Thinking beyond factories

2008-07-02 00:00

The recent articles in The Witness by Rob Haswell (May 8) and Colin Gardner (May 15) about the metro status of Pietermaritzburg reveal in their silences something of the collective blindness of our society.

Haswell celebrates the potential of the new metro status to open up key development opportunities for the private sector, not only along the N3, but throughout the new metro area. This raises the spectre of a new Midrand, a concrete corridor of offices, factories, houses and roads not only between Pietermaritzburg and Durban, but in all the spaces in between. There is a silence about what is already there, in the eastern region of Pietermaritzburg.

To the colonising minds of developers this is vacant land, waiting for the drive and energy of industrialisation to turn it into something useful. It is not really like that at all. It is one of the last remaining areas of natural habitat left to the city. To the north, south and west, the land has been transformed into monocultures of pine, cane and kikuyu where few species remain. In the eastern region lie substantial remnants of valley bushveld, teeming with life. If you stop talking here, you will hear the whistle of the reedbuck, the liquid call of the Purple-crested Lourie, the quark of frogs and the howl of the Black-backed Jackal. If you go out quietly at night you may see a porcupine scuttle or a wood owl swoop. In the morning light you may find the spoor of leopard.

Not everyone is immune to the animal sounds or to the quiet white blossoms of the wild pear in spring or the red glow of the aloes in the bleach of winter. There is a long history of many conservation-minded people who have struggled to conserve this rich habitat. Ashburton is not the aberration described by Gardner, nor a “strange boundary”, gerrymandered into separation from the city. Ashburton’s unique identity is reflected in the Ashburton Structure and Development Plan which evolved during a participatory Integrated Development Plan (IDP) process and was formally approved by the KwaZulu-Natal Legislature in 1994 and further amended in 1999. These documents reflect the rural nature of the eastern region and emphasise an eco-tourism and agriculture focus. The IDPs of two adjacent municipalities propose developing the Mkhambathini Big Five Game Reserve, a project which is being actively pursued by the Amaximba community with support from the Land Commission and the KZN Tourism Authority. The Lower Mpushini Valley Conservancy is currently being declared a protected area.

This disregard for the natural environment is not shared by the eThekwini Municipality down the road. While Msunduzi Municipality sports a single environmental manager and numerous vacant environmental posts, Ethekwini is a forerunner in environmental management with a visionary team. A 2005 study commissioned by Ethekwini conservatively valued ecosystem services, for example flood attenuation, pollution reduction and water provision around Durban at R3,1 billion per year. This excludes tourism turnover. The Ethekwini Water and Sanitation Department pays for 18 teachers per year to attend an environmental education module, accredited by the University of KwaZulu-Natal. While committed to meeting basic needs, Ethekwini has taken a long-term view of sustainable development, recognising the significance of biodiversity initiatives.

On the other hand, Msunduzi turns a blind eye to previous plans and policies (developed with taxpayers’ money and community consultation) and is eyeing the eastern region for infrastructure development. While it may genuinely believe that replacing the valley bushveld with buildings will lead to a better life for all, this is based on economic misconceptions from the last century that urgently need to be reconsidered.

Neo-classical economics takes the blinkered view that everything from nature is free and there is an endless supply. It only sees value in manufactured (e.g. factories and machinery) and human capital (skills and knowledge). Scientists have a different take. The more recent concept of “natural capital” encompasses all the things we get from nature such as timber, coal and soil, which form the basis of food production and industry. It also includes the services provided by nature, which are largely invisible but essential for our survival. The natural environment absorbs and processes the waste that we dump. Plants clean the air, the water cycle purifies the water. Thousands of species break down solid waste, keeping the soil alive and fertile. Many are still unnamed, particularly insects and micro-organisms which we can’t see or understand. However, increasingly scientists recognise that the natural environment is hugely stressed: the goods are running out and the services are struggling to cope with our muck.

