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Flamingo row: Officials 'under house arrest'

Fiona Macleod

Trio told to vacate their offices and barred from participating in impact assessment, writes Fiona Macleod.

Conservation officials suspended last week by the Northern Cape department of tourism, environment and conservation because of their efforts to save Kimberley’s famous flamingos have effectively been placed under “house arrest”.

The three have been instructed by their department head, Pat Mokhali, to get permission to leave town. Last Monday they were told they had an hour to vacate their offices and to leave all their computers and files behind.

They were also told they were not allowed to make any input into the environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the proposed R2-billion housing development seen as a threat to the flamingos, despite being the department’s most senior scientists.

Meanwhile, the director of the company behind the development this week denied any impropriety in the rezoning of the site for commercial purposes.

The rezoning followed the appointment of former Kimberley municipal manager, Phemelo Sehunelo, to the board of the property development company, Group 1 Developments.

Joe Loedolff, director of Northern Cape Property Investment Holdings, which owns Group 1 Developments, said Sehunelo’s board appointment had nothing to do with the rezoning. “Advocate Sehunelo vacated his post as municipal manager in August 2005 and he was appointed to the board of Group 1 Developments (Pty) Ltd in February 2008,” Loedolff said.

Loedolff also denied reports of regular meetings between the developers and provincial environment minister Pieter Saaiman.

Deputy director of conservation Julius Koen, ornithologist Mark Anderson and scientist Eric Hermann were suspended after being informed that the department had received “a complaint from a member of the public” about their role in the non-profit Save the Flamingo Association, which has been vocal in opposing the planned development.

After working for the department for 18 years, Anderson announced this week that he had quit and would soon take up the post of director of BirdLife South Africa, an NGO affiliated to BirdLife International.

Anderson was pivotal in the creation of the man-made island in Kimberley’s Kamfers Dam, used by 10 000 lesser flamingos, a threatened and protected species, for breeding. It is one of six breeding sites in the world and the only one in South Africa.

The officials were suspended on the eve of a decision on the EIA for the proposed Northgate project on the banks of the dam, which will include a commercial park, a 20 000m2 shopping mall and 6 406 middle-income residential units.

Save the Flamingo has run a public campaign against the proposal, backed by other conservation NGOs. Objections include the effects of sewerage on the flamingos’ feeding grounds and disturbances that could force them to abandon the site.

Northern Cape Premier Dipuo Peters has endorsed the Northgate development, while the Kimberley Council rezoned the area from agricultural to commercial and residential use, despite the earmarking of the dam and surrounding 380ha wetland as a conservation zone in the city’s draft spatial development plan.

On the company’s meetings with the provincial minister, Loedolff said an initial meeting was held on November 6 last year at which the company introduced itself and the proposed development.

“A second meeting was held, on January 18 2008, where biodiversity offsets and contributions by the developer to the upliftment and enhancement to the Kamfers Dam area [were discussed]. No other meetings have been held.”

Saaiman refused to be drawn into the squabble this week, as he was the appeal authority in the investigation of the officials. “The precautionary suspension is an internal matter at this stage. The MEC adds that he has always supported the flamingo project and nothing has changed his support,” said his spokesperson, Obe Phillips.

Sewerage continues to leak from the Homevale municipal works into Kamfers Dam and the surrounding wetlands, despite complaints. Peter Roux, the consultant who drew up the EIA for Northgate, says the municipality has done nothing to stem the leaks and continues to contravene water laws.

Mokhali’s spokesperson, Mandla Ndzilili, said the officials had been asked to keep the department informed of their where-abouts so they could be summoned to disciplinary hearings.

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