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Ignoring past lessons will cost the precious biodiversity in cape floral kingdom

Early on Saturday 8 January 2022, exactly three (3) years after the devastating fires in the area near Betty’s Bay, another fire broke out in a deserted forested area right next to the Kogelberg Biosphere, threatening the survival of the biggest floral biodiversity to be found anywhere on Earth.


The Kogelberg Biosphere is recognised as a significant ‘Floral Kingdom’ for the world, which must be protected and preserved. However, it was painfully clear that the lessons learnt from the Betty’s Bay fires of 2019 were not taken seriously enough and that much more must be done to take care of this precious region. This recent fire exposed the serious lack of collaboration and communication between Cape Nature, the Department of Forestry, Fisheries, and the Environment (DFFE), Working on Fire, and the District Municipality.


On the scene, Cape Nature were warned that, since a strong easterly wind was predicted, the situation could get worse and go all the way to Perdeberg and Betty’s Bay, but helicopters only arrived after some hours. As a result, three days later, choppers were still flying to douse the flames and hot spots, at huge cost. Firebreaks to protect Kleinmond were only made on the Monday after the fire broke out, and done in such a poor manner that the entire reserve next to the towns, at Drie Susters and Jean’s Hill, burnt down as well. In the end, the fire eventually destroyed an extensive area in the biosphere, more than 5000 ha of fynbos.


This tragedy could have been averted with clear plans and delegated responsibilities, and the authorities recognising the intrinsic value and purpose of our fynbos ecosystems especially the Kogelberg biosphere. Lessons need to be learnt to avert further destruction and local extinction events, which will have long term impacts. The relevant and responsible authorities need to plan and have in place clear responsibilities on how the chain of command works to prevent and manage fires. This includes the deployment of helicopters as well as the proactive management of sensitive areas. Other examples of well managed fynbos includes the management of firebreaks, controlled burning of certain areas as well as the eradication of alien plants and trees. All of these activities should all be seen as part of a wider, more inclusive development plan that contributes to poverty alleviation and job creation in the area.


This brings me to the situation at Knoflokskraal, which is another urgent issue that must be addressed immediately. A workable solution must be found for the Khoi people who already inhabit large amounts of DFFE land as a part of their land claim[FdG1] . This site and the forest lands in the surrounds are not being managed effectively by DFFE or other local authorities, and they are situated right in the middle of highly sensitive agricultural and eco-sensitive land. It is a socio-economic and environmental tinderbox.


Its important to acknowledge that Cape Nature inherited a vast piece of sensitive land without the provision of additional resources to manage it, and [FdG2] it is glaringly clear from recent fires that they do not have the capacity to manage it properly. We feel, to better protect the area, that they should seek help, and publicly flag this as an area that needs additional resources, and let the public know what they intend to do in a way that engages concerned stakeholders. This way the local communities can also play a more constructive role in the protection of the area.


It is a well-known that fynbos must burn for its regeneration and that the burn is a natural part of the ecosystem function, but at this frequency and severity of burns, biodiversity is not able to regenerate and seed banks will be lost. This is the third fire since 2016 in the area! Climate change that brings higher temperatures and more extreme weather will continue to exacerbate this situation. We believe, to avoid this ongoing fire devastation, a transparent management plan of the area that engages local stakeholders to be a part of the solution and creates opportunities, and that also looks at how to handle fires, is needed. DFFE must also provide feedback on how they see the future of plantation forests and clarify its plans for handling the current unregulated harvesting of old forestry areas.


As people of faith, we care about the future of humanity and our environment. We believe that we must be custodians of nature and the community of life, for now and future generations. We are very concerned about the negative downward spiral linking poverty to the environment, where communities are reliant on local natural resources for energy and other resources, due to lack of provision of land, housing and basic services. Land rights and ancestral rights lands are important issues that are not being addressed adequately.


SAFCEI and faith leaders are available to assist government in addressing local concerns including ensuring the interconnectedness of poverty, climate change, and poor resource management and how it results in a recipe for these raging disasters is understood. As Chair of SAFCEI, I am inviting government to talk to us and the affected communities to find lasting solutions to protect our precious heritage, while also considering the wellbeing of all the peoples living in the region.


Dr Braam Hanekom chair of the board on behalf of SAFCEI (Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute)


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