Wild Fires in the Western Cape

Wild fires in the Western Cape – the authorities should take full responsibility!
By Prof. Eugene Moll

Pointing fingers at arsonists misses a very big part of the wild-fire picture. The people who are really to blame for the damage that the recent wild-fires have caused are the decision and policy makers – at national level (i.e. DAFF, DEA, SANParks), in provincial government (e.g. CapeNature, and the Environment and Planning Department), and the City of Cape Town (not so much the City Parks Department but more so the Spatial Planning and Urban Design people). Most of the people within these authorities are engineers, architects and planners with little or no ecological expertise or appreciation. As a consequence, there is a lack of professional understanding of how development should be steered in environmentally sensitive areas (particularly fynbos).

Why do I say this? And on what basis can I make such grave accusations?

Quite simply, as a plant ecologist, I have witnessed in the last 20 years and more a massive change in the manner in which the local environment has been miss-treated by the authorities – not least with respect to fire control and containment by the so-called conservation agencies; SANParks, CapeNature and to a lesser extent the City (where at least there are one or two professionals qualified in managing fire and vegetation in an urban setting). Another example of this lack of understanding of plant ecology is that the authorities have allowed infrastructure development in environmentally sensitive and unsafe areas; and continue to do so (take the Phillipi Horticultural Area housing development debacle replacing productive farmland with housing). Yet another excellent example is where thatched roofed, wooden dwellings are built surrounded by fire prone vegetation (e.g. the Silvermine overnight facility on the Hoerikwaggo Trail that was razed in 2015). A final excellent example is the canalizing of the rivers on the Cape Flats resulting in a drying out the wetlands that previously not only “cleaned” the water but slowed it down, allowing vitally important ground-water re-charge.

The only explanation I have for such inept management is that the majority of modern Sapiens has completely lost touch with Nature. Most of us know that fynbos is a unique vegetation type, but many do not comprehend the fact that this enormously diverse region was moulded by fire over millennia – and that without fire we would not have the rich biodiversity we enjoy in the Cape Floristic Region today. Yet the “authorities” are obviously ignorant of these evolutionary drivers and treat development and management in a Eurocentric fashion. Why then is it that we do not use local African expertise to guide us?

The only plausible explanation is that amongst the biodiversity conservation professional there is a division between those of us who recognise human needs as a key factor in environmental management and that conservation is a human construct, versus those that simply want to manage biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake (the latter considering that Sapiens is totally culpable for all damage caused and that modern humans should suffer for what our predecessors did). The difference between the purists and my approach is that I blame the authorities for the current dire situation rather that the general public. The irony is that developers and governments have exploited these differences for their short-term monetary gain. Long-term, however, it is up to all of us to ensure our own safety and wellbeing. This situation can only be resolved by us demanding better all-round management that takes into consideration the ecological and human imperatives.

In the past fynbos was block-burned to avoid excessive biomass accumulation, and to create a mosaic of different ages of fynbos so wild-fires could be more easily managed. In addition, there was also a network of fire-breaks that were well maintained annually to enable fire-fighters to contain wild-fires more easily. For those Capetonians old enough to remember there was once an inter-departmental/governmental “Cape Peninsula Wild Fire Protection Committee” whose task it was to ensure the Cape Peninsula was properly managed so that any wild-fires could be more easily contained to prevent excessive damage “to life and limb”. In the past, it was the Peninsula where most people were threatened by wildfires. Today this situation has changed with urbanisation stretching higher into all the mountainous areas in the Western Cape. I also believe that back then people were more in-tune with nature, such that they took responsibility to ensure their own properties were safely sited and fire-proofed. Urban expansion and densification that has been allowed by the City has placed additional pressure on the urban/fynbos edge, and the siting of dwellings within highly flammable vegetation makes matters even worse.

