As a contingent of police stood by the side of the road, the crowd refused to leave the forest despite pleas from conservation officials from the iSimangaliso Wetlands Park Authority.
A section of the park fence has also been cut down along the Monzi road to facilitate access to the southern part of the park, the last remnant of the Dukuduku coastal plain forest which has been regularly cut down and destroyed due to of human settlement in recent decades.
A similar invasion of Futululu Forest began last week just opposite the SA Defense Force Battalion 121 base near Mtubatuba, with some sources reporting that people had paid R100-250 to unidentified parties to secure plots in the forest.
It is understood military officials have advised potential occupants to leave.
But on Monday a separate section of the park fence was pulled down and on Tuesday a crowd estimated at around 400 people gathered at a new incursion point along the road leading to the village of Monzi. A large number of people entered the forest and started clearing the vegetation to mark out small plots of land.
Sources suggest that there are two factions, the first made up of subsistence farmers whose plots in the floodplain of the uMfolozi River have been inundated by flood waters following recent heavy rains and the natural closure of the mouth of the river next to the village of Sainte-Lucie.
The second and larger faction is said to be made up of “opportunists” looking for housing and agricultural land.
A local resident, who did not wish to be named, said a contingent of police stood by the roadside, along with iSimangaliso conservation staff, community leaders and some community members “who don’t want to come out of the forest.
“It started around 7am today (April 5) and people are asking iSimangaliso to prove that the place belongs to them. Some community members have lawyers asking them to move there.
“The police went to bring them back but they (the new occupants) never came out. Others are outside and there seems to be no solution.
A second source in the area reported that there was a crowd of around 400 inside or along the park boundary along Monzi Road.
“There are two factions – subsistence farmers whose lands were flooded by the uMfolozi river and a second larger faction of opportunists who apparently paid around R100 per stall which is illegal.”
Some of the community representatives had demanded proof that the forest was legally within the boundaries of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.
They called on the executive management of iSimangaliso to respond and also asked for clarification on reports that the mouth of the estuary had “been blocked with concrete” to prevent it from being reopened to the sea.
It is understood that a small delegation of community leaders were led to the estuary of the lake and shown that the mouth had not been blocked with concrete, while efforts were made to show that forest land were legally part of the park.
Sources have also confirmed that several patches of forest land have been cleared of vegetation or marked off with branches or, in some cases, red and white plastic hazard tape.
Last night, Albi Modise, spokesperson for the National Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, addressed questions to the iSimangaliso Wetlands Park Authority, the delegated authority that oversees the management of the world heritage site.
Late yesterday, iSimangaliso park spokesperson Bheki Manzini called on local communities to seek an ‘amicable solution’ and exercise caution before accepting ‘half-truths’ or being deceived through the illegal purchase of plots of land in the park.
“You have to understand that the land is proclaimed for conservation and we want to discourage people from trying to buy stalls or engaging in illegal activities.
“Some people are excited by half-truths… There were a number of community engagements today with the police and our team present for security reasons, after some members of the community came up with allegations that we had ‘blocked’ the mouth of the Lake St Lucia estuary – which is not correct. Why would we want to close the mouth? We would like the estuary opens and closes as naturally as possible.
“Some community members claimed that the park authority built a ‘wall’ to block the river from the sea. But such a wall does not exist. Nothing was blocked. We even took people there today to show them, and they saw that they were getting the wrong information.
Rather than arrest people who entered the park illegally, conservation authorities preferred to seek an amicable solution, he said.
“But if these avenues are exhausted, we cannot rule out the legal route, which may include arrests,” he said, adding that another meeting was scheduled for next week with the local chief and the structures of traditional leadership. DM/OBP