KZN’s vanishing farmland
Farmland in KwaZulu-Natal is vanishing due to rezoning and unregulated settlement at such a rate that fast-dwindling high quality agricultural crop lands may soon become “protected” areas.
The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) has finalised a draft Preservation and Development of Agricultural Land Bill, which it is hoped will be presented to Parliament next year, DAFF spokesperson Khaye Nkwanyana told The Witness.
The aim, broadly, is to protect high and even medium quality agricultural land from being used for purposes other than farming, and to ensure it is farmed sustainably.
“It is true. While there may seem a great many farms out there, there is not a heck of a lot of highly productive land, perhaps only 13-14% nationally,” said SA Institute of Valuers’ KZN representative Patrick O’Connell.
According to some statistics obtained by The Witness, only about eight percent of agriculture lands (in KZN) have high potential, if one takes into account factors that include soil, slopes and vegetation. The figure may even be less if one considers water availability and climate change.
A framework document of the new bill suggests, for instance, that all high and medium potential cropping lands be proclaimed Protected Agricultural Areas, and subdivision and rezoning of these lands be prohibited.
Applications for changes to existing farm lands in these areas will have to be approved by intergovernmental committees, national and provincial, and following the conclusion and submission of an “Agro-Ecosystem Report”.
Currently, applications to rezone agricultural land are dealt with by DAFF and signed off by the minister, Senzo Zokwane. “This is often an onerous and costly process involving environmental impact and demographic studies and consultants, and may take up to three years to complete,” said O’Connell.
Rule of Law Project researcher Gary Moore said the unfettered ability of a minister to decide on a land subdivision contravenes the legal requirements of the Constitution, in that “government discretion should be sufficiently limited, to ensure the law is not applied arbitrarily”.
Studies show once agricultural land is used for other purposes, it is generally lost to farming forever, due to, for instance, loss of biodiversity, soil loss and soil salinisation.
“No, I don’t believe it [DAFF] is adequately protecting land. Neither have municipalities played a strong enough role,” said KwaZulu-Natal Agriculture Union CEO Sandy la Marque.
“It is of great concern to us — not only is valuable productive agricultural land being used for housing, but the impact on the natural resources is also severe,” she said.
“Little thought or attention is paid by applicants for development planning approval to the fact that once an application is successful, a precedent is set for an area, and changes in infrastructural and other related issues leads to an area becoming difficult to farm.
In addition, the value of land is pushed up dramatically, meaning that the market value of land bears no relation to the its agricultural/productive value. “This in turn leads to it being impossible for even successful and large farmers to justify expansion as they will not be able to generate satisfactory economic returns on the land,” she said.
The new bill comes at a time when the ANC-led government is considering land expropriation without compensation. The government has not indicated yet what land might be expropriated, to what use the land will be put by new owners, and how it will determine which land will be expropriated.
What is known though is that commercially viable farming outside areas of high or medium quality land usually requires large tracts of land, and substantial capital investment.
In KZN this lower quality land is only really suitable for livestock farming.
One study seen by The Witness claims that in the last 2,5 years alone, 290 849 hectares of former agricultural land in KwaZulu-Natal were approved for other uses, which accounted for a 4,5% loss of all agricultural land in the province.
The KwaZulu-Natal Provincial Department of Agriculture and Rural Development said they and DAFF are jointly “identifying and ground-truthing all the high quality land in the province”.
“In addition, as part of DARD’s Agriculture Masterplan, it is also envisaged than an agriculture census be done to ensure all the high quality land is identified for the purpose of protecting it,” DARD said in response to questions from The Witness.
The DARD said it does not deal with all applications for agricultural land rezoning and changes in the province, but the overall mandate was likely to revert to the DARD once the new bill was implemented.
O’Connell said over the longer term, he does not believe there will ever be a shortage of good quality agricultural land, as urban development tends to concentrate in certain areas, and people generally do not like to live far from their place of employment.
According to government statistics, the total land surface in KZN is 9,44 million hectares, of which 7,44 million is available for agriculture.
La Marque said: “Certainly, a lot of agricultural land (in many cases highly productive) has been lost. Municipalities’ town planning needs to be carefully considered and ensure that productive agricultural land is ‘ringfenced’ and remains agricultural land.”
She added that the current land reform process does not always cater for an individual to be settled, but rather groups of people who all may have different expectations from the land.