The battle for St Lucia is far from over

The mining debate has raised its ugly head again, writes Nicky Barker

It was described as “the conservation fight of the century”. The battle to save Lake St Lucia, a unique wetland system on the KwaZulu-Natal north coast, began in 1989. That is when Richard’s Bay Minerals applied for mining rights inside the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park, to utilise the titanium-rich dunes that lie along the coast.

The public outcry was wide-ranging, and resulted in the largest petition ever compiled in this country, calling on the state president to prevent mining inside the park.

The government undertook an environmental impact assessment; the most extensive ever undertaken in South Africa, it lasted for four years. The findings of the study were that “mining would cause unacceptable damage. The Greater St Lucia area is a very special asset for the nation.” The panel also urged that the area urgently be designated a World Heritage Site.

The area was earmarked as a site for intensive ecotourism development. The kick- start was to be the planned Lubombo Corridor, an access road linking the N2 from Hluhluwe to Maputo in Mozambique.

The conservationists thought the fight had been won, and retired from the battle. But the war is far from over.

The first indications came when Jacob Zuma, the African National Congress leader in KwaZulu-Natal, said at the launch of the Coastal Management Policy Programme at the end of September that if tourism did not soon become a major force in job creation in the area, the option of mining might be re-examined.

Then last week the national Minister of Environmental Affairs andTourism, Pallo Jordan, announced that the proposal to make St Lucia a World Heritage Site had been delayed. The proposal was due to be submitted to the World Heritage Council in Paris on November 10.

The official reason given for the withdrawal is that applications are also being planned to make Table Mountain and Robben Island World Heritage Sites. Their applications would not have been ready in time for the November 10 deadline, so the minister decided to hold back the St Lucia proposal so that all three could be submitted together next year.

Jordan’s announcement was like a lightning bolt for conservationists in the St Lucia area. The Natal Parks Board said it had not been consulted about the withdrawal and is worried about its implication.

Rumours started spreading that Richard’s Bay Minerals (RBM) would soon be dusting off its files in preparation for a new mining application. Piet Mar, head of public relations at RBM, moved this week to dispel the rumours: “RBM will abide by the Cabinet decision on mining at St Lucia and has no intention of opening the debate.”

But then he added: “During the mining debate RBM noted that development could take place within World Heritage Sites, as has been the case with uranium mining in the Kakadu National Park in northern Australia, where the area occupied by mining was temporarily excised.”

While the sword of exploitation still hangs menacingly over the head of St Lucia, development of the promised ecotourist Utopia has been painfully slow.

According to the South African Tourism Board, KwaZulu-Natal attracts almost 75% of the country’s local and international holiday-makers, but little significant job creation has taken place in what is arguably the poorest sector of the economy. The reasons are varied and complex: land claims, stifling bureaucracy, lack of political will to address problems and a Byzantine maze of ancient legislation.

The little town of St Lucia, situated at the southern tip of the park on the estuary itself, should be the fulcrum of ecotourism development. It has a fabulous setting and can rightly call itself the gateway to the breathtaking Eastern Shores.

However, it was described rather unflatteringly by Fodor’s authoritative travel guide to South Africa as “a stomping ground for beer-swilling cowboys with more horsepower than brainpower”.

With a resident population of about 400 white people, it can expand to hold an astonishing 6 000 visitors over weekends and during holidays. Although the foreign- tourist component is growing strongly, the accommodation is still mainly down-market fishermen’s cottages, camp sites and caravan parks. The sprinkling of classier bed-and-breakfast establishments struggle to make a living because of a municipal by- law that prevents any guest-house from having more than four lettable rooms.

Amazingly, for a town that depends entirely on tourism income, the town council is adamant that it will lend neither logistical nor financial support to a tourist association. Gerrie Swan, who holds the three full-paying positions of town clerk, works foreman and postmaster, says: “It is not my job to promote tourism.”

The Natal Parks Board, which is the custodian of all the land included in the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park, is criticised for its management of tourism. Admittedly, its job is not an enviable one: it is expected to enforce environmental rules in the face of general public disregard.

Areas within the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park have been planted with large stands of pine and wattle by the parastatal forestry company Safcol. Although Safcol has given an undertaking not to replant commercially, a lack of control has meant that self- seeded trees have invaded the once-pristine wetlands. Large areas of the park are choked with invasive toxic alien plants. Clearing programmes, funded by the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, need to be ongoing to be effective.

Controlled gill-netting was allowed by Natal Parks Board in the upper reaches of the lake, in an attempt to legitimise illegal gill-netting and to assist the community with a subsistence existence. However, the gill-netting quickly has gone out of control and turned into a commercial operation.

Development within the park itself is stymied by land claims held against the parks board. It could take many years before these claims are settled, and then the question arises: who will get the plum national land for tourism development? There are fears that another scenario will develop where a foreign consortium like the Dolphin group will be handed a national asset.

A planned joint listing of the St Lucia Wetlands Park by the Natal Parks Board and conservation group Conscorp, which has substantial holdings adjacent to the park, has become bogged down. The listing, which was designed to raise exploration funding for development in the region, is progressing too slowly to make an impact in the immediate future.

But the problems facing St Lucia are urgent and important. Although it does not directly affect the wetlands themselves, the squatter problem in the adjacent Dukuduku State Forest points to a desperate need for a development plan.

The Dukuduku “problem” started in the mid- 1980s when a group of families moved into the pristine forest, claiming they were reoccupying ancestral land. The population grew alarmingly, fuelled by fugitives from justice, refugees from the violence in the Midlands and a growing army of unemployed.

Protracted negotiations with the state resulted in a piece of land being set aside for settlement, and the families were invited to take advantage of newly serviced sites. Unfortunately, not everyone in the community wanted an ordered existence, and so two communities sprang up in the forest : the organised township with homes, schools, creches and clinics; and the “illegal” settlement that appears to house a large criminal element. Although the moratorium on forced removals was lifted in 1997, the government has shown a marked lack of political will in dealing with the outlaws.

The “legal” community in Duku-duku, approximately 7 000-strong, depends on St Lucia for jobs and is busy with ambitious development plans of its own. Unfortunately, the downmarket nature of tourism in the area does not lend itself to job creation or training: apart from gardening and cleaning, there are few other job opportunities. Upmarket ecotourism on a large scale, which encourages training of staff and ongoing employment, is not even a distant possibility.

The saddest aspect about the ennui in which Lake St Lucia finds itself is that, unlike its human inhabitants, nature has pulled out all the stops. The beaches of St Lucia are breathtaking. The tropical climate ensures a year-round season. Abundant bird- life, wildlife and scenic beauty make the area an ecotourist paradise.

South Africa needs a third international tourist destination, and St Lucia could be ranked alongside the Cape and the Kruger Park. But it remains a tatty, badly handled piece of paradise lost.

The battle for St Lucia is far from over. The promise of World Heritage Site status, which could have galvanised so much initiative, is receding. Unless the strident calls for tourism job creation in the area are heeded, perhaps the only option, sadly, will be the short-term, vote-getting quick-fix of revenue and jobs from mining.

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