This article appeared in the Daily News on January 12, 2015.
By Vivien van der Sandt
When the life and work of the late great conservationist Ian Player is held on 14 January, he will be remembered for his successes in saving the rhino species and establishing the iMfolozi and St Lucia Wilderness Areas in 1958.
In addition to these achievements, a pristine 332 000 ha World Heritage Site in northern KwaZulu-Natal, the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, is a living monument to Player’s beneficial impact on the province, and South African conservation as a whole.
For Player was instrumental in establishing iSimangaliso, a now-protected area encompassing eight eco-systems, with his contribution to the Save St Lucia Campaign.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, together with other environmentalists and NGOs, Player fought – and won – a pitched battle against mining multinational, Rio Tinto, which wanted to strip mine the dunes in the wetland area.
Today, iSimangaliso – which was established with the mandate to unite conservation with tourism development, while also benefiting local communities – is seen as a model for park management in South Africa.
Under apartheid, many indigenous communities had been forcibly removed to make way for game parks and conservation areas. These resentful communities consequently held very negative attitudes towards conservation and game parks.
In addition, the poverty and under-development they experienced opened them to persuasion that industrialised activities such as mining could provide the prosperity they craved.
All these issues came into play two decades ago when a broad coalition of citizens and organisations, united under the banner of the Save St Lucia Campaign (also referred to as the Campaign for St Lucia), resisted plans by Richards Bay Minerals, a subsidiary of Rio Tinto, to mine the dunes of St Lucia for titanium and other heavy metals.
Half a million people – including Nelson Mandela and IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi – signed a petition calling for the plan to be scrapped in favour of conservation and tourism development.
After an epic battle, South Africa’s new democratic government ruled that mining be prohibited, and that the area be protected for future generations by more benign forms of economic growth. Player, representing the Wilderness Leadership Foundation, had become a member of the Save St Lucia committee a year after it was formed. He was allocated the role of mobilising international support. With his persuasion, powerful individuals from Europe and the United States were recruited to speak out against the mining.
Player, together with Dr Nolly Zaloumis (then President of the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa, and the founding chairperson of the Save St Lucia Campaign) flew to London to meet with the directors of Rio Tinto.
Another Campaign founding member, University of Zululand professor Jim Phelps, says, “Ian fitted in perfectly as leader of our international support. He showed the best understanding amongst the older activists of what needed to be done …
“He felt no need to grab prominence for himself. He gave his support and put his faith in us, and that was crucial, and showed the real leader and visionary that he was.
“Ian was a loyal friend to us from the first, and he gave solid and helpful support. What we asked him to do he did superbly, bringing in his powerful international allies.”
The Save St Lucia Campaign (named after Lake St Lucia, as iSimangaliso had not yet been established) is still today considered by many to be the biggest victory for the environment in South Africa. And iSimangaliso (which was established originally as the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park) seems to have settled the long-raging debate in conservation and political circles, about whether – and how – conservation and tourism development can work in tandem, and also benefit communities living around parks.
The government’s 1996 decision to ban mining, and instead to promote a tourism economic model – was underpinned by the recommendations of the Leon Commission, which had been appointed to advise government in the wake of the environmental campaign. The Commission argued against the mining option and recommended the development of a People’s Park for the area. In its view, tourism and conservation were the most appropriate land uses for the Wetlands. The Leon Commission stressed that conservation and tourism should also contribute to reconciliation and nation building by adding tangible benefits to communities living in and around the wetlands.
Under a new conservation model, ‘Development for Conservation’ Mandela’s cabinet created a dedicated iSimangaliso Authority, with a mandate to renew the meaning of conservation by balancing the perspectives of ecology, social justice and public interest.
Two decades later, iSimangaliso is living and working proof that conservation and nature-based tourism, rather than mining, provides the answer to development and jobs in pristine areas.
iSimangaliso’s CEO, Andrew Zaloumis, says: “In pursuit of this balance, iSimangaliso has provided employment and community upliftment via its land care, craft and SMME programmes, infrastructure contracts, sustainable agriculture and natural resource-use policies. (It also runs) tourism, leadership, environmental education, art and cultural heritage training, among many other programmes.”
