Legal blunder puts delicate KZN grasslands under threat

2011-03-03 00:00

SCORES of farmers in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands have been given permission by the KZN Agriculture, Environmental Affairs and Rural Development Department to plough up virgin grasslands. But if they do they could be breaking the law.

In what looks to be a major legal blunder, agricultural extension officers have been advising farmers that they can plough up to 100 hectares of virgin grassland without environmental authorisation on the basis of a Conservation of Agricultural Resources Act (Cara) permit only.

This appears to be a misreading of the legislation as environmental authorisation is still required in terms of the National Environmental Management Act (Nema).

Eighty permits to break virgin land in KwaZulu-Natal have been issued since August 2010. This is for a total of 3 876 hectares, of which 579 hectares are in irreplaceable mistbelt grassland, while the bulk is in sensitive biodiversity areas.

The granting of such permits could prevent the province achieving its stated conservation goals and targets.

If the ploughing goes ahead — and in some cases it already has — it will have a dramatic impact on the dwindling populations of endangered oribi and wattled crane, as well as other grassland species of fauna and flora.

It is understood the agriculture department has frozen the issuing of permits and is telling farmers they will require environmental impact assessments (EIAs).

The department has also asked farmers who have begun ploughing on the basis of a Cara permit to stop.

The KwaZulu-Natal Agricultural Union (KwaNalu) is to send a letter to farmers advising them that they should not plough virgin ground as there may well be a need for an EIA.

“They must make sure they have complied with all aspects of Nema,” says Robin Barnsley, president of KwaNulu.

Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife has been aware of the problem for some time, according to Andrew Blackmore, head of integrated environmental management. “We have been working with the department of agriculture to bring clarity to the system and to ensure that the EIA regulations are applied,” he says.

A meeting was held yesterday with representatives of a number of organisations, including the KZN Crane Foundation, Endangered Wildlife Trust, Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa, the Botanical Society, and the KZN Conservancies Association to discuss the issue and plan a constructive way forward.

Agriculture, Environmental Affairs and Rural Development was approached for comment but none had been received by the time of going to press.

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