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The CEO of iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Andrew Zaloumis, has received WWF South Africa's 2015 Living Planet Award.
Zaloumis was recognised for his dedicated work with iSimangaliso, which has resulted in an economic turnaround for the park with meaningful empowerment and benefits to local communities.
The award was announced on Thursday, 30 July, during WWF's Living Planet Conference, where Zaloumis addressed conference delegates. The full text of his speech follows:
iSimangaliso – a journey to wholeness by Andrew Zaloumis
iSimangaliso’s story is a story of restitution. There are in most countries places that, at certain moments in history, provide the backdrop against which a nation’s collective aspirations and challenges play themselves out. Somehow Lake St Lucia – and the majestic wild lands of iSimangaliso – provides just such a symbolic landscape in South Africa today. In many ways, the rewilding of iSimangaliso forms a contemporary crucible in which the future of conservation in South Africa is being shaped.
iSimangaliso emerged from the oceans some 30 000 years ago as a consequence of climatic and geological events of the time. And it finds itself at a turning point again with the advent of climate change, global warming, and the many social and economic changes that we are experiencing. We are told that humans consume one and a half planets each year. We are told that the global shift to a low carbon economy is not happening fast enough and that consumerism will continue to increase. How development plays itself out in the next 10 to 15 years and the choices we make are critical for the future of mankind.
We know that the importance of environment and its wise use was neither understood nor valued as economies developed and countries sought to expand their influence across the globe. For iSimangaliso the incremental and steady destruction of the environment began in the late 1800’s when the British parcelled off land around iSimangaliso for various uses including commercial agriculture. Extractive development that placed little if any value on natural resources has continued well into this century. The result was the decimation of game, the destruction of swamp forest, the drying up of lakes, the expansion of conservation-incompatible land uses such as military bases, and the emergence of sixteen different management regimes across the then unconsolidated 320 000ha park. The apartheid regime carried out forced removals of local populations to expand commercial plantations and establish a missile testing ground. The environmental agenda continued to lose ground as human misery deepened amongst natural plenty. By the time the Park was consolidated in 2000, the iSimangaliso region had become the second-poorest area in South Africa with some of the greatest development backlogs.
These were the puzzle pieces with which we, at iSimangaliso, started. We have come a long way with the restoration of the natural environment and the implementation of local livelihood strategies. iSimangaliso offers hope and a new 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. The already limited livelihood choices available to iSimangaliso’s 640 000 people will become fewer as economies tighten, unsustainable practices continue and the impacts of climate change begin to be felt. The prognosis is not good, not just for iSimangaliso, but for the globe if our natural resources continue to remain “economically invisible”. Perhaps it’s time Mother Nature started billing.
My love affair with wild places and iSimangaliso started when I was a young boy accompanying my father Dr Nolly Zaloumis, on his dentistry trips to eManguzi Missionary Hospital. These trips always gave him an opportunity to pursue his passion – wetlands ducks. One of my earliest memories of these trips is being left hanging on a bending pool net pole inches above crocodile infested water, while he chased off after an escaping pygmy goose. This deep connection with the area was reaffirmed years later when as a reckless pony-tailed university student, I plunged my claptrap VW Beetle into the Kosi Bay Lake. The Beetle turned rowboat and I were swept straight into the life of 75 year-old Mshwayisa Tembe.
Mshwayisa, who would become a second grandfather to my children, lived high up on the Nkovukeni dunes that lie between the Kosi lakes and the sea. eNkovukeni is only accessible by foot. Mshwayisa was the natural leader of the 90 odd souls who lived on this spit of land. Once as we sat under his Mdoni tree he told me “Ngihlala phakathi kolwandle kanye nechweba umoya wolwandle uyangivuselela futhi uyangiphilisa” (I live between the sea and the lake and the wind keeps my spirit alive). He taught me the value of kinship and friends, and the interconnectedness of all things. This is best explained using the ecologically encompassing word “umuzi”. Umuzi is used to denote a vine, a grain basket made from the vine, and a cluster of homesteads where people belong together under one uMnumzane. (head of a homestead). He saw people and nature as one. From him I came to have a different view of conservation - a view from the other side of the fence informed by 800 years of traditional practices.