Zaloumis readily rattles off the statistics that reveal how iSimangaliso has succeeded with the conservation-tourism-local upliftment development model:- The park hosts – and in many cases has helped establish – 76 SMMEs employing 1,520 people, which are implementing the ongoing rehabilitation in the park. Also, more than 3,000 temporary jobs have been created each year for the past five years while building fences, new roads and new tourism infrastructure. These figures far outstrip the 180 permanent jobs which had been promised by Richards Bay Minerals for their dune-mining operation.
– About 26 craft groups have been established in a programme to develop a craft market, and they employ 600 people. These groups supply a major retailer, Mr Price Home.
– Tourism businesses in and around the Park has grown by over 80% in the last 10 years. The number of beds has grown by over 40%, and average bed occupancies – which started below the national average – have now increased to above the national average.
A recent World Bank GEF (Global Environmental Facility) study revealed that the southern section of iSimangaliso (that is, the section that would have been directly affected by dune mining) generates R1,071 million in GVA (Gross Value Added) to KZN tourism.
The economic contribution equates to 15% of the KZN tourism sector’s GDP – an amazing statistic, bearing in mind that the total study area comprises only 0.98% of KZN. Perhaps more importantly, the area generates about 13 300 jobs directly.
These successes have not come at the expense of the region’s natural beauty and bio-diversity. On the contrary, they have given life to the local Bhangazi community’s argument – at the time of the proposed mining – that the land “contained their memories”, that mining would destroy its beauty, and that this beauty would never be restored.
The Bhangazi people (who were forcibly removed from the wetlands by the apartheid government, which used the land for military purposes) and other former land claimant communities, are now equity partners of iSimangaliso. They, and other stakeholders, are now represented on the iSimangaliso Authority’s Board. In addition, many of the emerging entrepreneurs, tour guides and park concession holders have been drawn from this community.
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park is seen as a forerunner of the new model set by the Leon Commission. Zaloumis says he realised, “If it fails to deliver, or delivery is slow, conservation and nature-based tourism land-use models may lose their legitimacy, a risk not just for iSimangaliso but in the whole of Southern Africa.”
He says iSimangaliso became the focus of government’s emphasis on nature tourism as a strategic and environmentally friendly industry to lead economic growth and revitalisation. It also elevated tourism and conservation nationally as legitimate regional economic drivers.
Zaloumis considers iSimangaliso (which means “miracle” or “wonder” in Zulu) “an icon in the history of environmental struggle in South Africa.”
These sentiments were echoed by Nelson Mandela during a speech marking the historic reintroduction, in 2002, of elephants to the Eastern Shores of Lake St Lucia – precisely the area Richards Bay Minerals would have devastated through strip mining. Mandela said at the time, “There can be no better icon for the holistic approach we are taking to conservation, than the development of this Wetland Park.”
Sadly, South Africa seems to have entered a new era, where mining and energy companies are once again being given carte blanche to devastate the natural environment and ruin tourism operators.
In Mtunzini – a north coast town south of iSimangaliso, and the first promulgated Conservancy town in South Africa which is a haven for endangered bird life – the local community has been fighting for years to stop mining multinational Tronox from stripping the dunes, and building a vast 37m high slimes dam on the edge of the town.
And one of Player’s great legacies – the Wilderness Area – is again under threat, as mining company Ibutho Coal (Pty) Ltd tries to establish an open-cast mine only 50m away from this protected area’s border.
The local communities of Ocilwane and Fuleni, aided by several environmental organisations, such us Save Our Wilderness, Global Environmental Trust and online petition site Avaaz, are fighting a pitched battle to save this pristine protected area.
All of which indicates that, while Player left a great legacy, it is a legacy that environmentalists will continually have to defend.