By Tony Carnie
A group of more than 200 people, many carrying pangas and bush-clearing knives, have threatened to occupy and clear new farming land in a globally unique forest in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park in northern KwaZulu-Natal. The park is a World Heritage Site.
Futululu is the largest remaining patch of coastal lowland forest in the country after a similar land incursion during the early 1990s all but destroyed the neighbouring Dukuduku forest, just south of Lake St Lucia.
iSimangaliso spokesperson Bheki Manzini confirmed on Thursday that he was “aware that there is an illegal occupation by some people who we are yet to identify”, and reports of “people illegally moving on to land (within) the park”.
Manzini said he understood that officials from the iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife were “engaging the people to try to resolve the issues”.
Manzini said park authorities regarded the group’s actions as illegal.
“If there is no resolution from dialogue, we have no choice but to approach the courts to activate the legal route”, including police intervention, he said.
An eyewitness who drove past the scene of the attempted occupation early Thursday said he saw “quite a big crowd of people” as well as about 30 cars on the forest boundary directly opposite the 121 Battalion base near Mtubatuba.
Several were carrying kalembas (bush-clearing knives).
Other sources have suggested that the group included “opportunists” and subsistence farmers, whose sugar cane and vegetable patches in the Umfolozi River floodplain had been inundated after recent heavy rains.
The back-flooding of some sugar farms and vegetable plots in the river floodplain has been a contentious issue for almost 10 years, after previous attempts by the iSimangaliso Wetland Park authorities to restore the natural ecology of water-stressed Lake St Lucia,
For decades, sugar farmers have pressured conservation authorities to regularly artificially breach the mouth of Lake St Lucia to protect their farms from water inundation in the now largely canalised sections of the Umfolozi River floodplain.
Park authorities embarked on a major restoration project more than a decade ago which aimed to re-link the Umfolozi to the Lake St Lucia river estuary, and also avoid any artificial breaching of the river mouth.
Though the park authority won an important court victory on its restoration programme, it has since come under sustained pressure from sugar farmers and local tourism operators to breach the mouth artificially to prevent back-flooding and siltation near the estuary mouth.
Significantly, perhaps, Environment Minister Barbara Creecy is scheduled to open an investment summit north of Durban on Friday to outline new proposals for major new tourism development plans in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park and World Heritage Site.
It is understood that an urgent court interdict may be on the cards if the Futululu land occupation threat is not resolved speedily.
Futululu is an important freshwater catchment area for Lake St Lucia, which has been increasingly starved of water inflow from neighbouring rivers due to the expansion of farming on the periphery of the park.
During the early 1990s, there was a steady influx of subsistence farmers and displaced communities into the nearby Dukuduku forest – which has now all but disappeared due to the clearance of unique coastal lowland forest.