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23 Sep 2002 00:00
Conservationists warn that immediate drastic action is necessary to save the indigenous Dukuduku forest, which borders the Greater St Lucia World Heritage Site.
The once-pristine stretch of rare coastal sand forest is being destroyed by thousands of illegal squatters who have been living on the land since 1975. And a poisonous weed that has invaded the cleared land is putting the forest at further risk.
An attempt in 1992 failed to move the squatters to an adjacent piece of land and by 1996 the forest had been badly damaged.
In 1998 Kader Asmal, then minister of water affairs and forestry, decreed that land adjacent to the forest would be bought and the squatters would be settled there.
Asmal made it clear that further occupation of the forest was forbidden, but not much had been achieved a year later when the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park was declared a World Heritage Site.
In 2000 a sugar farm next to the forest was bought for R11-million. The squatters said they would also require land for grazing, and a further portion of land along the Umfolozi river was recently bought for about R9-million.
The Department of Water Affairs and Forestry says about 700 families have applied for relocation to the sugar farm. The new settlement has been christened Zwelisha (new beginning).
“We are waiting for funding from the Department of Housing,” says Fez Sineke, a consultant working for the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park Authority and the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry. “We will soon be putting out tenders for developers and are hoping to start building in the next few months.”
But farmers living in the area are concerned that the government is creating an expensive squatter camp. Last year 46 687 people lived in the illegal settlement in the forest. The head count was done by the squatters themselves, in preparation for new municipal boundaries last year. This is an enormous discrepancy with the 6000 people the department is expecting to resettle.
“In 1998 the government offered the people living in the forest a ‘legitimate’ area to settle,” says a farmer who does not want to be named. “The people accepted the homes and moved into them, creating a vacuum in the forest that was quickly filled with new arrivals. Some people even stayed in the forest and rented out their new homes to newcomers from elsewhere. We are worried that this is going to happen all over again.”
The farmer says the relationship between the squatters and the farmers is strained. “As can be expected, the farmers are nervous about having a large settlement of mostly unemployed people going up next door. If we could believe the assurances of the government—that there are only about 6 000 people and they will be employed in ecological rehabilitation of the forest—we would not worry. But unfortunately the evidence is not good.”
Conservationists are concerned that the squatters will not move in time to save the forest. Most residents in St Lucia and Mtubatuba have written off the forest, saying it is unlikely the squatters will ever be successfully relocated or that the forest will ever be rehabilitated.
Cleared patches of ground within the forest are being invaded by the poisonous Chromaleana odorato, which has become a conservation headache in KwaZulu-Natal. The weed gives the forest a deceptively green appearance, but leaves it sterile.
Even if the squatters move out tomorrow, the weed will remain. And if previous efforts to fight chromalena are anything to go by, getting rid of this insidious weed will be more difficult to undertake than any efforts to remove the squatters.
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