Going for gold

Mary Metcalfe, Gauteng MEC of agriculture, conservation, environment and land affairs, tells the story of a golden butterfly that solved an inherently irreconcilable tension between the environment and development.

Near the town of Heidelberg in eastern Gauteng there is a small reserve called the Alice Glockner Nature Reserve, which is home to a very rare butterfly. The Heidelberg Copper butterfly gets it name not only from its location, but also because of its colour of liquid, burning gold that flutters gloriously over the lichen-covered rocks and shrubs of the koppies of Alice Glockner during the adult period of its lifecycle.

Its lifecycle is fascinating — almost magical — because it has developed a chemically complex process of deceiving the Crematogaster ants, with which it cohabits, to believe that the butterfly larvae are indeed the offspring of the ants. The ants then defend the larvae from attack by predators such as flies, spiders and lizards, and ensure that the larvae are fed.

This is achieved not only through sophisticated chemical processes of pheromone secretion, but also by a complex intersection of chemically mediated decisions. The eggs are laid in crevices of rocks close to the path of the ant trails, in the location of the precise species of lichen on which the ants subsist, and at an exact altitude always on the south side of the koppie where the chemical composition of the species of shrub best suits the feeding preferences of the adult butterfly, and where the heat of the sun maintains the right temperature to sustain flight.

The Heidelberg Copper knows a tiny world — the adult flies no further than 20m from the primary site. It is a marvellous alchemy of precision of location and species cohabitation that allows for minimal flexibility in its pursuit of survival, and no tolerance for stress in its unique habitat. It is no wonder that only four known colonies of this butterfly exist — the most viable being in the ideal conditions of Alice Glockner.

A thing of beauty to be preserved and enjoyed forever? A miracle of evolution that is a unique part of our biodiversity heritage to be conserved at all cost?

Within Heidelberg there is an area, Ratanda, which in apartheid-speak would be called a township. It is typical of township areas: it is overcrowded, facilities are minimal, services are scanty and the majority of its inhabitants are poor.

Environmental conditions are bleak. Smoke from coal fires fills the air in the early evenings. Dust lingers above the untarred roads. Birdsong is absent, as are trees that should provide shade to the elderly.

Families living in Ratanda have been starved of land for generations. Adult children seeking an independent family life live in makeshift shelters with their children in the yards of their parents. Land and housing is desperately needed to sustain the whole development of family and community that will engender dignity and self-respect.

Families waiting for homes were overjoyed when the town council in 1998 identified well-situated land not far from Ratanda for a low-cost housing development of 2 500 homes for 14 000 people — Heidelberg Extension 23. The Gauteng department of housing fast-tracked the development. Sacrifices of living without basic services such as electricity, or facilities such as schools and clinics, were accepted in exchange for the realisation of the dream of a home to own for husband and wife, mother and children.

Waiting lists for the new homes grew rapidly. All available funds were scraped together, consultants were appointed and plans began to take shape. An environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the development was begun, and the public invited to participate.

But what about the butterfly? No electricity in Extension 23? Coal and wood smoke! The chemical constituents unleashed could drift over the hill to Alice Glockner a few kilometres away. Children rambling through the veld near their homes could unwittingly trample or disturb the nests under the rocks. People in search of kindling could destroy the shrubs on which the copper adults feed.

But what about the people? Deprived of access to land for settlement, the growing population of Ratanda cannot surely be confined to the densely populated patch of land already teeming with humanity? Surely families cannot be deprived of homes, of shelter, by the love of some for a butterfly — the beauty of which the families would never even see?

Surely butterflies cannot be more important than people?

The EIA process was managed by experts within the department of agriculture, conservation, environment and land affairs (Dacel) in Gauteng. During the period of expert consideration of this development, I awaited their decision with fascination because this story of a butterfly presents a particularly crisp example of what could be seen as an inherently irreconcilable tension between the environment and development. I wondered, if the development was not approved, which conservationists would have the courage to accompany me to Ratanda to explain why.

This story does have a happy ending, because a resolution was found that was based on principles of environmentally sustainable development. This acknowledges the imperative of development — particularly if we are to meet the needs of the poor — but insists that the environmental consequences of development be managed in ways that have least negative consequences for the environment, and where any negative consequences are mitigated.

The record of decision issued by Dacel permitted the development under strict conditions that promote sustainable development. Among these are the requirements that there be immediate and full electrification, that open space be planned, indigenous vegetation planted, that houses are designed to promote energy efficiency and that the township be declared a “smoke-free zone”. Thus decisions which may seem to have been taken in the interests of the fragile butterfly, in fact promote the health of humans.

The effects of the ubiquitous coal smoke characteristic of all of our townships have serious consequences for human health and for sustainability on a macro-level. Respiratory ailments among children living in coal-burning areas are 9,3 times higher than among children living in non-coal burning areas. This decision is a groundbreaking contribution to reduction of the air pollution in our townships, and a small but hopefully significant step towards housing delivery that promotes energy-efficient buildings.

The implementation of this record of decision is a challenge to the people-based implementation and enforcement of principles of sustainable development, for it requires that the community of Heidelberg Extension 23 understand and believe in the unique conditions for development in this area. I hope that those who have a passion for the survival of the Heidelberg Copper will join hands with leaders who must communicate these and will take forward education initiatives to deepen understanding of how sustainable development benefits not only butterflies and their habitats, but ultimately, people.

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Maya Fisher French
Guest Author

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