/ 17 September 2008

Red-tape nightmare

A community tourism project in the Mkambati provincial reserve on the Wild Coast — halted in its tracks nearly five years ago — could have provided the region with about half a billion rand, within its first 10 years of operation.

This equates to just over R4-million a month for one of the poorest regions in South Africa.

This is according to Colin Bell, former chief executive of Wilderness Safaris, the tourism company that won the tender to develop a portion of the reserve in 2003.

Bell says that factional politics and ”pure bureaucracy” put the nail in the coffin for a project that could have delivered schools, jobs, a health centre and mobile clinics to the impoverished community.

Bell has since retired from Wilderness Safaris, starting a conservation-driven organisation with projects throughout Africa north of the Limpopo and the Indian Ocean.

”Everyone predicted that we would fail at the community level,” says Bell. ”Instead we had complete community backing and failed at every other level, from local government right to the top.”

One of the chief problems he encountered was ”bureaucracy stymieing development”, something he believes is a widespread problem.

These concerns are echoed by a number of tourism entrepreneurs and business people in the area who cite uncertain land tenure policy, under-capacitated government departments and no cohesive strategy as the reasons for tourism’s poor performance.

After five years, however, the Mkambati project has taken on a new form with a portion of the reserve signed off for development in early August.

This is according to Cheryllynn Watson, who heads the Mkambati collective, a consortium of investors that has signed a concession agreement with the local community — the Mkambati Trust and the Eastern Cape Parks Board.

The venture will by conservative estimates place R100-million into the community’s coffers within 10 years, stimulating SMME development and creating jobs for locals says Watson.

But it has been a long wait.

Sadly, slow tourism development on the Wild Coast has been criticised as a one of the reasons mining rights have been awarded to an Australian company in the Xolobeni region to mine the dunes for titanium-bearing minerals.

Its proponents, including Buyelwa Sonjica Minister of Minerals and Energy, hail the award as the answer to development in the region, since tourism has ”failed” to deliver.

Bell argues that until tourism begins to offer real results to the region, communities will turn to mining and other land uses as alternatives.

Although the Xolobeni case is in itself a unique saga of opaque dealing and community division, it points to a wider crisis of development taking place in a region that is gloriously rich in natural beauty but cripplingly under-resourced.

Insiders argue land tenure is one of the most challenging issues facing the region. Most of the land along the Transkei coast is state owned, although various communities have the right to occupy it.

The Communal Land Rights Act, gazetted in 2004, is in the process of transferring the land to the local communities living on it, but in the meantime this has created problems for investors wishing to develop an area or community.

”The lack of secure tenure or ownership by communal landowners creates a sense of constant legal insecurity for any investor in the area,” says James Jackelman, an independent conservation consultant.

”Although back-to-back lease agreements may be negotiated between [the department of] land affairs, the developer and the local community, the pedantic implementation of the Communal Land Rights Act — is creating a legal vacuum for any agreements concluded. This forces investors to adopt a risk-averse approach in their investments in the area,” he says.

Jackelman was involved in developing the Wild Coast Project, shorthand for the Wild Coast Conservation and Sustainable Development Project. It was established to create a planning framework to use the region’s resources for the benefit of local economic development. It included an 18-month planning phase and an implementation phase to be undertaken by various organs of state.

But the governance structure and project unit needed to implement the programme were not set up, says Jackelman.

Sean Price, an entrepreneur in the region who runs Buccaneer’s Lodge, a large backpackers’ and a tour operation linked to the lodge, believes that the Wild Coast Project or a similar development plan is what the region needs to boost tourism.

”A lot of research is put into macroplans to develop the region but they just sit on shelves and are never implemented,” he argues.

He says for entrepreneurs in the region the ”administration required to get through the bureaucracy is monumental”.

The lease agreement system is one option for investors in terms of land access. A developer needs to negotiate with local people through a representative community structure elected in a democratic process, as well as relevant local and provincial government structures.

A lease is negotiated with the developer, the minister of land affairs and the community as parties to the agreement. A joint venture agreement must also be concluded to ensure that the community has a share in the development and benefit from it.

Nicholas Matebese, deputy director of the provincial district land reform office, says lease agreements are in place for various ventures along the coast, with more on the cards. He cannot comment on the number of operations up and running, but says government will readily assist anyone seeking to obtain such a lease. But the process is arduous and in the interim alternative options such as mining look increasingly attractive.