The Law That Binds The Land
The Equatorial Press Lead Story Spanning savannah to coastline, South Africa enjoys some of the world's most biodiverse regions within its national borders. Yet concern is growing over a new set of laws aimed at making land seizures easier for the government to enact, regardless of their environmental impact. Can sustainability coexist with these new legal restrictions?(Photo by Randy OHC/Flickr)

By Anne Mearns

South Africa is blessed with a great diversity of natural beauty and richness. From snowcapped mountains, where pure mountain streams flow down to forested kloofs, to timeless deserts with dry river beds and salt pans, to grasslands, the area with the most successful forms of life on earth, South Africa displays a stunning variety. Many species of unique and endemic kinds of animal and plant life live in grasslands in South Africa. You also find the bushveld and savanna that forms the habitat of a great variety of animals that wander from waterholes to riverbeds, from valleys to open plains of grasslands.

Birds that are the jewels of the bushveld decorate trees with their beautiful plumage and break the silence with their melodious songs and calls. At sunrise you can always be greeted with the welcome call of the Fish Eagle. The wetlands are the breeding grounds and feeding places of many wetland birds, waders, and unique frog species. In these wetland areas you cannot miss striking sunset scenes accentuated by the far-off call of the African Night Jar. At the southern tip of South Africa is the fynbos habitat where you can find the most unique plantlife and animal life in Africa, species that survive some of the most stressfull weather conditions in the world. This is South Africa in brief, the country that also produces food for all its people and other nations in Africa.

Unfortunately, much of South Africa's natural beauty has been disturbed by human activities. Most recently, expropriation laws have been amended to make it easy for the state to pay farmers less than market value for forced farm sales. This has frightened farmers into accepting below-market prices without full or direct access to the courts. Many white farmers and farm workers and small communities have been affected.

These new laws allow the state to expropriate land in the public interest under the banner of land reform. Current legislation also caters to expropriation for public purposes such as building of dams, roads and airports.

In 2007 a mining company from Australia applied for heavy metal mining (titanium) on the Wild Coast. The application is still pending. If the mining is approved it will lead to the extinction of aquatic fauna and a permanent loss of biodiversity. The environmental management plan that has been submitted alongside the proposal contains "fatal" flaws. Studies by specialists familiar with the area are missing and plans to rehabilitate the area have not been submitted. In yet another case of communities versus expropriation, the people in the area have objected against this mining proposal because it is in violation of the environmental rights of present and future generations. Profits from mining operations will accrue to shareholders, most of whom live overseas, and none of these profits will likely ever reach the community itself.

A Land Affairs official denies the expropriation laws are precursors to Zimbabwe-style land grabs.

In South Africa natural ecosystems such as wetlands, grasslands, savannah, fynbos and bushveld habitats are recognized to contain some of the most important biodiversity in Africa. The negative impact of human activities, such as pollution, agriculture, development, mining and population growth cause a lot of damage to natural areas. Thus, protected areas must be sustainable as future generations will also need to enjoy these remaining resources. Restrictive new expropriation laws do little to help this cause.

Anne Mearns is a long-time conservationist based in South Africa. She is a United Nations Environment Program Global 500 Laureate.