Land-use terrorism in KZN

2008-11-20 00:00

Rob Thompson’s greenwashing of timber plantations does not surprise me as he depends on the in-dustry for his survival, but rural communities are affected by them.

My upbringing in rural areas and the study of the impact of the plantation sector on rural society in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) where Mondi, Sappi and Hans Merensky are operational show with no shadow of doubt how harmful irresponsible proliferation of the plantation sector is to society, especially the poor.

First, the plantation sector was complicit with apartheid in overseeing the forced removal of thousands of people from their homes. The expansion of the plantation sector in areas of KZN, from Port Danford to St Lucia (Simangaliso Wetlands Park) and beyond, was accompanied by a major land-use shift from mixed farming to monoculture tree plantations. As such, many farm workers lost their jobs and farm-worker dwellings were destroyed and many were left homeless. Anyone familiar with Kwambo-nambi and Richards Bay (Sokhulu) areas will know what I am talking about. In Kwambonambi, the victims of human dispersal and economic distablisation done by the plantation sector can be found at the Slovas informal settlement.

My research on the social and cultural impact of the plantation sector in northern KZN and among the Amarhambeni communities in the Kokstad and Harding areas (see www. wrm.org or www.timberwatch. org.za) established that as plantations are not forests there is an immediate erosion of the social and cultural benefits from grasslands and natural forests as soon as plantations are established. The work of the late James Wakelin of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and Philip Owen of

Gesphere in Mpumalanga have clearly demonstrated the environmental impacts of the timber plantation land use on water and biodiversity. The negative environmental impacts are ac-companied by social and cultural impacts which, in turn, convert to serious economic effects in a context of poverty.

The natural forest is the medical chest for rural communities who are denied easy and adequate access to modern medication by exclusionary economic policies that emphasise profit over people. By nature plantations cannot co-habit with other life systems. To defend Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) South Africa, whose principles were built to protect natural forests is being myopic and disingenuous at the very least. Local communities count their wealth in cattle. The loss of grasslands lead to limited pasture and a reduced stock count for the communities.

Water loss is one of the immediate and most serious impacts of the timber industry on local communities as downstream flow is reduced. The entire Umkhanyakude District Municipality has suffered major water shortages in the past.

These things have been reported in Mpumalanga, greater Kokstad and Harding, Swaziland and Mozambique — all areas of heavy expansion. To suggest that we should simply look and not ask questions about the irresponsible expansion of these activities is to expect that we remain silent in the face of this land-use terrorism.

The government’s BEE programmes have also not helped. When the government’s South African Forestry Company (Safcol) devolved its plantations it was expected that the communities on whose land these trees had been planted would benefit. This did not happen. These plantations were sold for the price of a song to political and business big-wigs in the name of black empowerment. In northern KZN — a consortium calling itself Siyaqhubeka took over the farms. This consortium is dominated by Mondi, the same company that is now listed in London.

To sweeten the deal some in Safcol were co-opted as fronts of these big companies. In southern KZN it is no different. African National Congress treasurer general Dr Mathews Phosa and Wendy Luhabe of Women’s Investment Portfolio Holdings Limited (Wiphold) are the key players — on behalf of the communities.

Thompson can greenwash the industry all he likes, but there are problems and as Timberwatch we shall continue to research, engage communities and expose this land-use terrorism.

 

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