Africa, Environment, Headlines

ENVIRONMENT-SWAZILAND: A Fierce Battle over Construction of New Road

James Hall

MBABANE, Apr 30 2003 (IPS) - Only a week after the Swaziland Environmental Authority (SEA) flexed newly-found muscle and put one of the country’s largest manufacturers on notice that it must stop polluting a central river or face closure, the environmental watchdog is embroiled in a fierce territorial battle with the government-owned park system over the construction of a new road.

"This is not the first time the Swaziland National Trust Commission has been involved in the rape of the nation’s wildlife heritage it is entrusted to protect, and neither is it the first time that a nature reserve has been desecrated by an inappropriate road for commercial reasons," said Thulani Xaba of the environmental NGO Green Cross Swaziland.

This week, residents near Mlawula Nature Reserve in eastern Swaziland entered the fray by putting the SEA on notice that it will go to the High Court to obtain a restraining order to stop road construction.

Mlawula is one of three parks operated by the national trust commission. It encompasses environmentally sensitive land on the dry lowveld country, acting as a buffer against unrestrained growth of rural homesteads. Nature conservationists have condemned the construction of a highway through the park. They say it is being built without proper environmental safeguards, and they fault the SEA for failing to see that this was done.

A group of concerned citizens wrote to SEA director James Vilakati demanding an Environmental Impact Assessment that must be completed prior to governmental approval for any construction project. A year-old Environmental Management Act reiterated this requirement, which critics of the national trust commission say was flaunted because the commission’s parks may think it does not apply to them.

"In terms of the Environmental Management Act, we request you let us know as a matter of urgency whether or not an Environmental Impact Assessment was issued (by the EIA) for this project," the group’s attorney said in a letter to Vilakati.

Simaye Mamba, the Chief Executive Officer of the Swaziland National Trust Commission, would not comment on the pending law suit in local press reports, but he seemed to suggest that an environmental assessment had not yet been made when he said, "We are doing everything within our means to make sure that we fully comply with the dictates of the SEA in so far as mitigating the areas of concern they raised during our joint inspection of the site recently. If it means going outside the country to get experts to handle the situation, we will do so," he said.

How a major road could be built in light of stringent environmental laws is a point of frustration for the local nascent environmental movement.

"This recalls the horror story at Hlane," said Ted Reilly, the dean of the country’s nature conservationist who began Swaziland’s game park system in the 1960s. Now the director of Big Game Parks of Swaziland, he recalled how the system’s largest park, Hlane Royal Game Reserve, was bisected by a highway in the anything goes late-60s, when environmentalism was unknown and big business called the shots.

"The large sugar estates at the park’s borders wanted a road right through the reserve. In fact, a road north of the park would have been shorter, but their minds were made up. They fed a false report to the World Bank, which funded the project, that the highway would cause no environmental damage. As a result, the highway now cuts the park in two. Every year we lose hundreds of precious antelope, wild boar, buffalo and other game that is struck by cars and trucks," Reilly said.

Animal conservationists fear the road under construction at Mlawula Nature Reserve will lead to similar extermination of endangered animals.

The park officials insist the road is required to increase tourism.

In the middle is the SEA, which should have ensured that an environmental impact assessment was done. The environmental authority had a previous confrontation with the National Trust Commission that lasted for three years. In another of its parks, Malolotja in the northwestern mountains, the trust commission approved a mining operation a Taiwanese company wished to undertake to extract chert, a semi-precious green stone used for curios and decorative tiles.

The law establishing the park was clear, that no mining operations would be permitted within its confines. But efforts were made to solicit the intervention of royal authorities at Lozitha Palace. After a yearlong hiatus while an environmental impact assessment was produced that claimed no damage would be done to the area or the nesting sites of endangered birds, a sudden rush of activity produced an access road and some structures. The SEA closed down the operation for good.

The Mlawula Nature Reserve road is well underway, and several kilometres have been cut out of the delicate semi-arid terrain of the area.

"What is done is done, but at least further damage can be contained," said environmentalist Xaba.

Ironically, the SEA received commendations from environmentalists this week when the authority notified Swaziland Paper Mills that its plant in the populous heart of the country would be closed if toxic effluents continued to be dumped in the Lusushwana River, which is a primary water source for area residents.

The closure threat is real. Last year, the SEA shut a molasses factory near the eastern town of Big Bend when it was found dumping waste in the Great Usuthu river.

Both actions have given the SEA a reputation for action, after years in which the authority was viewed as a paper tiger.

But unless the Mlawula road debacle is not settled satisfactorily, the authority’s standing with the environmental movement will suffer a setback.

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