From the ultra-wealthy to the poorest of the poor, everyone appears to have something that can be taken away from them by greedy individuals. Organised syndicates are coming into rural villages such as Welverdiend, neighbouring greater Kruger, and stripping the area of trees for firewood. The wood is carted out in bakkies, and sold to lodges, garages, and other rural people too poor to afford electricity.
Many people in the area are so poor that they rely on natural resources as a way of life, eating fruits such as marulas, catching locusts and flying ants as a protein source, and generally subsisting off the environment. Now they are becoming trapped in a downward spiral as outsiders strip away their natural resources. Wayne Twine from Wits University says that "natural resources are a buffer against severe poverty."
Twine is the manager of the university's SUNRAE (Sustaining Natural Resources in African Ecosystems) programme. Over a sevenday period he recorded a total of 32 bakkies and five trucks leaving the Welverdiend village commons with about 26 tonnes of firewood. Twine says the problem is ongoing, and firewood is not the only natural resource being taken. The muti trade is taking its toll on indigenous plants, with middlemen coming into the area from Gauteng and other urban centres.
The local women harvest the desired muti item, such as tree bark, and sell it to the middlemen for cash, a scarce commodity in the region. Previous harvesting for local medicine men was on a much smaller scale, and more sustainable. Indigenous plants are also being taken out of the rural villages by many of the commercial big five lodges in the area, with aloes being targeted for construction of lodge gardens.
Teak furniture for lodges and up-market homes is also being created from trees chain-sawed down in rural areas by commercial enterprises. The third major concern revealed by researchers in the area is the large-scale illegal sand mining being carried out by building suppliers from Phalaborwa.
The issue has been taken up with various provincial authorities, but has continued unabated for several years. Large trucks and earthmoving equipment come into an area and begin excavating sand for sale to builders.
Twine says that many of the people in the region feel powerless to stop the theft of their natural resources. "The constitution guarantees people the right to a healthy environment."He feels that many villagers are not aware of this right, and do not feel that they can stop the destruction of their surroundings.
Twine says that the traditional leaders are no longer able to effectively enforce traditional rules, such as those governing harvesting of resources. Previously, tribal rangers or "tree police" used to protect the natural resources, but tightening budgets and the new municipal systems have stopped this practice. He says an "institutional vacuum" has developed, leaving the rural people with no one to turn to.
The SUNRAE project is trying to empower the rural poor through environmental education. Municipal workers, youths, traditional authorities, housewives and children are being taught the importance of the environment. SUNRAE has also started permaculture food gardens at schools, and taught children how to develop vegetable gardens at home.
Tree planting is also being instilled in the children, and one child came crying to the school principal when her uncle cut down a marula tree and refused to plant a replacement. Twine says there is no simple solution to the issue.
He would like to see alternative technologies being brought into play and poverty alleviation programmes taking effect. He says other areas in the country such as Venda and KwaZulu Natal are also being affected, and the issue needs to be addressed nationally. "The problem is not isolated to Bushbuckridge."