Cape Argus (Capetown, South Africa), August 7, 2007
SOUTH AFRICA: UNIVERSITY PLAN THREATENS ENDANGERED FYNBOS
[Rachel's introduction: "Given the critically endangered status of this habitat, the fact that the majority of the plant communities are found in the Cape Flats nature reserve does not justify its loss and goes against the precautionary principle."]
By John Yeld
The University of the Western Cape has been given permission to build a new Life Science Center on a piece of property containing critically endangered indigenous vegetation, against the recommendation of conservation authorities and to the dismay of several fynbos botanists.
The go-ahead by the provincial government, which is still subject to an appeal process, will destroy close to one hectare of Cape Flats Sand Fynbos -- one of South Africa's most critically endangered vegetation types of which just 1% is formally conserved.
The proposed complex will support research in bioinformatics, biotechnology, water studies and indigenous herbal medicine.
The property is currently managed as part of the university's proclaimed Cape Flats Nature Reserve.
The province's approval, granted last week, states that mitigation and rehabilitation measures must be applied, including the transfer of another part of the UWC property -- 29115 hectares -- to the nature reserve as an "offset", and the removal of topsoil to a depth of 20cm from the development site to degraded areas in the reserve.
Also, there must be a "search-and-rescue" operation for plants before any development starts.
But these conditions do not satisfy the critics.
In its submission, Cape-Nature pointed out that the site -- known as the "dog's leg" -- contained the critically endangered vegetation type, most of which had been destroyed and many of the remaining patches of which were "fragmented and/or degraded".
"Given the critically endangered status of this habitat, the fact that the majority of the plant communities are found in the Cape Flats nature reserve does not justify its loss and goes against the precautionary principle."
Saying it could not support the proposed development, CapeNature also said that while it "might" be possible to "offset" the impacts by securing another area for conservation purposes, "it is generally agreed that it is not realistically possible to offset impacts in irreplaceable habitats".
The botanical assessment report, done by Dr Dave McDonald, noted that sand fynbos had been heavily impacted by development.
It stated that the "dog's leg" had been extracted from the nature reserve as part of a campus development land swap in 1988, although always managed as part of the reserve.
McDonald acknowledged that "every fragment" of land on the Cape Flats harbouring natural vegetation was important, "and should be seen as vital in the patchwork of conservation areas necessary to ensure the continued survival of the vegetation types and the plant species they contain".
"The dog's leg section has a high conservation value... This site is essentially irreplaceable ..."
However, the southern portion of the development site has been disturbed by bulldozing in the past and an electricity cable has been laid across it.
"Based on information collected in this survey, it is concluded that there are no areas that are considered as 'no go' zones from a plant species perspective and there are also no areas that should be set aside from the development proposal.
"No obvious constraints can be placed on the development as proposed."
Botanist Barrie Low, a former curator of the nature reserve, said the "dog's leg" was a transition zone.
"It's an extremely rare habitat on the Cape Flats and quite unprotected elsewhere, with the possible exception of Rondevlei. So if this development goes ahead, we will lose that transition and the impact will be quite severe," he said.
Mark Botha, the Botanical Society's director of conservation, said: "We shouldn't be using offsets in a critically endangered vegetation type -- that's going to set a really bad precedent..."
Copyright 2007 Cape Argus