A journey to wholeness

Phumlani Lugaga

Innovative settlement of land claims in and around South Africa’s first natural world heritage site, iSimangaliso, is creating a new conservation ethos that benefits local people. FRED KOCKOTT reports

Conservation, still often cursed in deep rural areas as repressive and elitist, is offering fresh opportunities to black youth whose forefathers lost ancestral land rights in and around South Africa’s first natural world heritage site – iSimangaliso. For some, it takes courage to embrace these opportunities.

After four years’ university study, Phumlani Lugaga had hoped his entire family would celebrate his successful application for an internship at iSimangaliso. It was not to be. “Hawu, iSimangaliso! Po!” his grandmother cursed. “Why iSimangaliso of all places?” she asked. “Child, you must find another place to work!”

“You need to understand my gran’s perspective,” says Lugaga. “We live in an area between Sodwana Bay and Lake Sibiya. Here, people clear land within the protected wetlands to plant vegetables and amadumbe. They often clash with conservation authorities.”

I met Lugaga and other iSimangaliso interns at the end of a day spent chatting to two veteran rangers – Paul Dutton and Mdiceni Gumede – now retired.  The two rangers, both in their early eighties, provided a ‘boots on the ground’ perspective of challenges they faced during their baptism into conservation in the 1960s. (Read >> Rangers’ tales)

For youngsters like Lugaga, the stories that Dutton and Gumede tell belong to an era pre-dating their birth: the days when people were forcibly removed from traditional land to create game reserves.  The result: a never ending cycle of conflict – and land claims, post-apartheid.

By 1999, 14 land claims covered the entire iSimangaliso Wetland Park. Nine of these land claims have since been settled with co-management agreements forming part of a broader restitution process.

This includes awarding bursaries to top performing matriculants from schools in and around the Park. Since 2010, iSimangaliso has supported more than 77 students in tertiary studies ranging from environmental and social sciences through to tourism and commerce.

“The results have been impressive – a 90% retention rate far exceeds the national norm,” says iSimanagaliso’s senior manager, Bronwyn James.

In 2014, iSimangaliso started an associated internship programme providing opportunities to university graduates to work in the field, honing their skills in the conservation sector.

After completing a degree in environmental science at University of the KwaZulu-Natal, Lugaga successfully applied for an intern’s post, and now works in iSimangaliso’s compliance and environmental planning department, educating people about the sustainable use of natural resources.

“Take Juncus kraussii as an example,” says Lugaga, referring to incema, a strong reed that not only prevents erosion but also makes good fibre for weaving. Incema used to be endemic to many areas of Kwazulu-Natal, but has been over-harvested for making traditional sleeping mats, baskets and other handicraft, the sale of which sustains many rural households.

“iSimangaliso is now one of the few areas where incema still grows in abundance,” says Lugaga. Through a controlled programme, iSimangaliso sets aside harvesting sites in May each year, inviting women from all over the province to collect a year’s supply of the reed.

Zweli Miya, a masters student in geography and environmental management, now works as a GIS technician in iSimangaliso’s land care programme that recruits local people to help remove invasive alien species from the Park.

Sifiso Vumase completed a diploma in tourism management and now works as an environmental education intern.

“I interact with learners from more than 90 local schools,” says Vumase. “The children get excited about what we are doing. They are the ones who can educate their parents.”

Vumase is also keen to work with traditional healers in exploring how indigenous knowledge systems can be used to promote the protection of natural resources.

Sussed and savvy, Miya, Lugaga and Vumase are committed to turning the tide on conflict-ridden practices of the past. But getting buy-in from everyone in and around the Park is not always easy. says iSimangaliso’s Park Operation Director, Sizo Sibiya.

“There are places around here where one is careful not to even mention the word ‘park’,” says Sibiya. “People start shouting: ‘What park? Are you telling us we are tourists!”

Prior to joining iSimangaliso, Sibiya faced awkward predicaments as a young game ranger dealing with trespassers in the uMkhuze game reserve.

“You would arrest a guy for trespassing. You might even be angry with him, having waited at a snare for two days with your boss on your case for not catching anyone. Then, come the day of the guy’s court appearance, he pitches up at your office, hat in hand, wanting a lift, unable to afford a taxi,” says Sibiya.

“Do you give the man a lift? Do you give him money for a taxi?” asks Sibiya.

Prior to uMkhuze’s incorporation into iSimangaliso, standing instructions to rangers included shooting domestic dogs on sight. “We then had to present its tail as proof that you had discharged a bullet. This was to avoid suspicion of bullets being sold,” says Sibiya.

Transferred to Kosi Bay in 2004, Sibiya encountered even more awkward situations that his studies and training had not prepared him for.  In Kosi Bay, Sibiya not only encountered plenty of dogs running about the place, but residents wanting to know who gave him the right to be in the area.

“Some refuse to accept that they live within a protected area,” says Sibiya. “And they need to plant, so they cut down trees. For those activities you have to get authorisation.”

Sibiya soon learned that to work effectively in places like Kosi Bay, you have to become part of the community. “I learned this from older, experienced black rangers. They can arrest their own brothers and still be friends,” says Sibiya.  “And if someone is killed by a hippo, you have to be at the  family funeral, mourning with them. That’s when I realised that we need to shift our thinking and change the way we operate. People living here have to become part of the conservation process, or it will never work,” says Sibiya.

That is what iSimangaliso’s bursary scheme and internship programme is all about, says James.

“We want to co-manage the Park with people from the area. So we need to capacitate people, in particular land claimants, and bring them into the organisation. They are the future CEO’s and park managers,” says James.

“iSimangaliso’s story is a story of restitution,” adds iSimangaliso’s CEO, Andrew Zaloumis. “We have come a long way with the restoration of the natural environment and the implementation of local livelihood strategies. We are offering a model of conservation to other protected areas. In truth, however, iSimangaliso will always be a work in progress as our society changes and economies shift.”

If changing attitudes within the Lugaga family are anything to go by, iSimangaliso is clearly on the right track.

“We don’t talk about it anymore, but my gran no longer detests iSimangaliso,” says Lugaga. “Although I cannot wear her shoes, I sense she is very proud of me.” – Roving Reporters

  • This story forms of the Human Elephant Foundation’s Thin Green Line series.

>> Now read: Rangers’ tales – flashbacks to the past

>> Click here to read pdf of story as published in the Daily News.

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