Breaking the balance

2011-03-31 00:00

BRAKES are being heavily applied in hindsight following a legal blunder that has seen scores of KwaZulu-Natal farmers being granted permission to plough up virgin grasslands, most of them in the midlands.

Since August last year, agricultural extension officers from the provincial Department of Agriculture, Environmental Affairs and Rural Development (DAE&RD) have been advising farmers that they can plough up to 100 hectares of virgin grassland without environmental authorisation on the basis of obtaining a Conservation of Agricultural Resources Act (Cara) permit only. These are issued by the national department. This appears to be the result of a misreading of the legislation as environmental authorisation is still required in terms of the National Environmental Management Act (Nema).

Permits were issued by the national Department of Agriculture for a total of 3 876 hectares, 579 of which are situated in irreplaceable mist-belt grassland and the majority in sensitive biodiversity areas. Alarmingly, 65% of the applications for which Cara permits were granted, fall within “Biodiversity Priority 1 areas”.

The granting of permits in such­areas could see the province fail to achieve its stated conservation goals and targets.

Ploughing has already gone ahead in some areas and this could have a dramatic impact on the already dwindling populations of the endangered Oribi Antelope and the critically endangered Wattled Crane, as well as various other grassland species of fauna and flora.

In all, 80 permits to break virgin land were granted before the mistake was discovered and the subsequent issuing of permits frozen. The provincial DAE sent letters to farmers in January instructing them to stop the cultivation of land. According to provincial DAE spokesperson Zahhele Nyuswa, this instruction applies specifically to farmers who have received Cara permits from the national department “for the cultivation of five hectares or more, without an environmental authorisation from DAE&RD, in terms of EIA [environmental impact assessment] Regulations, 2010, published in terms of the National Environmental Management Act, 1998, effective 02 August 2010.”

The provincial DAE has since established a task team to investigate and report on the matter and the resultant impact. The team is currently visiting all affected farmers to determine the level of cultivation.

“Farmers who have not started [cultivation] are advised not to start,” says Nyuswa. “Those who have, are advised to stop. In both instances, the department will advise on the way forward to each farmer.

“Farmers are advised to contact Environmental Services offices in their respective districts to get more information about EIA regulations applicable in their circumstance prior to ploughing or clearing of land, and about Cara requirements,” he says.

Meanwhile, according to Nyuswa, the provincial DAE is to strengthen co-operation with the national departments on the issuing of Cara permits in identifying applications that require both environmental authorisation and Cara permits.

In a statement, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife says it views the apparent misunderstanding of the EIA regulations and the fact that numerous farmers in the KZN midlands have exercised their Cara permits without obtaining the necessary environmental authorisations in a very serious light. “The level of land transformation in the KZN midlands is high, resulting in small and highly fragmented grassland patches that may be unviable from an ecological perspective,” says Andrew Blackmore, head of integrated environmental management at Ezemvelo.

“These temperate grassland fragments are home to endangered and even critically endangered fauna and flora. Further transformation of such habitat could have disastrous implications for species and habitat already under extreme pressure.”

Ezemvelo is assisting the relevant government departments in resolving the matter and is also represented on the provincial DAE task team.

Ezemvelo has also done an aerial photographic survey of all the farms for which only Cara permits were granted. This revealed that a number of areas have already been cultivated without the necessary environmental authorisations. One of these areas is on a farm located within a proposed KZN Biodiversity Stewardship site.

To add insult to injury, in some cases the biodiversity and ecosystem importance of the areas applied for (and in some cases already ploughed), were known to both the landowner and the agricultural extension officer, as permits had been applied for the same areas in the past and were either withdrawn or denied environmental authorisation on account of the critical biodiversity and ecosystem issues.

In at least one case a farmer awarded “Crane Custodian” status, and who has a sign on a public road declaring the fact, went ahead and ploughed land where he knew cranes were nesting.

Though species such as Wattled Crane and Oribi are those most under threat, humans are not exempt. “These grasslands play a significant role in moderating climate change and the impacts thereof on people and their wellbeing,” says Blackmore. “They also play a critical role in capturing rain, filtering and releasing clean water in the river systems that supply both rural and urban communities throughout the year. The grasslands trap sediment and in so doing slow down the siltation of our dams.”

“Given the challenges KZN is facing, it is critical that these vital life-support systems the natural environment provides free of charge be safeguarded for people’s health and well-being. It is for this reason that these farmers require both an agricultural and an environmental permit before they can cultivate and in so doing achieve a sustainable balance between crop production and maintaining our natural heritage.”

Is the situation retrievable? “In some cases, it may be possible to rehabilitate critical biodiversity areas,” says Blackmore, “so there is hope that this most unfortunate situation may be recoverable.”

However grasslands specialist Ed Granger is less hopeful: “There is no way you can put these grasslands back,” he says. “People say they will rehabilatate the land to what it was. You can’t do it. The best you can get is something that vaguely resembles what was destroyed.

“Here we have lost grassland identified by the South African National Biodiversity Institute as extremely valuable and that ought to be conserved. We are losing a national asset and one that affects our national biodiversity.”

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