It is not just here in the Cape where Sapiens has lost their way. In recent years devastating wild-fires have ripped through Mediterranean-climate countries for example California and eastern Australia, where First World management ignores the ecological imperative of vegetation fires being the norm. Thus, the lack of ecological understanding by Sapiens is not just limited to the Western Cape but is a global malady of our species becoming increasingly divorced from Nature.

Today in South Africa we concentrate the vast majority of resources on fighting fires when they occur, rather than preventing the spread of wild-fires. Wild-fires that can be best limited by proper ecological management of the vegetation in the safe fire-season, by having effective fire-breaks, and by making sure local residents are well educated about the dangers fire and especially of wild-fire. The reason for this about-face in policy is that fire departments, that now deal with vegetation fires, have evolved from urban teams. This means we now concentrate on extinguishing wild-fires once they have started rather than managing biomass and fuel accumulation beforehand – to prevent and contain fires when the weather conspires against us in favour of run-away fires. Matters locally in the fynbos are now also complicated by excessive alien vegetation encroachment, partly as the result of the removal of well managed plantations, and because these alien infestations are not being effectively removed – despite all the money thrown at the problem. All this lack of understanding of fire ecology and the absolute requirement for proper preventative management means that when the conditions are right wild-fires pose a huge danger –  exacerbated by people in our community who take some sort of sadistic delight in starting fires. Together, these factors are a recipe for catastrophe.

From memory, and looking at the area where the fire raged on Wednesday 11th January, this is a part of the Peninsula with dense alien infestations (in some parts the aliens had been felled and gathered into piles to dry) as well as areas of old fynbos (which are massive stands of flammable biomass) that I argue should have been subjected to managed burns at a safe time of the year and safe-guarded by appropriate fire-breaks.

Capetonians will remember other devastating wild-fires in 2015 and 2000. What have we learned from these? Very little, it seems. The fact is that when the fires rage there is a lot of remarkable and extremely brave action, a lot of talking, and some amazing deeds of humanitarian action. But once the months pass we simply forget and return blissfully to our world totally divorced from Nature’s reality. The lack of awareness concerning the current drought is just another case-in-point where Sapiens shows a remarkable degree of ignorance and arrogance.

Today, because we all depend on “the authorities” to guide us and take responsibility for our welfare, we simply trust that things will improve. However, from where I sit things are in fact getting worse, much worse! Perhaps it is time for a real wake-up call and for people to start taking responsibility for their own actions? To do so people need to educate themselves and endeavour to understand the ecological drivers of fynbos, while at the same time lobbying their local members to make environmentally sound decisions, and to return to some old-fashioned appreciation and respect of Nature.

Seeking Balance in Lower Tokai

Image copyright : Shelly Chadburn-Barron


Meeting the needs of people and conservation

Prof Eugene Moll & Nicky Schmidt

There has been a determined, and one might say, deliberate attempt on the part of certain biodiversity lovers and environmentalists to obfuscate the reality of Lower Tokai. Led by Dr Tony Rebelo, Friends of Tokai Park, a small group active in Lower Tokai for several years, have adopted a single-minded approach – Cape Flats Sand Fynbos above all else.  It’s a noble approach but forgets that for over 60 years users from across greater Cape Town have enjoyed the area for shaded recreation.  So critical is Lower Tokai for shaded recreation that in 2006 interest groups and affected users entered into such intense negotiation with SANParks, manager of the area, that it led to the formation of a mayoral task team to oversee the matter.  The outcome of negotiations – which lasted well over two years – was a document entitled the Tokai Cecilia Management Framework, which, while arguing for conservation also accepted the critical need for shaded recreation – and presented a balanced vision of the future.  The vision was to be created on the basis of “transition areas” – cyclical felling and planting of exotic shade trees, ensuring there would always be large tracts of shade, together with biodiversity conservation in order to ensure that fynbos seedbanks were preserved.  The fires of March 2015 and an accelerated felling programme on the part of MTO Forestry have resulted in an outcome in which little or no shade will be provided in any kind of immediate future, if ever, given that – as indicated by Friends of Tokai Park – the entire area is to be given over to fynbos.  Two points should be made – one is that of administrative justice – any deviation from or change to the Management Framework, should be done in consultation with the public as it was done in 2006 and as per the National Environmental Management Act.  The second is that the type of fynbos that currently grows in Lower Tokai is dense, head height and presents a grave safety risk – as has already been witnessed by the brutal murder of 16-year old Franziska Blöchliger in March this year.

