​Gauteng approves abattoir, threatening Magaliesberg Biosphere Reserve

Cows feed inside a cattle pen at a feedlot. (Marcos Brindicci, Reuters)

Cows feed inside a cattle pen at a feedlot. (Marcos Brindicci, Reuters)

The City of Tshwane uses the word “noxious” to describe abattoirs. They are a necessary evil governed by strict bylaws. Yet, in the southwestern corner of the municipality, the provincial agriculture and rural development department has given an abattoir building permission despite the abattoir not considering the full effect on the environment and its residents.

Laezonia is a barrier between the Magaliesberg Biosphere Reserve and the expansion of Tshwane and Johannesburg. It sits just over the N14, the northernmost barrier to Johannesburg’s urban sprawl, and on the road to Hartbeespoort.

The province and both cities recognise the grassy valley of Laezonia as an area that needs preserving. The Gauteng Conservation Plan lists it as an area of “irreplaceable” biodiversity. The South African National Biodiversity Institute also deems it “irreplaceable”. The National Protected Area plan says Laezonia is a critical area for “protected areas expansion”.

Several species of endangered animals thrive here, as does the endangered granite grassland, which previously covered all of Gauteng.

In late 2015, the province granted it “nature conservation” status. The next step would be for it to become a protected area, as is the Magaliesberg Biosphere Reserve next door. This would halt development and ensure money goes into conservation, something conservation experts say is critical and would help to counter rampant expansion of the cities.

The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) granted the biosphere nature conservation status in mid-2015.

But in November 2015, a large wrench was thrown into plans to gain similar protected status for Laezonia when a small piece of paper was stuck on the rusty fence of a plot in the area. Half the legally required size for a public notice, it said an abattoir and feedlot — where cattle are kept before being slaughtered — were going to be built on the plot. Up to 1 500 head of cattle and other livestock would be kept there at any given time.

Abattoirs are regular offenders of laws governing the release of polluted water, with the authorities investigating dozens each year.

Laezonia residents have complained, citing the smell from abattoirs, particularly the way the smell of dead animals frightens other animals. In this case, many of them raise horses in the area.

More detail was given to the residents in January 2016, at a community meeting held on the plot. A large area of the endangered grassland endemic to Laezonia was cut down to make space for the white marquee erected for the meeting.

A cellphone video shared with the Mail & Guardian shows that the meeting got heated. Frustrated at being given few details about the abattoir, residents argued with the consultant running the meeting. Security guards had to stand between the parties to keep them apart. 

But the meeting did clarify the name of the developer: Isidwedwe Clothing Primary Co-operative. This is a sewing co-operative, funded by the provincial social development department.

Hydro Geo Engineers — the consultants Isidwedwe appointed to do the impact assessments for the R28-million abattoir project — told the M&G that the development can happen because the site falls outside of the Magaliesberg Biosphere Reserve. All the legally required measures will be taken to ensure the effect of an abattoir on Laezonia will be minimal. “The proposed facility is planned in such a way that it will have minimal effect on the environment.” It will also create job opportunities.

These details went into the application for environmental authorisation submitted in February. The department gave its authorisation in late May for 200 cattle — not the original 1 500, or the reduced request for 400 — to be on the feedlot, with 15 slaughtered each day.

“The proposed activity will create, improve and sustain the livelihood of the beneficiaries and employees involved as well as the community at large,” it said.

But the authorisation also said studies did not contain enough information. It asked that an assessment of the impact of smell and noise on the surrounding area be done within six months. If this showed little impact, then the department would give permission for a 400-cattle feedlot.

For now, it says: “This department is of the view that a 200-cattle feedlot will have minimum or no impact, noise and smell wise, on the surrounding environment.” 

A group of landowners in Laezonia disagree and have appealed the authorisation. “In general, the likely environmental impacts of the proposed activity have not been properly considered,” they say.

Citing the department’s request for a study on the noise and smell of the abattoir, the objection says that, without this having been done in the first place, the department “could never have been in possession of all the relevant facts in considering the application”.

The objection goes on to note that studies on the effect the abattoir will have on water were done during a drought, so little thought was given to what happens when the valley floods — a regular occurrence during summer storms. That floodwater flows through the valley and into the Magaliesberg Biosphere Reserve across the road from the proposed abattoir.

Not having water is raised as a problem; a feedlot is legally required to provide a cow with 500 litres of water a day, and slaughtering one uses 1 000 litres. There isn’t that much water in the valley and Isidwedwe’s application says it will have to bring in water. 

The Laezonia landowners’ objection concludes that so much information was missing in Isidwedwe’s application that it was “materially defective”.

Alongside the problems with the application, the Laezonia objection repeatedly touches on the fact that the valley is filled with low-density plots and endangered species.

Its official zoning is for two dwellings a hectare, and then not covering more than 20% of the property. Because of this, the valley is home to horse breeders who work with the nearby horse centre at Kyalami, a few kilometres to the south.

Speaking to the M&G, the Laezonia community say the biggest threat from the abattoir is in it being the first step for further development.

Mercia Komen, one of the driving forces behind the creation of the Magaliesberg Biosphere Reserve, says the development is a sign of the wider problems in Gauteng: “We have these declared areas where we are supposed to keep ecosystems intact, but at the first whiff of development we throw the rule book away.”

With the province’s urban sprawl, she says it is critical for the few intact natural environments to be kept that way. She is doubtful about moves to stop the abattoir going ahead, and points to similar cases always going the way of “developers”.

“This will make a mockery of all the plans, public participation and programmes already rolling out [to protect the environment].”

Sipho Kings

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