons for the judgement and costs would follow.
Moodley noted that this matter had demanded a great deal from iSimangaliso and UCOSP and that in the interests of justice and both parties, it was expedient to make a judgement immediately so that the relationship between the parties could be regulated.
Ms Andrea Gabriel, counsel for iSimangaliso, argued that this matter affected the lives of some 80 000 people who are dependent on the Lake St Lucia Estuary for subsistence livelihoods, as well as the tourism and fisheries industries. Gabriel gave the environment a voice when she said this matter was about protecting the interests of “all inhabitants and living organisms dependent on the coastal environment”. She asked the court, “What are we going to tell our children and to South Africa, about what we did to save St Lucia?”
Ms Nicolette Forbes and Prof Derek Stretch gave expert estuarine and engineering evidence. On hearing the judgement, Forbes said, “This is as big - if not bigger - than the no-mining decision by President Nelson Mandela’s cabinet in 1996.”
The no mining campaign was chaired by the late Dr Nolly Zaloumis and supported by over 500 000 thousand ordinary South Africans, who signed a petition that the dunes of Lake St Lucia’s Eastern Shores not be dune mined for minerals but used instead for conservation and tourism. Recognising that there was no other place like the globally unique Lake St Lucia, it was acknowledged as the jewel when iSimangaliso was listed by UNESCO as South Africa’s first world heritage site in 1999.
Kemp J Kemp appeared for UCOSP and the two farmers, Mr Paul Van Rooyen and Mr Petrus Maphumulo, in three urgent applications brought against iSimangaliso. In what amounts to ‘bullying by litigation’, the first application was served in August 2015 following no less than 14 threats of legal action against iSimangaliso. The August application was concluded in October 2015 by settlement agreement. In December 2015 and March 2016, two further urgent applications were filed for alleged non-compliance with the settlement agreement by iSimangaliso. The three applications were all set down to be heard in the Durban High Court on 19 and 20 May 2016.
The dispute between the parties concerned the breaching of the uMfolozi River to the sea. UCOSP and the two farmers contended they had a right to do this to alleviate backflooding on certain low-lying farms. The farms in question comprised less than 1% of the 9127ha under sugarcane.
iSimangaliso contended that it was implementing a management strategy for the estuary that had been developed after consultation with UCOSP. The consultations and discussions had started in 2008. iSimangaliso argued that despite repeated attempts to impress upon UCOSP the implications of farming on land located in the tidal zone in the face of climate change, UCOSP had failed to deliver on its promises to improve its flood protection measures. Reports commissioned by UCOSP showed that land had slumped by 1m in 26 years and would continue to do so – albeit at an undetermined rate.
Andrew Zaloumis, CEO of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park said, “Lake St Lucia’s lifeblood has been returned. The uMfolozi River is the major source of freshwater into Africa’s largest estuarine lake and the engine that keeps its mouth open to the sea. This is a story of environmental justice for the 800 hippos and 1200 large crocodiles whose home is the Lake as well as many other endemic and threatened species. And for the people who depend on Lake St Lucia, this verdict comes as a relief after the many court applications that threatened their livelihoods. Tourism directly related to this estuary generates approximately R1.2billion in revenue for the area and creates in the region of 7000 jobs. It is also central to the fisheries industry on the east coast of Africa.”
“We would like to thank the national and provincial departments of Environmental Affairs, Ezemvelo, the legal team of Andrea Gabriel, Steve Raney and Terri Castis, and the local community, who worked hard to champion the environment and the people who depend on it. Our invitation to the farmers to build a collaborative relationship stands and we hope they will take it up.”
Mr Zaloumis extended his hand to Mr Paul van Rooyen and Mr Lawrence McGrath (the Chairman and General Manager of UCOSP), inviting them and all the farmers to re-engage as neighbours with iSimangaliso to work towards a win-win solution that does not compromise the globally recognised and acclaimed St Lucia Estuary.