Protected coastal forest in danger from Shembe religious gathering

2014-03-31 00:00

THE uMhlathuze local municipality says it has given their blessing to the Church of Nazareth (Shembe) to gather in an endangered coastal forest next month, but this is being opposed by environmentalists who fear the natural site will be destroyed.

Environmental concerns were overlooked when the decision was made after the church sought permission for the gathering, which will see tens of thousands of Shembe followers descending on the area next month.

The forest belongs to the state, and the Department of Agriculture and Environmental Affairs is its key custodian.

A source associated with Ezemvelo Wildlife brought the matter to the attention of The Witness. He said to host the gathering, 20 hectares of the 60 hectares rare and endangered indigenous Birdswood Forest at Mpunza Hill will be destroyed.

“The Mpuza Hill is located in an endangered coastal forest surrounded by swamp forest. In terms of protecting these forests KZN falls below the conservation targets set (provincially and nationally) for forests and particularly this forest type. This forest requires special protection in terms of the Nature Conservation Ordinance 15 of 1974, the National Environmental Management Bio­diversity (NEMB) Act 10 of 2004 and the National Forest Act 84 OF 1998. Should any person take any action to clear the forest in the absence of an environmental authorisation, the necessary legal interventions need to be instituted as a matter of urgency,” said the source.

Municipal manager Nhlanhla Sibeko said the church has made the necessary application to use a portion of the forest and that was granted.

“As the city we believe it is their right to worship the way they like and that should be respected. It must also be noted that their use of the place should be taken in context. This church has been occupying this area for many decades. As the city we have a duty to support people who live within our municipal boundaries. We view this event as an opportunity for entrepreneurs to make some money,” said Sibeko.

Sam Mnqayi, speaker of uMhlathuze council, said historically the area belongs to the Emadlanzini tribe who were moved to Ntambanani around 1918.

“After 1994 the people made an application to get their land back and have since worshipped there. The difference now is that tens of thousands of people are expected to descend to the area. We will help them and ensure that the environment is not negatively affected. This noise is because the people involved are black people, and that this is a black congregation. Those who are complaining are not even considering the fact that these people have their ancestors’ graves on that land,” said Mnqayi.

Jeffrey Zikhali, spokesperson for Agriculture and Environmental Affairs, said his department and Ezemvelo were greatly concerned about the destruction of natural vegetation.

“This destruction will be opposed because failure to do so would be in conflict with our mandate in terms of the KZN Nature Conservation Management Act 9 of 1997 as well as our obligations in terms of the NEMB Act 10 of 2004,” said Zikhali.

He said there were grounds to oppose this application in that the City of uMhlatuze already has facilities to service the church’s needs.

Attempts to get comment from the Shembe faction were unsuccessful.

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