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ENVIRONMENT-SOUTH AFRICA: Land Returned in St Lucia World Heritage Site

Moyiga Nduru

ST LUCIA, South Africa, Jun 14 2007 (IPS) - A section of the world heritage site the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park, Africa’s largest estuary, has been returned to its rightful owners, who have in turn undertaken to manage the land in accordance with the country’s environmental laws.

The park, situated in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province adjacent to the Indian Ocean, was proclaimed in 1999 as a world heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). It has five unique ecosystems that include species such as black rhino, wild dog, elephant, cheetah, whales and coelacanths.

The department of environmental affairs and tourism has returned 12,000 hectares of the park’s total area of 220,000 hectares to the 9,135 people whose ancestors were driven out of this area.

The park’s importance was reflected upon in a speech by the minister of environmental affairs and tourism, Marthinus van Schalkwyk. The event was held near the Greater St Lucia Wetlands Park, about nine hours’ drive from South Africa’s commercial hub of Johannesburg.

In a message read to assembled guests on June 9, van Schalkwyk said: ‘‘South Africa has a duty to both ensure the wetland park has the highest level of protection and to restore the title to its original owners.

‘‘The new land owners will have the title to the land but have agreed that the land will not be used for any other purpose than for conservation and its associated activities, in perpetuity.” Balancing his speech carefully, van Schalkwyk also noted the need to redress the legacy of colonialism and apartheid.

‘‘It is fitting that I acknowledge the history of suffering associated with conservation in this country. Along with many of our protected areas, the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park was an area where people once lived. We can trace the story of occupation of this area back to the early Stone Age people between 500,000 and one million years ago.

‘‘Ironically and unfortunately, conservation and forced removals went hand-in-hand,” he said.

This claim settlement follows on the heels of another where land has been returned in the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park. The recipients undertook to adhere to the country’s environmental laws and regulations in their management of the land. The first claim of this kind was when land in the Kruger National Park was returned to the Makulekes in the late 1990s.

The onus to protect their section of the St Lucia Wetland Park now falls on the new owners. Speaker after speaker emphasised that they will co-manage the property with the park authorities.

‘‘Animals and communities have been living together since time immemorial,” Amon Sithole, chairperson of the Greater St Lucia Wetland Landowners Association, told IPS in an interview. ‘‘I see no reason why people should be sceptical about our ability to protect the animals and the park.”

‘‘Even in the olden days, you would not come across people shooting animals at random. They used to shoot only one animal, even if it was a small one like a rabbit. It was a general norm,” Simon Gumede, the Zulu chief in charge of the area, told IPS.

To reinforce their cooperation, the new owners and the wetland authority have agreed to set up an education trust to help youth gain qualifications in conservation and tourism.

‘‘This model of conservation is evidence of government’s commitment to continuing to fulfil its national and international obligations to protect our natural assets while at the same time providing a framework for economic upliftment and poverty,” van Schalkwyk said.

The community will receive R66 million (about 9.5 million dollars) from the department of land affairs, a big chunk of it for development, according to its minister, Lulama Xingwana. The remaining R14.5 million (about 2.1 million dollars) will be disbursed as financial compensation to the 1,450 households that were forcibly removed by apartheid, she said.

The recipients appear to be prepared for the challenges ahead. ‘‘We have been discussing this issue since 1994,” Sithole said. ‘‘We will not interfere with the environment. And we will make sure that there is no decision taken without the consent of the community.”

Gumede said conflicts between animals and humans are natural. ‘‘There is the potential for havoc when people interact with wild animals. Some of these animals are extra-territorial. When you encroach on their territory there is bound to be conflict. Even cattle that you keep at home sometimes stray and destroy crops,” he said.

During the handover ceremony, a huge banner near the front table captured the thoughts of South Africa’s international statesman, former president Nelson Mandela.

Visiting in 2002, he said: ‘‘The wetland park must be the only place on the globe where the world’s oldest land mammal (the rhinoceros) and the world’s biggest terrestrial mammal (the elephant) share an ecosystem with the world’s oldest fish (the coelacanth) and the world’s biggest marine mammal (the whale).”

The last word comes from the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park chief executive officer Andrew Zaloumis. He said: ‘‘There are still many challenges. The most important is to ensure progress continues towards putting an end to the paradox of poverty amid the plenty of nature. Restitution and sustainable settlement of land claims are key to this.”

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