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Dying in Paradise

by Samora Chapman / 05.07.2011

On the eve of the 2010 Soccer World Cup, the entire country was caught in a whirlwind of last minute preparations. The public held their breath as the opening ceremony loomed and workers across the country scrambled to get the proverbial keystones in place on the many developments across the nation. Stadiums were erected, beachfronts flattened and re-designed and streets swept clean of vagrants and vagabonds.

The Durban Beachfront, a crucial tourism destination, was targeted for a massive upgrade, which would include an extensive new landscaping project. For those who know Durban, the Coconut Palms (Cocos nucifera) have been a significant and iconic part of the beachfront and Victoria Embankment for many years. As a part of the upgrade, 409 Coconut Palms were planted along the beachfront, and many more were re-located from the surrounding area in the process of redesigning the esplanade.

Six months later the Soccer World Cup is a distant memory and the Durban beachfront is covered with hundreds of dying palm trees, like forgotten decorations of the big FIFA party.

I contacted Mike Andrews, Project Executive of the city’s Special Projects Unit, to get some commentary on the graveyard that was once (many years ago) a subtropical rainforest. Andrews had this to say: “Whilst we are satisfied that most of the palms have taken root, the mortality rate of approximately 20 per cent experienced is unacceptably high. Mortality rate may be partly attributed to the very late summer rains and…a host of contributory factors”. I must clarify that the “20 per cent mortality” that Andrews is referring to is the number of palms that are stone cold dead. A stroll along the beachfront quickly reveals a harsher reality – more than half of the palms are on the brink of death.

According to Andrews, a private contractor sourced the palms from Tongaat on the north coast of KwaZulu-Natal, and relocated them to the Durban beachfront at an average cost of R3890 excluding VAT per palm. “This cost included maintaining the palms until 30 June 2011. The overall cost of landscaping associated with the upgrade was in the order of R10,5 million.”

Despite man’s vicious effort to conquer nature, there are still stretches of the KZN coastline that are covered in lush indigenous bush including Coastal Red Milkwood (Mimusops caffra), Coast Silver Oak (Brachylaena discolor), Dune Soap-berry (Deinbollia oblongifolia), Natal Wild Banana (Strelitzia nicolai) and Black Mangrove (Bruguiera gymnorrhiza). When asked about the possibility of an indigenous alternative to the Coconut Palms, Andrews explained that “there are no known indigenous palms or trees which would survive in this harsh environment, which is characterised by strong salt-laden winds”.

In defence of the City and those involved in the landscaping project, The Coconut Palms were the only exotic fauna planted during the beachfront upgrade. The upgrade included the cultivation of indigenous plant life and rehabilitation of dunes with the aim of enhancing bio-diversity in the area. “Thousands of plants indigenous to the coastal dunes have been cultivated and planted in this most inhospitable of environments. This rehabilitation is a slow process, but already the benefits of biodiversity are apparent throughout the length of the beachfront with a great increase in birds and insects. Using plants to halt the movement of sand and dunes has also been most effective,” said Andrews.

This success is evident along the beachfront, especially at the northern beaches where indigenous plants appear to be thriving on the newly formed dunes.

It has been six months since the Soccer World Cup drew to a close, the last shouts and cheers of excitement have faded and the hoards of colourful visitors have gone home. The World Cup brought about an immense sense of unity. People across social spectrums, from many different economic sectors worked towards the common goal of showcasing our country to the world. But it is now time to take stock of the sustainability of various developments, and their relevance in a third world context. In general, the beachfront upgrade can be seen as sustainable. It is utilised every day by many Durbanites and local and international tourists who cruise the promenade and enjoy the beautiful, modern and stylish amenities. However, the overall success is marred by the hundreds of dying palm trees scattered along the beachfront, evidence it seems of a rushed attempt at beautification in order to meet international perceptions of ‘paradise’.

*All images © Samora Chapman.

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