In 1994 big industry threatened to dredge mine the dunes of Lake St Lucia for titanium. This would strip the dunes of the very substance that is fundamental to the functioning of the wetland – water. This same titanium keeps the eggs of critically endangered leatherbacks turtles warm for hatching. Half a million South Africans signed a petition in this David and Goliath struggle. The new democratic government of South Africa under president Nelson Mandela, showed the world that there are socially- and environmentally-sustainable economic alternatives to smoke-stack industries. It turned down the mining, which would have destroyed this iconic place, in favour of conservation based ecotourism. And so iSimangaliso, which extends from Maphelane to the Mozambique border comprising 8% of South Africa’s coastline, was listed as a world heritage site in 1999, the first world heritage site in our country. The idea of “developing to conserve” was born. The comparative study that was completed for the world heritage application concluded that there is no other place quite like iSimangaliso on the planet. iSimangaliso was listed for its eco-systems processes, biodiversity, and sense of place and global beauty.
The Lubombo Spatial Development Initiative and subsequently the iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority were established to give effect to this new approach. The strategy for the conservation of the Park recognised that eco-systems know no boundaries, that fish and birds cannot be controlled by fences, and that regional integration would be important. Mozambique and Swaziland became partners in this initiative.
The big dream to recreate the open ecological area that existed in precolonial times so that historically-occurring game can migrate from the mountains to the sea is almost a reality. This is enhancing the world heritage values, increasing tourism opportunities and empowering local people. As we speak, iSimangaliso has established a black rhino population of continental significance, tourism supply has grown by 84%, and we are now one of the biggest employers in the region. Eco-tourism has become the regional economic driver.
iSimangaliso is one of the top eight biodiversity hotspots in the world. With 4 RAMSAR sites it has more wetland types than any other place in the world, five major eco-systems, 11 endemic species that occur only in iSimangaliso, 467 critically endangered and threatened species, and 25% of Africa’s bird species. At a time when the rate of species extinction globally is a 1000 times higher than its natural rates, new species have been discovered every year since its world heritage listing.
iSimangaliso is important for the conservation of biodiversity. It is an important source of ecosystems goods and services. It showcases cultural heritage, provides resources for traditional practices as well as subsistence, and is a source of significant economic benefits.
However, we know that for wild place to continue to exist we have to think beyond the extractive values of economics. We have to begin to recognise their real value – the contribution to our souls. Monbiot captures the issue of conserving our environment when he says rewilding brings back hope and inspiration, succour for the soul.
Self-determination brings us a step closer in the pursuit of higher ideals. Our development programmes are set up with that aim in mind. We have 67 students at university with a 96% pass rate. We support 178 small businesses. We run an internship programme. We generate some 8000 permanent jobs and 2000 temporary jobs each year. We manage natural resource harvesting and agriculture programmes, and implement crafts, art, drama, and many skills training programmes. We work extensively with schools to inculcate a green consciousness in our youth – the environments new advocates.
But poverty remains a major problem in our area and people are tempted to believe the hollow promises of the smoke-stack industries to provide the jobs they desperately need. Romantic notions of a return to the land also challenge the existence of protected areas like iSimangaliso. There is no doubt that iSimangaliso’s future is dependent on the socio-economic policies and choices of sub-Saharan Africa, and the continued political and economic backing of the South African government which has stood behind iSimangaliso since 1990’s.
I would like to thank the WWF for this award. I would also like to acknowledge my former “boss” Valli Moosa who was there at the start, and thank all the people who have inspired me and worked alongside me to make this a reality. And a special thank you to my family. This has been and is a team effort.