New regulations for LandCare projects in South Africa

Modern agriculture and poor farming practices have led to land degradation; for example: soil erosion, overgrazing, wetland and watercourse destruction, and bush encroachment. Image credit: WhyAfrica

By Paula-Ann Novotny from Webber Wentzel

20 April 2021 – A recently published Generic Environmental Management Programme in South Africa seeks to regulate LandCare projects and exclude identified activities related to the implementation of the LandCare Programme from the need to obtain environmental authorisation.

On 29 March 2021, a Generic Environmental Management Programme (EMPr) for the management and mitigation of environmental impacts resulting from the implementation of LandCare projects was published for adoption.  With this publication, the Minister of Forestry Fisheries and the Environment further excluded, based on compliance with this generic EMPr, identified activities related to the implementation of the LandCare Programme from the need to obtain environmental authorisation.

LandCare is a concept involving a process of participation that focuses on land resource management through the promotion of sustainable use practices. LandCare involves ‘local people taking local action in their local area’ to achieve sustainable land use and management and includes individual and group activities directed at on-the-ground action. It also provides an opportunity for local landholders to take a role in planning and undertaking activities to conserve their most important assets. LandCare encourages community interest and action through the formation of LandCare groups who then assess local problems, determine priorities, and undertake action. In this way, the local communities become owners of the solutions.

A LandCare Programme was established in South Africa in 1997 because the Government, communities and individuals needed to change the way we manage and use our land and water resources, so that their long-term potentials are sustained and optimised. Modern agriculture, poor farming practices have led to land degradation; for example: soil erosion, overgrazing, wetland and watercourse destruction, and bush encroachment. The Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development has indicated that these land degradation problems have, to some extent, a cost to achieving a highly productive agricultural sector. They are also due to inadequate information being available to land-users regarding the consequences of their land management decisions and also the off-site effects of some land-users’ actions on others. Continued deterioration of land is likely to result in further costs to the people of South Africa through the loss of economic production, loss of ecological processes and biological diversity, decline in economic opportunities in rural communities, and the degradation of other related resources such as freshwater. These costs may impose a burden on future generations and restrict their capacity to choose how their land and related resources are utilised.

The vision for LandCare in South Africa is the development and implementation of systems of land use and management that will sustain individual and community benefits, now and in the future.

The LandCare Programme has been implemented by the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, and has to date been informed by the 1999 Implementation Framework for the LandCare Programme. The purpose of the programme is to enhance sustainable conservation of natural resources through a community based participatory approach, to create job opportunities through the expanded public works programme (EPWP) model and to improve food security and the wellbeing of society.

The newly adopted Generic EMPr applies to all LandCare interventions which aim to rehabilitate, conserve, and enhance the productivity of agricultural land. These interventions include hard engineering interventions or interventions with softer less invasive actions, and they are often used in combination to achieve the desired objective. The Generic EMPr has been developed by a multi-disciplinary team of specialists based on 23 years of experience in implementing the programme. Following review, it was found to meet the requirements and principles contained in the National Environmental Management Act, 1998 (NEMA). Hence the adoption of the instrument.

The objective of the programmes, which is to reverse environmental degradation of agricultural land, means that projects are often undertaken in areas which could be located within 32 metres of a watercourse, could involve the clearing of more than 1 hectare of indigenous vegetation or trigger other activities which are identified in terms of NEMA and Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations, and may not commence without authorisation from the competent authority. Some of these interventions could also regarded as water uses in terms of the National Water Act, 1998 (NWA); for example, rehabilitation activities could occur on the embankments or rivers as defined by the NWA.

The adoption of the Generic EMPr linked to LandCare projects means that the exclusion of the requirement to obtain environmental authorisation for site-specific projects will apply only if the project complies with the conditions in the generic EMPr. The developer will still be required to undertake an Environmental Impact Assessment process and to commit to implementing the provisions of the generic EMPr, and failure to do so will amount to an offence. The Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment’s recent media announcement further indicated that while the notice states that any activities that meet the requirements of the pre-approved EMPr, and the necessary registration requirement, are excluded from area-specific environmental authorisations, this only applies if the provincial coordinator registers that LandCare Programme with the competent authority 30 days prior to commencement, which registration must be accompanied by a declaration of compliance.

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