Throughout the storm surrounding the controversial mine approved at Xolobeni on the Wild Coast, the statement that “ecotourism has failed on the Wild Coast” has repeatedly been stated.
Bulungula Lodge is, apparently, the only lodge to be “approved” officially since 1994 on the Wild Coast and as such, our experiences are relevant to this debate.
The Wild Coast is potentially one of the world’s greatest community-based, ecotourism destinations. Nothing compares with this spectacular coast inhabited by vibrant, traditional communities of amaBomvana, amaMpondomise and many others living simple rural lives in harmony with their environment. Mud huts on rolling green hills overlooking jagged cliffs and pristine beaches frequented by cows and the occasional eland, endless lagoons and forests add up to one of South Africa’s most striking and marketable vistas.
But make no mistake, although it may seem a rural paradise on the surface, these communities are in the middle of a dehumanising poverty crisis. It has been my great privilege to become part of a traditional amaBomvana community and to experience the joy of a strong, supportive community where everyone knows everyone and everyone’s cousin’s children.
Here ubuntu is not discussed by intellectuals, it is lived. But as a member of this community I cannot ignore the reality that last year in just three months we buried six babies who died from diarrhoea.
The communities of the Wild Coast drink from polluted waterholes shared with dogs and livestock, there are no toilets, clinics are rare, ambulances don’t exist and schools are mostly diabolical.
There is nothing romantic about being trapped in a hut with a pregnant wife having a cystercicosis-induced epileptic fit without any medical help.
In this context what are the prospects for sustainable development on the Wild Coast?
Sustainable development is defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. The Wild Coast clearly needs urgent intervention to address the appalling poverty in the region.
Most of the problems listed above would be addressed by effective service delivery and this should be made an urgent priority. But when it comes to the creation of sustainable jobs, it’s government’s role to create an enabling environment for the private sector to create wealth.
When looking at the Wild Coast there are two industries that stand out as having potential for sustainable development: agriculture and tourism. I believe Bulungula Lodge’s story will give insight into the reasons tourism has apparently failed to deliver.
Bulungula Lodge is a community-based eco-lodge owned jointly by the community of Nqileni village (40%) and myself, a private investor (60%). The lodge was built with capital of R800 000 and has created 20 permanent jobs in a community where there was previously 100% unemployment. The lodge has also facilitated the creation of 13 community-owned tourism businesses that provide services ranging from massages to fresh vegetables to forest tours with the herbalist. In total these small businesses have created another 23 jobs bringing the total employment generated by this entire project to 43 long-term jobs.
In addition to the community’s share, lodge profits have been used to build a classroom at the local school which collapsed years ago.
The culture of Bulungula Lodge is an open one — there are no fences, keys or locks here. Community members are welcome in the restaurant and bar at any time of the day or night and it is this cooperative environment that has resulted in crime being non-existent here. The unique atmosphere has resulted in Bulungula receiving many accolades, including being named by the UK’s Guardian as one of the World’s Top 10 Fair Trade destinations, as well as being named by the prestigious Rough Guide as one of the world’s top 25 Ultimate Ethical Travel Experiences.
But to understand why the Wild Coast is not teeming with similar community-based lodges, it is necessary to understand the tortuous process required to have the lodge approved.
In December 2002 the community of Nqileni village and I discussed and agreed on the establishment of a community-based eco-lodge as a joint venture. A proposal was produced and presented, using the Eastern Cape government’s Wild Coast Tourism Development Policy as a blueprint and working in partnership with the provincial departments of environmental affairs and land affairs.
After completing the necessary environmental report, permission was swiftly obtained from the department of environmental affairs. The difficult part was getting the necessary lease issued by the department of land affairs.
It is important to note that this department is run by a number of overworked, under-resourced people who are mostly operating within a procedural vacuum. As a lease had at that stage not been issued on the Wild Coast there was no precedent to follow.
This resulted in a ridiculously complicated process which invariably resulted in officials trying to pass the responsibility upwards to officials with greater authority.
Finally, in March 2004, an interim lease (the first apparently) was granted, which was to be used during the building of Bulungula Lodge while we waited for the long lease (30 years) to be signed by the national minister of land affairs within six months. This long lease application then proceeded on a bizarre, convoluted journey between various offices within the department of land affairs in Pretoria for two years, after which the folder was lost in mid-2007.
For the past 18 months the DLA has been unable to locate the folder nor get a photocopy of the duplicate folder held in the provincial office. Thus the entire lodge currently operates on the basis of an interim lease that could be revoked at any time.
There have been dozens of similar attempts by investors wanting to start ecotourism businesses in partnership with local communities on the Wild Coast, but all have failed to escape the administrative maze required to have their projects approved. It is not that these projects were rejected for being inappropriate, but rather that the whole process of applying for permission took so long that the investors simply gave up.
So what is the solution? It is critical that the provincial government create a Wild Coast Investment “one-stop-shop” where potential investors can submit their applications to be assessed by officials from all of the relevant departments.
A sensible approval process must be created in line with the Wild Coast Tourism Development Policy that has realistic and acceptable time scales. This office will need to be well resourced with skills and money to assess correctly and speedily the viability of proposed projects.
In addition this office should pro-actively identify and finalise leases for, say, 10 sites prior to inviting investors to tender bids to be the private-sector partner for the local communities.
Ultimately, it is time to face up to the absurd reality that it is easier to get permission to strip-mine pristine coastline and in the process destroy a people’s way of life than to get permission to build a community-based lodge that would create the desperately needed employment while keeping both the people’s land and their culture mostly in tact.
David Martin is co-owner of the Bulungula Lodge: www.bulungula.com