PLASTIC ON UKUWELA: REHABILITATING HABITAT AFTER PINEAPPLE FARMING
By Tori Gray, Wild Volunteer 2017.
Wild Tomorrow Fund’s 1,235 acre conservancy, Ukuwela, is located in a very biologically rich and important site situated on the bank of the Mzinene River. This river flows into False Bay, part of South Africa’s first UNESCO world heritage site, the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. One of the important projects Wild Tomorrow Fund is undertaking after taking over management of this special piece of land is habitat rehabilitation and restoration.
One of the previous owners of Ukuwela leased the land to a pineapple farmer. Pineapple farming is an industry that is built on environmental degradation. Pineapple production uses a lot of chemical pesticides, which can then contaminate the river as runoff. Another environmental impact is the use of plastic as mulch. Plastic mulch is laid down to suppress weed growth and conserve water in crop production, allowing farmers to plant their harvest earlier, retain moisture in the soil and improve crop quality. Often farmers do not correctly remove and dispose of this plastic waste due to it being technically and economically burdensome.
The pineapple farmer was supposed to remove all signs of farming, but rather, dumped all of his plastic mulch waste into a ravine on the property. This ravine leads directly into the Mzinene River, which in turn, pours into the False Bay of iSimangaliso Wetland Park. Whenever there is a heavy rainfall, the water picks up pieces of the plastic and transports it to the river.
As you can see, this is absolutely horrible for the land. It prohibits vegetation from growing and can be extremely harmful to wildlife if consumed or ingested, not to mention the potential of the plastic to flow into the world heritage iSimangaliso wetland site. To date, there has already been 7 tonnes of plastic removed and that’s not even a quarter of it! We still don’t know how deep this immense mound of plastic goes, but efforts are being made to reduce the plastic and its impact on the surrounding environment. Volunteers have been working over the past half a year to clear away this waste and a retaining wall was built in an effort to prevent the plastic from being swept up in the water during heavy rainfall.
Watch this short clip by filmmaker Lacy Wittman who captured our volunteers at work, protecting the river by removing plastic pollution.
It is very important that the Mzinene river is protected as it is an important tributary into the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, containing 4 wetlands that are designated of international importance (RAMSAR sites):
- The St. Lucia Lake System (largest estuarine lake system in Africa and the oldest protected estuary in the world),
- Turtle Beaches/Coral Reefs of Tongaland,
- Kosi Bay Lake System, and
- Lake Sibaya.
These sites recognize the ecological functions of wetlands as well as their importance as resources of economic, cultural, scientific and recreational value.
The ecosystems found in iSimangaliso provide habitat for a significant diversity of African animal and plant life (biota), including a large number of threatened and endemic species. Of the over 6,500 plant and animal species recorded in the park, populations and species of importance to conservation include 11 species endemic to the park, 108 species endemic to South Africa and 467 species listed as threatened in South Africa.
Of the greatest interest is the staggering number of birds found in the St. Lucia Wetlands; over 500 different species of birds are resident or pass through the wetland system annually comprising of marine, wetland and forest bird species.
Protecting and rehabilitating the river is an important part of Wild Tomorrow Fund's efforts to rehabilitate Ukuwela. Wild Tomorrow Fund is also currently working to expand the Ukuwela Conservancy by securing additional land along the river. This land will act as further protection for the incredibly important and rich biodiversity of the Mzinene River and the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.