Ndumo game reserve, on the border with Mozambique in northern KwaZulu-Natal, is the centre of a land-claim dispute that could set a precedent for numerous community land claims in game parks throughout the country.
The KwaZulu-Natal MEC for Traditional and Environmental Affairs, Nyanga Ngubane, has agreed to temporarily allocate 10ha of land in the reserve for cultivation, effectively bypassing the official land claim in process.
Conservationists are horrified at this surprise move. Three years ago Ndumo was proclaimed a Ramsar international heritage site for the preservation of wetlands and bird diversity.
The border area along the Pongola River, which includes the 10ha allocated for cultivation, is a particularly significant breeding site for migratory birds. The reserve was established in 1927 also to protect hippos that live in the river.
Ngubane last week allocated the 10ha to about 100 families living in the Mbangweni corridor between Ndumo and the Tembe elephant park east of the reserve.
This came after a year of protest by the community, which is frustrated with the slow progress of their formal land claim to the Department of Land Affairs. At issue for the community is the right to grow crops in the fertile soil along the river bank, as well as fishing rights in the Pongola River.
Although the allocation by Ngubane is only temporary, it by-passes the land-claim process which, according to Evelyn Bramdeow of the KwaZulu-Natal state land disposal committee, forbids any exchange of land once a claim has been gazetted.
Conservationists are concerned a precedent may be set for land claims in other conservation areas, and particularly for a separate community claiming land on the western border of Ndumo.
Lawyer Peter Rutsch, who represents the Mbangweni community, says the land allocation by Ngubane is a temporary measure aimed at improving relations between conservation authorities and the community, which had become strained.
He says the move is aimed at encouraging greater openness and debate about the optimal use of the Mbangweni corridor as a link between Ndumo and the neighbouring Tembe elephant park.
He has not, however, investigated the implications of the allocation for the international Ramsar wetlands convention, which South Africa has ratified.
Conservationist Tony Pooley, who worked in the park for 14 years, says allowing local people to grow crops along the banks of the river is “an accident waiting to happen”, because of the numerous hippos and crocodiles in the river.
The hippos, bush pigs and cane rats will make growing crops along the river “a lot of work for a small return”, he adds.