No to Lakes Eco development

No to Lakes Eco development
Lakes Eco protest 2005

Friday, February 11, 2011

February 2011 Guardians of the Garden Route Celebrate the Bicentennial year of George

As part of these bicentennial celebrations, it would be wise to consider the urgent challenges that this area and the Southern  Cape surrounds still have to address, as well as to celebrate and record any progress we have achieved to date. How have the descendants of the original George citizens fared in the last 200 years?

The Guardians were formed in 2004 by a group of diverse activists from the Southern Cape, against a backdrop of unfair evictions in Kraaibosch, threatened evictions from forestry settlements and growing poverty. On the other end of the scale - rampant, elite development was turning agricultural land and vast tracts of coastal fynbos into golf and polo estates and game farms, often evicting long term tenants, destroying ancient paths and our heritage in the process.

After a series of meetings of land activists and environmentalists, a list of objectives and a banner statement was drafted. “The greenies” became more aware of the social challenges and how “green” issues can not compete with survival issues. Very simply:  People need land to care for, so that they can feed themselves, appreciate and care for the environment. 

GoG arranged and supervised 6  protest marches- the first three of our well attended peaceful protest marches occurred simultaneously in George, Knysna and Plett, November 2004. Passionate speeches were made, petitions signed, media articles published and commented on for months after the protests. Our objective to raise awareness of this area’s challenges, certainly seemed to have succeeded.
Knysna Greenies 2004

George Land and Enviro protesters 2004

CXPress front page: Plettenberg Bay 2004. A great turnout, despite the mayor's attempts to sabotage it.

The message- calling for sustainable development and land justice, was also conveyed by the drama group Community Reflections at various public presentations. Their award winning play Awakenings, was performed at Cape Action for People and the Environment’s  (CAPE) first annual awards ceremony at Kirstenbosch (2005), where the Guardians of the Garden Route won a Gold award for “an exceptional contribution towards the conservation of the Cape Floristic Region.”  

That was a great start to the GoG campaign and the following years continued to be a demanding time for all the volunteer core members.
Colleen Simons receives GoG's award at Kirstenbosch
 Oom Sam Lwapi and Oom Japie Sonqayi, two of GoG’s senior core members, who represented the forestry indaba and forestry settlement communities, were very active throughout the GoG campaign, raising awareness of their issues and supporting the various protests that took place.

I met Oom Japie at the tree nursery where he is employed, and I asked him if his community’s situation had improved, since all that protesting and lobbying he was involved in a few years ago?
He answered that he was not too involved in community affairs anymore, and that “the fire in the belly of the forestry people had died down to glowing coals”. This was because slow progress was being made towards security of tenure, and the municipality had begun the long process towards transferring ownership to the forestry settlement residents. Yes, the campaign had helped get their message across and yes he did see some light at the end of the tunnel.  

Seniors and bird watchers also supported Lakes Eco Protest
SABC TV was there too

Many of GoG’s very active activists came from the Wilderness and Lakes Environment Action Forum or WALEAF camp, which was opposed to the Lakes Eco development on the Sedgefield lakes.  I spoke to Pam Booth and asked her what her most exciting GoG moment was.  She said, “without a doubt, the highlight was the Lakes Eco protest at Sedgefield, September 2005, where people from all different backgrounds joined forces. The social activists, environmentalists, SANCO members, pensioners, local business owners- were all joined by a late busload of ANC flag waving comrades, and we all marched and sang together and said NO to Greed.

Vivien Vibert, a WALEAF activist and also a core member of GoG said "So when in April 2007 the Provincial authorities rejected the Lakes Eco development- (what would have been a dagger through the heart of the Garden Route, socially and environmentally,) it was a cause for celebration by many, including GoG, not least because the authorities took note of citizens. Sadly, efforts of GoG and others to improve living conditions and secure land rights for people caught in legal limbo have not borne much fruit, because decisions ultimately lie with municipalities and other authorities; many are affected, such as at Wilderness Heights, Club Timber and Power Town near Mossel Bay.  This is a great disappointment"

My next meeting was with Gert Hufkie of the Southern Cape and Karoo Land Restitution Forum (SKKLRF) who challenged the MEC for Agriculture, Kobus Dowry in 2006, about his statement that the land proposed for Lagoon Bay Golf estate was not suitable for agriculture.  I asked him if he had succeeded in overturning this “official” misconception yet? "Unfortunately not", reported Gert. They had not responded to any of his requests for meetings or to his organisation’s letters. He believes the developer has ANC friends in high places. And to make matters worse, opponents of the Lagoon Bay Golf estate development have been intimidated, giving examples of  two homes that have been petrol bombed. 

