Urgent call to save parks in the North West
Louzel Lombard Steyn
19 May 2018

A white rhino and her calf in Pilanesberg National Park in the North West Province.

EMBATTLED North West Premier Supra Mahumapelo has set his sights on the wildlife reserves within the province, proposing a bill last week repealing the North West Parks Board (NWPB). Should the bill be passed, the North West government would have full access to all the wildlife resources within the province.

The world-renowned Pilansberg National Park and game reserve is one of the parks in jeopardy.

On May 3, the Mahumapelo administration quietly published the new proposal which “provides for the repeal of the North West Parks Board Act, 2015”. It suggests that the NWPB’s “objects, powers, duties and functions… be managed, governed, staffed and financed” by one provincial authority.

This means that the NWPB’s decision-making, management and financial planning will fall under a single board of members tasked to stimulate economic growth, not conservation.

The parks’ resources will effectively be open for the taking to be diluted and used in unrelated sectors like the North West Housing Corporation, Tourism Sector, Transport Sector, Development Corporation and Invest North West, all of which will fall under a single structure responsible for the newly established People’s Economic Growth Agency (Pega).

According to an independent environmental lawyer, the absorbing of the Parks Board into provincial government could be seen as unconstitutional since it would frustrate the state’s obligation to promote conservation.

Under the National Environmental Management: Protected areas act 57 of 2003 Section 19 it reads: “The declaration of an area as a special nature reserve, or as part of an existing special nature reserve, may not be withdrawn and no part of a special nature reserve may be excluded from the reserve except by resolution of the National Assembly”.

Should the repeal of that act be approved, all external conservation authorities’ interests in the North West parks could be jeopardised.

The NWPB receives donor funding for specific purposes including biodiversity planning, the management of nature reserves, biodiversity stewardship and protected areas expansion. The repeal of the NWPB which might see such donors – like the Copenhagen Zoo, Friends of the Pilanesberg and Pilanesberg Wildlife Trust – pull away.

According to Warren Best, Friends of the Pilanesberg chairperson, the repeal of the NWPB “would be a significant step backwards for conservation and the management of our reserves that would ultimately place a burden on organisations such as ours”. He also says the idea to lump together infrastructure and development sectors with wildlife conservation, contradicts “conservation management models around the world”.

The decision to utilise wildlife resources as an economic asset sets a dangerous precedent for other protected areas, including SANParks, to see SA’s natural heritage as a piggy bank.

This sentiment has been a major concern in South Africa in recent years, as the DEA and governmental conservation authorities’ actions reflect not conservation as its main objective, but rather making money. Conservationists argue that the DEA is damning SA’s conservation reputation for financial benefit by supporting industries like canned hunting, trade in lion bones and the sale of rhino horn – even admitting its decisions are not backed by science or conservation information.

If the exploiting of wild resources in protected areas is to be handled in a similar fashion, it could be fatal to SA’s world-renowned natural heritage.

To discuss the repeal of the NWPB, the North West government issued a call for public participation on its proposed bill. This, however, appears to be only for the satisfying of administrative requirements rather than assessing the actual merit of the bill.

Although the proposal was published in the Government Gazette on Thursday, May 3, details of the public participation meetings, held on May 11, were only published the day before. The participation period was also initially opened for one week only, until May 11, but later postponed to May 18. Members of the public can respond here. This two-week participation period still violates the Department of Environmental Affairs’ official guideline which states that a legal minimum of 30 days must be made available for relevant parties to comment.

Furthermore, South Africa’s Constitutional Court considers public participation an integral part of our democracy. It has ruled repeatedly that a proper consultation process is essential. All things considered, the rushed participation process seen in the NWPB case seems deliberately brief and disingenuous, intended to pass quietly behind the smokescreen created by the political upheaval in the province.

According to Ross Purdon, DA MP for Environmental Affairs, the proposal “is seriously flawed and reeks of corruption of the highest order. On top of the ambulance scandal, illegal game donations and a reported R14 billion fruitless and wasteful expenditure, we now have this”.

Purdon says the DA has attended the public meetings, and will challenge the North West government’s plans to repeal the Parks Board.

According to conservation experts working with the North West Parks, game in the parks alone is worth billions of rand – all of which would be left vulnerable should the “draconian bill” be passed, Netwerk24 reports.

During his state of the province address last year, Mahumapelo announced the new Pega plan – a merger of many development agencies aimed at strengthening the North West Development Corporation (NWDC).

The agency was set to take effect at the end of March this year, after which plans such as the repeal of the NWPB has subsequently been rolled out.

The North West has been embroiled in violent protests for weeks as ANC members and residents have been calling for Mahumapelo’s resignation.

Last week President Cyril Ramaphosa intervened, informing the National Council of Provinces he would be placing the entire North West government under the control of the National Executive in terms of Section 100 (1) of the constitution.

This means all provincial government decisions will be made by an independent, national body until an assessment can be made on whether the provincial powers in place are fit to govern. The process will be taking place for the next 180 days, until mid-November. The plan to repeal the NWDC, however, will be tabled irrespective of who acts as the North West premier.

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