Friends of Tokai Park have consistently vilified the approach made by Parkscape, a community organisation which represents over 2500 people from across the Cape Peninsula.  Yet the Parkscape approach is one that seeks to meet the needs of both biodiversity conservation and the needs of people.  In an urban environment one cannot afford to separate the two.

While recreating a wilderness environment to the urban edge is commendable at multiple levels it cannot be done without considerable challenges and risks.  To encourage the natural regeneration of fynbos species, extremely hot fires are required (such as were witnessed in 2015). These are not the kind of fires the City Fire Department is likely to allow in the midst of suburbia.  There are homes on both sides of the remaining strip of plantation in Lower Tokai, with paths/”firebreaks” of between only 7 – 10 meters between Park vegetation and private properties. It goes without saying that the dangers posed by hot fires – which need, in order to be effective, to be done on hot days with high winds – are considerable.  To allow them would be an act of irresponsibility which could endanger property, health and lives.  Yet, without these hot fires, ecologically appropriate of natural fynbos, regeneration cannot occur.  To resort to planting and seed scattering, as has been done in the “restored” area of Lower Tokai, takes a considerable amount of money.

Moreover, the success of restoration in Lower Tokai is by no means assured, particularly given the changed nature of the environment and soil conditions.  What existed 130 plus years ago and prior to farming and plantations, no longer exists given the encroachment of the city. Observations made by biodiversity experts are littered with “if”, “perhaps”, “we hope” and “we’ll have to wait and see”.  In other words, there is no certainty that this experiment will be successful – because yes, the fuss over Lower Tokai goes around a large scale botanical experiment, driven by a small group to the cost of many – including the elderly, disabled, disadvantaged and young – who use Lower Tokai on a daily basis for shaded recreation.

The irony is that the presently shaded are of Lower Tokai, at only 22ha, presents considerable public good benefit – and, more critically, it is not the only place in which Cape Flats Sand Fynbos occurs.  The 1445ha Blaauwberg conservancy, which includes shell middens dating back 15 000 years, presents a far larger area for conservation and with considerably less, if any, impact on an urban edge.

For some reason the Rebelo’s Friends of Tokai Park would have the public believe that Lower Tokai is a “life and death” situation.  However, if it was not “life and death” in 2006, it’s unlikely to be “life and death” ten years on. Immediate felling of the remaining section of the plantation is not critical – any seedbanks that exist in the substantially changed soil conditions have remained intact for over 130 years and have, ironically, been protected by the existence of plantations when they might have been eradicated by property development. The only real driver to accelerated felling is the commercial interest of MTO Forestry. (It should be noted, that felling commenced in Lower Tokai with less than 24 hours notification to residents in the immediate area and attempts were repeatedly made to continue felling through the night despite contravention of City bylaws.)

Friends of Tokai Park has been vociferous in insisting that it is right and Parkscape is wrong.  The matter, however, is not about right and wrong. It is not either/or.  It is about meeting the needs of two groups that are not nearly as diverse as the Friends of Tokai would have the public believe.  The vast majority of Parkscape member supporters understand the significance of conservation and support it – they do, however, also understand the human need. An unnecessary amount of bad faith and ill feeling has been fostered by FOTP over Lower Tokai.  And it has been accompanied by an unwillingness to engage in any kind of meaningful or constructive way.  Unlike FOTP, Parkscape does not see itself as being on the “other side of the fence”.  It sees itself as being on the same side of the fence, but with broader views and opinions that seek a balanced win-win outcome for all.  Unfortunately, it appears that the concept of balance is anathema to the Friends.

