Environmental Rights Win at iSimangaliso

21 June 2016

A victory for environmental rights has been achieved as a court bid by two farmers to force iSimangaliso Wetland Park World Heritage Site to artificially breach the uMfolozi River mouth has failed.

The verdict comes as a welcomed response after two farmers took iSimangaliso to court in order to breach the river so they could drain their lands into the sea. The uMfolozi Sugar Planters Ltd, better known as UCOSP,  and two farmers launched an interdict in the High Court in August 2015 to compel iSimangaliso to breach the uMfolozi river mouth to the sea. The application was launched on an urgent basis to enable the draining of floodwaters from less than 94ha or 1% of the 9 427ha of land under sugarcane on the uMfolozi floodplain.

Armed with buckets and spades members of the surrounding iSimangaliso Wetland Park communities, tour operators, business owners and staff alike staged a protest on Wednesday 16 March, following a court interdict compelling iSimangaliso to create a breach out to sea. The community had been witness to the effects of the fresh-water breach.  

In the long run, the continued artificial draining of the river into the see would have had adverse ecological consequences and there were possible knock-on effects to the 15 000 households whose livelihoods depended on the lake as well as 6 924 direct and indirect tourism jobs. iSimangaliso argued that by allowing the water to run out to sea‚ the lake and its environment would be severely damaged. The park said that any damage to the ecologically-sensitive environmental would affect the lives of the 80‚000 people who were dependent on Lake St Lucia for subsistence‚ and would also have a negative impact of the area’s tourism potential.

The iSimangaliso Wetland Park is one of the jewels of South Africa's coastline, with a unique ecosystem of swamps, lakes, beaches, coral reefs, wetlands, woodlands, coastal forests and grasslands - supporting an astounding diversity of animal, bird and marine life. iSimangaliso's wide variety of ecosystems and natural habitats provides for an astounding diversity of species in the area. With its lakes, lagoons, freshwater swamps and grasslands, iSimangaliso supports more species of animal than the better-known and much larger Kruger National Park and Okavango Delta - from the country's largest population of hippos and crocodiles to Giant Leatherback turtles, black rhino, leopards, and a vast array of bird and marine life. According to Andrew Zaloumis, iSimangaliso CEO, “The estuary itself supports high levels of biodiversity and viable populations of threatened species, and provides ecosystem services to the region and to the entire south-east African coast.”

iSimangaliso, which means ‘miracle and wonder’ was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999.  In its declaration, UNESCO said “The interplay of the park's environmental heterogeneity with major floods and coastal storms, and a transitional geographic location between sub-tropical and tropical Africa, has resulted in exceptional species diversity.” Its mosaic of landforms and habitat types creates superlative scenic vistas. The site contains critical habitat for a range of species from Africa's marine, wetland and savannah environments.

Andrew Zaloumis welcomed the ruling saying that the life blood of Lake St Lucia had been returned. He went on to say that the ruling was one of “environmental justice” for the 800 hippos and 1‚200 large crocodiles that lived in the lake. Zaloumis expressed relief, saying  “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 R1.2 billion in revenue for the area and creates in the region of 7‚000 jobs. It is also central to the fisheries industry on the east coast of Africa.”

Cullinan & Associates applauds the decision of the court to uphold the constitutionally enshrined environmental right and the rights of the local communities whose survival is entwined with the lake’s . By standing up to the private commercial interests that have sought to wreak irreversible damage on the eco-systems of the iSimangaliso area, the Durban High Court has taken a stand for the long-term survival and sustainability of the local communities and the wetlands on which they depend.

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