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.