It is worth pointing that Parkscape is not driven to “save the pines”.  The Parkscape focus has, first and foremost, been driven by safety in the Lower Tokai buffer zone, followed by people needs in an area that has been long been enjoyed by local communities.  There has never been any talk of “saving pines” on the part of Parkscape. The pines are a crop and were always to be harvested. Biodiversity lovers should take a good look at the vision the Parkscape proposes for Lower Tokai to confirm this.  The Tokai Park page of the Parkscape website is quite clear in its vision. They will also find that the vision contains reference to a balance between conservation and shaded recreation (and makes no mention of plantations or pines).  It also encompasses culture and heritage, community building and social upliftment.  It is a position that has been supported, via Parkscape petitions, by well over 3000 people.

Despite this, FOTP appear to believe that the Parkscape vision provides for a pristine park like Green Point Park or Wynberg Park or Kirstenbosch.  This couldn’t be further from the truth. The vision is drawn from the existing landscape and what is required in terms of both biodiversity and people needs. Furthermore, it is augmented by research of highly successful national urban parks, such as Presidio in San Francisco, Rouge National Urban Park in Toronto, Stanley Park in Vancouver, Parc de Colserolla in Barcelona – parks where biodiversity considerations go hand in hand with refuge for urban dwellers.  This is what Table Mountain National Park, including Lower Tokai, was always meant to be – a balance between environment and people, culture and heritage.  Table Mountain National Park was formed on the basis of being a “Park for All Forever”, not a Park for Biodiversity to the Exclusion of All Else.












On Tuesday 30 August 2016 logging teams moved into Tokai Forest with military precision and in a manner that was arguably an act of bad faith. Residents living adjacent to the plantation were only informed the night before, while no one else in the community was aware that felling would begin, or that it would be conducted on a 24/7 basis. This hasty felling indicates a deviation from the Tokai Cecilia Management Framework negotiated in 2006 by affected stakeholders, SANParks and the City. It is somewhat ironic that Gavin Bell, Area Manager TMNP South, stated at a Parkscape community meeting in July 2016 that TMNP would indeed adhere to the Framework. Adherence will not be possible if the logging continues and if the botanical vision for an area of all-fynbos proceeds.

Following concerted attempts to engage with SANParks, MTO and their legal team, Parkscape chose to confront the logging operation and deviation from the Management Framework head-on. Together with our legal team, Parkscape has, through concerted efforts, forced SANParks and MTO to cease felling from the Dennendal Avenue West area (i.e. all forested areas on the east side of Orpen Road/Spaanschemacht Road) – but only for one week.

While felling will stop in the Dennendal section for one week as of 31 August 2016, it will, however, continue in the sections opposite (i.e. on the west side of Orpen Road/Spaanschemacht Road). This means that Tokai will be losing pines, which we accept are a commercial crop, at a rate of over 100 per hour, day and night.

Should we win the interdict, the need will be to ensure that a proper and procedurally fair public participation process is embarked on – and completed – before the pines are felled, so that we still can enjoy and use our communal space as agreed to in the Tokai Cecilia Management Framework.

We expect to be in court on Friday, 9 September 2016, represented by Junior and Senior Counsel, and our attorney. Should we win, the process will continue further and Parkscape will need to find additional funds to pay our legal team. We need to be able to show that we have funds to pay the future costs associated with the legal case. Without this, what remains of the Lower Tokai plantation, in a deviation from the Management Framework, will come down in the second week of September.

Please urgently donate any funds to our Attorneys’ Trust account:
Account Holder: Slabbert, Venter, Yanoutsos Attorneys
Standard Bank, Fish Hoek
Bank Code: 036009
Acc Nr.: 072 128 542
Reference: Tokai Forest
Email proof of payment to: anton@svy.co.za