GOVERNMENT has approved plans for the construction of a toll route through the Wild Coast in the face of fierce opposition from environmentalists and the royal house of AmaMpondo.
The project, initially intended to take off some 10 years ago, has been stalled by objections from Pondoland communities whose homes the road will cut through, and from environmentalists who fear the ecological impact.
Environmentalists are also concerned a portion of the road between Lusikisiki and Port Edward will bisect the Pondoland Centre of Endemism (PCE) sections of the proposed Wild Coast/Pondoland National Park.
The approval of the project, by Minister for Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Sicelo Shiceka, was justified by the economic spin-offs in an area of severe poverty and disease.
Departmental spokesperson Vuyelwa Vika said the toll road, which will start from Buffalo City and go through Transkei to Isipingo south of Durban, had strong business appeal, and constant delays were detrimental only to communities along the proposed route.
“After visiting the area and witnessing for himself the poverty and disease that exists in that area, the minister felt that the people had suffered great neglect since there has been no significant development in the past 15 years,” she said.
Vika said people could not continue living in hope after repeated promises of development.
“There will be a consultation process, to be complete within the next three months, during which stakeholders, including communities, environmentalists and everyone who has ever raised issues about the development, will be consulted,” she said .
She added that all legal actions brought against government for the project also would be sorted out by then.
During construction the road is expected to generate about 6800 direct and up to 21300 indirect jobs, with 900 of them permanent.
About 18000 indirect jobs are expected to exist after the road was built.
Kings in the area have voiced their unhappiness over the construction , calling it an invasion of natural land lush with natural flora, fauna and the site of the graves of their forefathers.
They had also vigorously resisted the mining of a 23km strip of land in Xolobeni, with threats to go to court to stop it with a human rights body joining in the fray.
The road was regarded as paving the way for the mining project.
Attempts to get their comment on the pending construction were unfruitful yesterday.
“By the end of the year a decision on the mining project would have been reached, so that if it does not continue alternative developmental projects must be put in place,” Vika said.
Yesterday the Sustaining the Wild Coast (SWC) initiative vigorously opposed to the construction of the road, said the three months consultation process was not only impractical but a recipe for disaster.
Land rights activist and SWC community co-ordinator Pasika Nontshiza said: “This is ridiculous, they would not have completed consultation for a project which will erode 85km of endemic species, from where people get their plants and herbs.”
He said the community they claimed to be concerned about had received no responses to their concerns on the future of the existing projects, from which they derived an income.
“They are not against development, but they do not know what they gain from this,” he said.
He added that by announcing his decision through the media, the minister was violating the “code of consultation”, and repeating mistakes that had led to the opposition of the project.
He said that the promise of jobs was a tool used by the authorities to bolster their position.
“We have jobs that are in harmony with nature – why can’t they be boosted?”
The South African National Roads Agency Limited (Sanral), under whom the project falls, yesterday said safeguarding and protecting endemic species formed part of their plan, as did alleviating poverty and empowering communities.
“The process has taken too long, but we had to follow all legal processes,” Sanral CEO Nazir Ali said.
He said the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), which they had been asked to re-do, was almost ready, they were just processing public and community input.
“In the meantime poverty levels have deepened,” he added.
Agreeing that the project was lucrative, and would provide much needed jobs, the Democratic Alliance’s national transport spokesperson, Stuart Farrow, said it should not be undertaken at the expense of the people and environment.
“Consultation with the communities should be extensive … and the EIA should be taken into consideration to ensure that no vegetation is wiped out,” he said.
He added that although the project meant a new and improved road, a single trip could cost drivers R250 from East London to Durban, although regular travellers could apply for an exemption.
The road would also bypass a number of small towns, including Bizana, Flagstaff and Kokstad.
“Will they survive the economic impact of this or will they die?” Farrow asked. - By NTANDO MAKHUBU