We all know about global warming. Some of us wonder whether it is really June as the garden plants bloom out of season and we forget to put on jerseys. But what has this to do with Pietermaritzburg? Isn’t it the fault of those gas-guzzling Americans?

Every citizen in this city who breathes, travels in vehicles, eats commercially produced food and uses electricity, paraffin or gas is yearly producing tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) and contributing to global warming. The suffering caused by the cyclone in Myanmar can be attributed in part to you and me. The only way to remove CO2 from the atmosphere is through large areas of plants which are not going to be chopped down or harvested (commercial crops and timber ultimately release all their carbon back into the atmosphere). This means that every citizen needs many hectares of natural habitat to absorb their CO2 emissions. As few citizens own any hectares at all, it has to become the responsibility of governments, local to national, to set aside land in perpetuity. If we believe we can put the land under tarmac and concrete, and still survive, we are deluded.

The eastern bushveld also contains something a little mystical: a rich biodiversity. This means it has a wide variety of plant and animal species, some of them unique to the area, with many species not yet named. Eighty percent of food production requires pollinators — those insects which do the job of fertilising flowers so they produce fruit, which incidentally includes vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, chillies, brinjals, pumpkins, melons and beans. When natural habitats are destroyed, so are pollinators and insect predators, leading to massive pest infestations and crop failure.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond in his book Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed sums up the issue of biodiversity conservation: “Who cares? Do you really care less for humans than some lousy useless little fish or weed? … Elimination of lots of lousy little species regularly causes big harmful consequences for humans, just as does randomly knocking out many of the lousy little rivets holding together an airplane.”

Biodiversity serves us in other ways too. Natural vegetation is a sponge, absorbing water and slowly releasing it into rivers and springs. With ploughing and building comes floods, erosion, landslides and drought. While the air in Pietermaritzburg regularly taunts us with bad smells and winter coughs, it would be much worse without the purifying role of the eastern bushveld, which was specifically excluded from development many years ago due to its role in air purification. Today we need this green lung more desperately than ever.

Diamond’s research into societal collapse from ancient civilisations to the current day shows that environmental destruction was common to all these stories.

Relatively few people realise that continuing business as usual means signing off and signing out. We will become another interesting example of a society that failed to heed the warnings; a society that collapsed. That is, if there is anyone left to record the story.

How do we move forward genuinely to create a better life for all?

Metro status for Pietermaritzburg could mean working towards creating a sustainable city. The entire eastern bushveld should be conserved for the value of its ecosystem services. If you include the value of tourism and recreation, Pietermaritzburg’s Little Serengeti could compete with uShaka Marine World. Long-term jobs would be created when out-of-town visitors stay a little longer in a bushveld lodge, embark on the Bishopstowe mountain bike route, visit the annual Aloe Festival and the Open Wilderness Gardens or take in the proposed new birding route — although none of these job-creating scenarios should underplay the importance of Pietermaritzburg residents having access to wide open African spaces for their spiritual, cultural and mental wellbeing.

The additional revenue from metro status could mean filling vacant environmental posts in the municipality, with industry and housing development being concentrated in nodes of already transformed land; with an emphasis on building upwards not outwards at the same time as providing urban dwellers with substantial parks (with African trees) and sports fields for air quality and recreation.

There could be job creation doing alien plant control, monitoring the Duzi for illegal effluent, more rubbish collectors, support for city and peri-urban farms, rehabilitating collapsing sewerage systems, establishing a public transport system, building bicycle tracks and starting an effective recycling system at the landfill site.

Diamond’s research into societal collapse led him to conclude: “Two types of choices seem to me to have been crucial in tipping their outcomes towards success or failure: long-term planning and willingness to reconsider core values.”

I would like to urge our city managers and planners to broaden their vision to include a commitment to the long-term sustainability of the city of Pietermaritzburg. If they do, there is a chance they will go down in history as great leaders.

• Morag Peden is a lecturer in environmental education and agricultural education at the School of Education and Development, Pietermaritzburg campus, UKZN.

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