 Most people I spoke to agreed that the present economic climate might prevent the Lagoon Bay developers from going ahead, even if the authorities were short-sighted enough to permit it. Golf estates are proving to be expensive white elephants, riding on the backs of the home owners on the estates. There is already an over-supply of undeveloped plots available in various golf estates along the Southern Cape Coast. Once the developer has his money banked, the maintenance and running costs of the thirsty golf course becomes the responsibility of the largely absent home owners, and then owning property on a Golf Estate is no longer a carefree existence. It was fashionable, once upon a time, but more exciting and sustainable development concepts will hopefully continue to draw investors away from golf estates.

 Hikers have reported that the famous St Blaize section of the Oystercatcher Trail has been ruined for everyone, since a few kilometres of it now includes walking along edges of green desert and crossing the club house deck. So I thought I should get an update on George’s coastal access too.
Melanie Gosling of Cape Times wrote a great article, but the developers still got away with it

Freddie Arries, one of GoG’s founder members was a great campaigner for free access to Gwaing River mouth. He organised protests there, as well as being mired in court cases defending beach access, after the caravan park owner/ municipality closed the road. Freddie died a few years ago but Gwaing remains a beloved recreational area for people from the George area.

I have heard from recent visitors that the Le Grande’s additional new Golf Course was well underway, but the public access to Gwaing River mouth was still possible. It is just depressing, that access means passing through a corridor of golf course greens and luxury, pseudo-“Tuscan” mansions, and even more so for those locals who believe the golf estate is on land that should have been used for low cost housing.

Gert Hufkie reports that the Mossel Bay Municipality has rented out a favourite camping place, Souwesia at Groot Brak River mouth, so that it can be used as a restaurant during season. All the public’s braai facilities and picnic tables were suddenly removed, and now there was a new gate between the people and the coast. This is illegal, as our new Coastal Management Act is supposedly in force, and it specifically guards public access to the coast. GoG supported and commented on this new law, and we would like to see it enforced by local municipalities.  The George Municipality must ensure that access to places like Gwaing River Mouth stays free and unfettered. Souwesia users need to take a stand, and follow the Noetzie example. 

The Guardians of the Garden Route organised a peaceful protest at Noetzie, near Knysna on 24 /09/06, where Pezula Golf Estate developers had cut off an ancient path to the beach, illegally. More than 300 protesters cut the lock with bolt cutters and used their ancient path again. After this protest and after court action was instigated by a member of the public, the access is once again free and unfettered.

Next, I went to Kleinkrantz, to meet Colleen Simons, a committee member of the organisation Human Settlements on State Land.  Her story was also quite bleak, reporting that in the last 10 years of lobbying, her community has made no progress at all with security of tenure, or land ownership. There is very little or no low cost housing available, and although Kleinkrantz was an excellent candidate for integration or closing the gap between rich and poor, no progress in that direction had been made at all. This was despite protesting, writing letters, asking for meetings and having meetings. Colleen feels that it is time the people took their power back from the politicians, as they only make empty promises.

Colin Solomon, a Wilderness heights informal settlement representative says they are still living without security of tenure and the community are desperate for progress and some compassion for their predicament.  His community had proper architectural drawings and plans done for an eco friendly village design some years ago, but their initiative and efforts have come to nothing.
The sense of pride and achievement in taking back the right to produce our own food was tangible and inspiring. 26/1/08 Food Sovereignty day

George, the biggest Southern Cape town may be 200 years old, but this town has some festering problems to solve, and they must be solved, before it is too late. 
Here are some suggestions for a happier and successful future for all of George’s people:

  • Stop our agricultural land from being re-zoned to upmarket residential areas.
  • Say NO! to the proposed Lagoon Bay Development. No more golf courses please.
  • Security of tenure, land for emerging farmers and space for small scale community gardens to encourage Food Sovereignty. (Being able to grow our own food, in a healthy and organic way, without being so reliant on the supermarkets and the expensive food they sell)
  • George needs more small, sustainable eco villages rather than just crowded townships or elite ghettos.
  • Protect our environment: especially our rivers and lakes- for the clean water we need them to provide; as well as free access to our coastline for subsistence fishermen and recreation purposes.
  • True empowerment with good free education; skills development; small-scale, organic farming and eco-tourism.
  • We need more activists fighting for the Southern Cape's people and environment.  Take a stand. We can’t always rely on politicians or officials to act in our best interests- they do not. Use your voice, make your politicians do their job, or lose their job.
Only then will we be able to challenge a stereotypical view of George being a conservative town with too many gated Golf developments, a few rich farmers, bickering politicians, and the rest, fighting over the scraps – (also known euphemistically as the “trickle down” benefits.) We must change this picture by the time George turns 300 years old, or sooner, please!