Durban - Thousands of members of the Nazareth Baptist Church (known as the Shembe church) are headed for a series of mass services in a rare and endangered indigenous forest.
Angry environmentalists have warned that the plans to clear or damage up to 40ha of a 60ha forest for a one-off event were outrageous as they would set a damaging precedent for all other land owners of indigenous forest.
a total of 30 000 worshippers from around the country are expected to descend on the Richards Bay site on the weekends from April 20 to May 10. After one group returned home, another would arrive the following weekend, said Shembe spokesman, Andreas Mthiyane, who is involved in the planning.
In the applications from the church, seen by the Daily News, between 20ha and 40ha will be affected. In its first application, the church does request that it gets guidance from Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, to avoid conflict.
Mthiyane stressed that worshippers had no intention of chopping down or damaging trees. However, there are extensive areas in the application which require clearance, including a 6m-wide access road, a loop road 2m wide, 3ha of parking, 4ha for ceremonies, and undergrowth being cleared for shelters for those attending.
Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife said it was “most concerned” about the proposal, which involved a key natural asset in the region, and that it would oppose it.
The importance of the forest was unquestionable and the impact of its loss would be a “significant blow” for conservation and those who depended on it now and in the future, said spokesman, Jeffrey Zikhali.
Ezemvelo said it had an obligation, in terms of the National Environmental Management Biodiversity Act, to oppose the plan for the forest.
“Not to do so would be in conflict with our mandate in terms of the KZN Nature Conservation Management Act 9 of 1997,” Zikhali said.
There would also be grounds to oppose the application as the municipality already had facilities (a stadium and sports fields) to service the church’s needs.
“The National Environmental Management Act 107 of 1998 requires government in these circumstances to avoid environmental harm, and only where it is impossible to do so, (to) consider the application. The existence of suitable facilities in the city binds government not to consider the application,” he said.
Based on the little information that the organisation had – the speculation was that the church was planning to use at least 20ha (a third of the site) – he said even this impact would be substantial, with a likely loss of the forest in the short to medium-term.
“That is a serious risk in that if government allows this clearing to proceed, then a precedent would be set.”
At the very least, a basic environmental assessment would have to be done. However, given the sensitivity of the eco-system, it was “highly likely” that this would have to be upgraded to a full environmental impact assessment (EIA) with specialist studies and a mandatory public consultation.
However, no such EIA was being undertaken at the moment and there was no time to do one before the church’s proposed gatherings.
The forest supplied free goods and services to everyone in Richards Bay and beyond: clean air, water and recreation, Ezemvelo pointed out.
“It also provides traditional medicine, as well as food and fuel to a large number of people… The government has a duty to safeguard the environment, which is held in trust for this and future generations.”
Louis Fourie, the DA caucus leader in the ANC-majority uMhlathuze (Richards Bay) Municipality, in whose jurisdiction the gatherings are being planned, said yesterday that as long as he was in the official opposition, “I will fight this right up to the Constitutional Court because of the huge impact it will have on the environment”.
Church members had already started clearing vegetation at the site and building structures without submitting plans, Fourie told a council meeting last week.
The church applied to the council, which owns the threatened Birdswood Forest at eMpuza Hill, where it has had a temple for 21 years. The forest is next to the town’s lake.
Municipal manager, Dr Nhlanhla Sibeko, confirmed last week that the church had applied for section 4 planning for the event.
“I believe it is their right to worship the way they like and that should be respected. Their use of that place should be taken in context. They have been legitimately occupying that place since 1918,” he said.
A section 4 application means that a committee had to be established to look at the environmental and traffic impacts, as well as safety and security concerns, Fourie said.
Fourie said the application still had to go to the council for a decision and the next meeting was at the end of next month. If the church wanted to hold its gatherings, a special meeting of exco would have to be called to debate the issue.
The only item concerning the church which had appeared on the council’s exco agenda, held before last Thursday’s council meeting, was for a renewal of the lease on the church’s 1.6ha portion of the 60ha forest site. “However, it was also mentioned in the item that the church wanted 40ha,” Fourie said.
When Fourie sought clarity, quizzing officials on whether the item on the agenda was just a renewal of the church’s original lease agreement for 1.6ha, or for 40ha that the church wanted, he was assured that it was only for the former.
Fourie said the church could not hold the services on 1.6ha as that was far too small.
“There is no infrastructure. There is water because the site is next to the lake, which serves Richards Bay and Empangeni households, but there are no flush toilet facilities.”
Fourie said at the exco meeting that church members were already starting to encroach on land beyond their allocated 1.6ha, and also that members were clearing vegetation and building structures without submitting plans.
“Officials said they would look into this,” he said.
Mthiyane said that
representatives from the KZN Department of Agriculture and Environmental Affairs had visited the site last weekend and he had shown them how “we are going to make a church under the trees… we can’t chop trees down… we will clear under the trees”, he said.
According to the Forestry Act, a forest is an eco-system with several different layers, and if one layer – such as the vegetation under the trees – is cleared, the forest is destroyed.
Asked about an EIA, Mthiyane said he had told the department representatives that such an assessment would take too long. He was hoping to get a temporary assessment.
The church had a land claim on the site, “but we are still waiting for the outcome”, he said.
The municipality has previously received a pre-compliance notice from the Department of Agriculture and Environmental Affairs for deforestation following the unauthorised clearing of a 20m strip of indigenous forest between Pelican Parade in Birdswood and the Shembe Church. It was cleared to provide a more direct access route.
The notice had stated that environmental approval should have been obtained from the department on the completion of an EIA before any forest clearance began.
It established that 14 species of indigenous trees, including the protected marula, had been removed. The council later submitted a rehabilitation plan, which was accepted.