Pioneering the return of KZN’s wetland areas

2014-10-07 00:00

TEN years ago, a commercial pine forest the size of central Durban bordered on Lake St Lucia.

Now, the area is a pristine wetland, whose transformation has been singled out as a global model in a major report on the state of planet Earth.

According to the WWF’s “Living Planet Report”, the Mondi Wetlands programme has “restored [community] trust and restored ecosystems” — and done it in record time.

Christine Colvin, with the WWF, said the selection of the programme, alongside four other “planet solutions” – including a wind farming initiative in Denmark and a low-impact farming project in Queensland, Australia –— was “serious kudos to South Africa”.

Programme manager David Lindley said simply removing thirsty trees and alien plants had allowed the water table to leap up so fast “we were seeing hippos wallowing in new pools between tree stumps”.

However, he said the intervention involved everything from blocking artificial storm drains to establishing a black economic empowerment (BEE) company; lobbying government and the innovation of a 120 km “eco boundary”.

Lindley said St Lucia’s iSimangaliso Wetland Park was the most famous of thousands of wetlands around the country slowly coming back to life,“but more needs to be done”.

He said major companies like Mondi and Sappi had sacrificed vast tracts of productive land, more than five percent of their potential forest areas, as part of a unified environmental effort.

Meanwhile, eThekwini Municipality was working beyond its borders to reduce sediment and pollution in the uMgeni River catchment area “having realised it could not go on spending billions on water purification downstream”.

However, the WWF pointed to the Mondi Wetlands model for its pioneering work “outside protected areas”, saying its scientists had set a new standard by mapping a massive boundary, delineating land where no plantations would be allowed.

The authors found the new “wet grasslands” had attracted so much wildlife that zebra and buffalo now wandered into commercial forests.

BEE entity SiyaQhubeka Forests would grow commercial trees in areas with dry mineral soils best suited to plantations, where negative impacts would be minimal.

The report found SQF had inherited a problem. Over the years, there had been bitter disputes involving the forestry industry, environmentalists and local people. Some poorly sited plantations were having a negative impact on the lake and its wildlife by reducing freshwater flows. Water levels were too low and salinity levels too high.

It found the project had fixed the problem in this way: “[The managers] worked with the government, environmental NGOs and the park authority to determine which areas were suitable for commercial plantations, and which should be returned to their natural state.”

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