By Thami Magubane – IOL
DURBAN – EZEMVELO Wildlife is facing escalating threats from communities around some of its parks who are demanding full-time employment and are threatening to invade the parks and build houses.
Some of these communities are legal “owners” of the land after they had launched successful claims on the land on which the parks and the reserves are established.
Ezemvelo officials said while the challenges were faced only in about five of their 120 parks, they were affecting some of their biggest parks.
Among those facing challenges are the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park and Mkuze Park. Officials have also recently received calls from some community members living around Lotheni Park, who claimed to have the right to use the park for cattle-grazing.
In 2017, Ezemvelo signed an agreement with about 16 communities that had successfully claimed land close to the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park. Ezemvelo said community members had previously damaged a gate and fence which almost led to animals escaping.
The demands from communities include that their cattle be allowed to graze in the reserves and that they be allowed to farm. Officials from Ezemvelo said they feared the tensions could lead to parks’ infrastructure being damaged, including fencing, which could lead to dangerous animals escaping and killing community members.
Ntsikelelo Dlulane, acting chief executive of Ezemvelo, told members of the standing committee on public accounts on Friday that they were faced with a serious challenge. “On the issue of the land claims, the entity is facing a serious challenge when it comes to this particular issue, especially because the entity by virtue of its geographical location in terms of the parks that we are managing is mainly in the rural areas,” he said.
He said most of the parks were established after people were removed from those particular areas and the land was, therefore, subjected to land claims. He said most of the land claims were successful for the communities.
“What has happened now is that there is an expectation from the members of the community that the entity should provide permanent employment opportunities and failure to do that is resulting in threats. Members of the community all over the province are threatening to get into the parks and destroy the flora and fauna, and establish their homesteads because the land belongs to them,” he said.
“This is the result of the lack of employment in the rural areas within which parks are found.”
He added that Ezemvelo continued to engage with communities.
“We do have a management agreement but because of the challenges that we have experienced in terms of revenue collection, we have not been able to honour some of the agreements that we entered into (regarding) the sharing of the revenue with communities,” he said.
He said the situation was made worse due to the Covid-19 pandemic last year as there was almost no revenue collection. He said this had put the entity under immense pressure.
Musa Mntambo, Ezemvelo head of communications, said they were concerned that the problem could escalate.
“We have management agreements with some of these communities, but what is happening now is that some community members are either not aware of these agreements, or others are unhappy about them so they decide to form their own groupings,” he said.
“In most cases, the communities are demanding that they should be allowed to farm or have their cattle grazing in the reserves. Recently, we had a call from an individual near the Lotheni Reserve who claimed that based on the land agreement with land affairs, they were entitled to have their cattle grazing on the reserve,” he said.
Ezemvelo said it had sought assistance from the provincial government and the national Department of Environmental Affairs as the issue did not only affect the province, but was playing out across the country.
DA committee member Heinz de Boer said the lack of development in rural communities was a serious problem. “The land issue is linked to a lack of opportunity, which is linked to terrible infrastructure which makes industries not want to invest in rural communities,” he said.
De Boer also said he believed the issue was being used as a scapegoat by Ezemvelo to hide from the fact that it was failing to manage its financial affairs.
The IFP declined to comment on account that it had not been able to engage on the discussion.