To be or not to be a protected area: A perverse political threat
Keywords:politics, decision-making, law, protected area, threat, Court Case, Mabola Protected Environment, public trust principle, precautionary principle, governance, impact assessment, environment, mining, sensitive biodiversity
Background: On 15 January 2021, a South African Member of the Executive Committee (MEC) for the Environment amended the Mabola Protected Environment’s (MPE) boundaries to remove legal impediments preventing coal mining in this protected area. This decision came in the wake of the MPE being declared a protected area and a series of court cases ending at the Constitutional Court.
Objective: The objectives of this paper were: (1) evaluate the potential consequences of the MEC’s decision for South African protected areas; (2) speculate on the possible impact on South Africa’s reputation in terms of its commitment to safeguarding its protected areas; (3) identify possible weaknesses in the National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act 57 of 2003 (NEMPAA); and (4) make recommendations to strengthen this Act so that it can reduce the vulnerability of protected areas to arbitrary and prejudicial decision-making.
Methods: This study involved an evaluation of NEMPAA and the notice in the Provincial Gazette declaring and giving effect to the MEC’s decision, and of the various High Court judgments leading up to and following the publication of this notice.
Conclusion: The decision by the MEC highlights the vulnerability of protected areas and the importance of the conservation of biodiversity, particularly in a context of parochial or partisan objectives and profit-vested interests that are of a
limited (at least in the medium- to long-term) public benefit. It is concluded that the discretionary clauses in NEMPAA may need to be amended to limit or refine the discretion politicians may apply.
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