Conservation signs erected on Monavale Vlei were torn down yesterday (Sunday 17 March) in what worried local residents see as an expression of intent by private developers to start building on the wetland. It is a protected area and a key Ramsar site in Zimbabwe.
The signs were erected in 2009 by the Conservation Society of Monavale (COSMO), an organisation that has been working to protect and improve this natural area, which has been gazetted by authorities as a wetland, and which scientists say plays an important role in Harare’s water supply.
The destruction of the signs follows the delivery of a letter last week from council (pictured) to residents whose properties border the vlei, giving notice of an application made to build 160 cluster houses on the land. The letter explains that residents have one month in which to lodge their complaints. The letter is, however, both undated and unsigned, leaving would be complainants in the dark with regards to closing dates.
The land is privately owned by a family of the name Patel, who have been involved in a protracted battle with environmentalists and government over the site for more than a decade.
The dispute revolves around what ownership of the land entitles an individual to do with it, specifically whether or not they should be allowed to build if there are negative implications for the rest of the community.
During a phone call with Mrs Patel, she said that it was not her intent to build soon, but eventually they wanted to build a park and some houses. She accused those opposed to development of the area of being “obnoxious” and “unwilling to sit down and talk.” Patel explained that the destruction of the signs was a gesture by the family to tell COSMO that enough is enough.
“They seem to override everything we do. We were thinking of making a little park, some houses… People build on wetlands and do it so beautifully. We have beautiful ideas, but they don’t seem to want to talk,” said Patel, who said that she cares about the environment, but that building houses is more in the national interest than conserving the vlei area.
Patel cited a paper by former University of Zimbabwe Professor, Chris Magadza, as promoting constructed wetlands as part of why she believes that the wetland can be built on. Asked if in the face of concrete scientific evidence of permanent and widespread negative impact she would halt development, Patel declined to comment. “If any of the people in COSMO had the land, they would do the same thing as I am,” she said, emphasising that COSMO had trespassed on her private property.
At present no permission has been given to the Patels by any authority to build on the land, and the likelihood of this happening remains anyone’s guess. Government, in particular the ministry of Environment including the Environmental Management Agency (EMA), and the Ministry of Local Government, as well as our own city council, lack a coherent and consistent stance on wetlands. This was exemplified by a letter dated 30 April sent to the lawyers representing Borrowdale Residents and Ratepayers Association among others, overturning EMA’s previous approval of the Millenium Park development on Borrowdale Vlei. The letter, issued from the office of the Minister for Environment, Saviour Kasukuwere, cited complaints raised at a stakeholder’s meeting held in January this year (full article here). A network of roads is already in place, but developers are now forced to go back to square one to complete what the Ministry describes as a more “holistic” EIA. If done correctly, this is a move likely to please local residents.
Constitutionally speaking, according to Prof Chris Magadza, “The environmental act is the highest in the land and supercedes all other laws.” As such, some environmentalists believe that EIAs should never be conducted on wetlands – these are areas that are automatically protected without question.
However, recent legal battles over the reach of proprietary rights have somewhat muddied the waters, and the Patels will seek to capitalise on this, and make good on the land that was, according to Mrs Patel, left to them by their father.
The Patels were offered market rates for 10 Ha of the 16 Ha piece of land by Birdlife Zimbabwe in 2004, but after protracted negotiations, the deal fell through.
In the meantime, residents who live near the vlei heard that workers for the Patels were intending to return today to demolish the bird viewing platform (pictured above). “I don’t know,” said Mrs Patel on the matter, “we will have to wait and see.”
UPDATE: The Patel family have decided to not pull down the birding platform for now.
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