Applause for St Lucia decision

Drought: An aerial view of Charter's Creek and the drought-stricken Lake St Lucia, taken in October last year.

THE bid by sugar farmers to force iSimangeliso Wetland Park to allow the breaching of the uMfolozi River mouth has failed – and conservationists are hailing the court decision as a huge victory for nature.

In the conflict between the two parties, Umfolozi Sugar Planters UCOSP and the farmers, Paul van Rooyen and Petrus Maphumulo contended they had a right to breach the river to alleviate back-flooding on certain low-lying farms.

The farms in question, however, comprise less than one percent of the 9127ha under sugar cane.

iSimangaliso contended that it was implementing a management strategy for the estuary that had been developed after consultation with UCOSP.

The consultations and discussions had started in 2008.

 An aerial photograph of Charter's Creek, Lake St Lucia, taken in 2011 after good rains.

An aerial photograph of Charter’s Creek, Lake St Lucia, taken in 2011 after good rains.

iSimangaliso argued that despite repeated attempts to impress upon UCOSP the implications of farming on land located in the tidal zone in the face of climate change, UCOSP had failed to deliver on its promises to improve its flood protection measures.

Kemp J Kemp appeared for UCOSP, Mr van Rooyen and Mr Maphumulo in three urgent applications brought against iSimangaliso.

The first application was served in August last year, following 14 threats of legal action against iSimangaliso.

The August application was concluded in October 2015 by settlement agreement. In December 2015 and March 2016, two further urgent applications were filed for alleged non-compliance with the settlement agreement by iSimangaliso. The three applications were all set down to be heard in the Durban High Court on May 19 and 20.

In March this year, when the interim order was still valid, iSimangaliso officials rejoiced as long overdue rains began to fall and fresh water began to flow into Lake St Lucia. However, celebrations were short-lived. According to the interim court order, when water levels reach a certain critical level the uMfolozi River mouth could then be breached.This level had been reached and iSimangaliso officials stood by helplessly as thousands of litres of fresh water rushed out to sea, lost to the lake system where it was desperately needed.

Last week it was back to court for UCOSP and the farmers who had lodged the application against iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority, the Departments of Environment Affairs, Water and Sanitation, Rural Land Reform and Development and Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

This matter affected the lives of some 80 000 people who were dependent on the Lake St Lucia Estuary for subsistence livelihoods, as well as the tourism and fisheries industries – Andrea Gabriel, counsel for iSimangaliso

Ms Gabriel gave the environment a voice when she said this matter was about protecting the interests of “all inhabitants and living organisms dependent on the coastal environment”.

She asked the court: “What are we going to tell our children and South Africa about what we did to save St Lucia?”

A view of Lake St Lucia, the jewel of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.

A view of Lake St Lucia, the jewel of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.

Nicolette Forbes and Professor Derek Stretch gave expert estuarine and engineering evidence.

Judge Mohini Moodley dismissed the sugar farmers’ application. In her closing on Friday judgement last week, she concluded the interim relief had run its course and dismissed the main application along with two others. Reasons for the judgement and costs would follow, she said.

Judge Moodley noted this matter had demanded a great deal from iSimangaliso and UCOSP and that in the interests of justice and both parties, it was expedient to make a judgement immediately so that the relationship between the parties could be regulated.

After the judgement had been given, Andrew Zaloumis, chief executive of iSimangaliso Wetland Park said the life blood had returned to Lake St Lucia, the uMfolozi River being the major source of fresh water into Africa’s largest estuarine lake.

“This is a story of environmental justice for the 800 hippos and 1 200 large crocodiles whose home is the lake as well as many other endemic and threatened species. And for the people who depend on Lake St Lucia,” he said.

Tourism directly related to the estuary generated approximately R1.2 billion and created about 7 000 jobs.

He thanked the national and provincial environmental departments, Ezemvelo, the legal team of Andrea Gabriel, Steve Raney and Terri Castis and the local community and reiterated his invitation to the farmers to build a collaborative relationship with iSimangaliso.

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Judi Davis
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