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Keith Henry Cooper 1937 – 2020: South Africa loses one of its most esteemed conservationists

The sudden passing of Keith Cooper on 20th June 2020 has left a void that will be difficult to fill. He worked tirelessly on many fronts and will be greatly missed by all who are passionate about protecting nature and caring for the Earth. 

As the National Director of Conservation for the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (WESSA), Keith realised the importance of building coalitions to take forward the environmental struggle during the transition to democracy in the 1990s. At that time, groups were emerging with a focus on mountain and coastal issues. As such, Keith championed the formation of Bergwatch and Timberwatch, and played a role in establishing Coastwatch KZN.

By 1991, it was evident that a watchdog organisation, committed to the protection of our mountain wilderness, was needed in the Drakensberg. This resulted in the formation of Bergwatch. Keith chaired Bergwatch from its inception and the passion and expertise within the group gave it considerable credibility with the Provincial Development and Planning authorities. Funding was secured when it became a formal project of WESSA. This enabled the employment of Merridy Pfotenhauer as a full time co-ordinator.

Bergwatch recognised that the traditional authority areas adjacent to the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park were in dire need of conservation and that this could only be achieved with the support and involvement of local communities. One of the traditional authorities invited Bergwatch to work with some of its most remote mountain communities in the beautiful Mnweni area of the northern Drakensberg. Bergwatch members worked closely with a number of these communities to identify ways in which conservation activities could be implemented while improving the lives of community members. The Rand Water Mnweni Trust aimed at developing a blueprint for community-based conservation projects. At this time, Bergwatch also started working with mountain communities on the conservation and judicious use of natural and cultural resources, including the ancient San rock art for which the area is famous. Interest earned from a two-million-rand capital injection into the Trust was initially invested in two projects being donga reclamation and a guide training programme.   

Bergwatch was key to the formation of the Timberwatch Coalition in 1995 as one of the main reasons for forming Bergwatch, was concern over the impact of industrial tree plantations on ecosystems, water sources and communities. Keith was a founder member of Timberwatch and the coalition included: Earthlife Africa, Wildlife & Environment Society of South Africa (WESSA), Botanical Society of South Africa, Bergwatch, Zululand Environmental Alliance (Zeal), Wilderness Foundation, and representatives of the Mountain Club of South Africa. Keith and his wife Mae played a pivotal role until their retirement, with Keith appointed chair several times and Mae acting as treasurer. Keith was dedicated to nurturing new conservationists and would regularly organise field trips to grasslands and other threatened areas in his famous WESSA kombi. Together with Harald Witt, he also represented Timberwatch on the KZN SFRA-LAAC (Stream Flow Reduction Activity Licence-Assessment Advisory Committee) for a number of years, while site visits were attended by Bob de Laborde who prepared reports giving reasons, where applicable, as to why Timberwatch opposed a new plantation licence application. 

It would be impossible to list all Keith’s achievements and the huge contribution he has made to conservation in South Africa. He put a stop to illegal beach cottages in Pondoland on the Wild Coast, lobbied for land in the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Corridor to be incorporated into two nature reserves, and started Bergwatch to monitor our mountain heritage. He helped many communities maintain their indigenous areas and worked tirelessly for the preservation of the wetlands, grasslands, catchment areas, mountains and forests which form the basis of our vital ‘water factories’. In his eighties he continued to be active and in the past few years, had been involved in the restoration of forests in Karkloof, where a 15 hectare pine plantation was felled and replaced with indigenous trees. With the land returning to its natural state, creatures including the Cape parrot, eastern bronze-naped pigeon, and dwarf chameleon have been returning. Indefatigable to the end, Keith was about to embark on a new project in Karkloof.

Keith Cooper was born and raised in Pietermaritzburg. Although his training was in finance and administration, nature and conservation were his passion and eventually became his career in which he was greatly encouraged by Ian Garland, Roddy Ward and Hugh Nicholson. His hero growing up was Dr Ian Player, whom he first met when he was eleven. He started working in conservation in 1961 as an administrator at the Oceanographic Research Institute in Durban. He then joined the Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa (WESSA) in 1972 where he served as the National Director of Conservation for thirty years. During this period he established numerous conservancies, nature reserves and protected areas around the country, and helped communities adjacent to conservation areas develop eco-tourism and associated conservation projects.

He began collecting plants and developed a keen interest in flowering plants (particularly those with medicinal value) as a result of undertaking a survey of forests in what was then Natal, Orange Free State, Transvaal and Transkei. After retiring, he continued his involvement in various projects as an associate of WESSA and worked closely with Rob Scott-Shaw of Ezemvelo-KZN Wildlife on a botanical survey of the Mbona Private Nature Reserve. His main scientific contributions were the authoring of two forest surveys: ‘The Conservation Status of Indigenous Forests in Transvaal, Natal and O.F.S., South Africa’ (1985) and ‘Transkei Forest Survey’ (1992); numerous WESSA field reports; and the editing of ‘Studies on the Ecology of Maputaland’ (1980). Keith was also chairman of the Flora Publications Trust – now the Flora & Fauna Publications Trust – for ten years, from 1998 to 2008. In recognition of his scientific and conservation work in preserving South Africa's biodiversity, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in 2003 and was presented with a special 90th Anniversary Gold Medal Award by WESSA in 2016. 

Perhaps the best way to appreciate Keith’s extensive efforts to defend the environment and help communities protect the nature that sustains them is through the many tributes and memories being shared by those who knew him personally. In his quiet, unassuming way he was an outstanding natural scientist, dedicated teacher and true humanitarian who touched many lives. Timberwatch Coalition members SDCEA, Biowatch and groundWork all recall their association with Keith and the support he was always willing to give. 

Desmond D’Sa, coordinator of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) expressed his sadness at hearing of Keith’s sudden death: “I knew him from my long ago days with WESSA but also from his support for SDCEA and his integral involvement with Timberwatch and many other environmental groups. Early on, Keith understood that forming coalitions would strengthen communities, enabling them to challenge industry and government rather than exhausting the energies of small groups and concerned individuals. He will be greatly missed.” 

Bryan Ashe, chair of Timberwatch, has many recollections of the years he worked with Keith: “Working with Keith was always a learning curve from setting up Timberwatch, to community conservation initiatives in Ndwedwe or visits to the Mnweni tourism project. I shall forever hold  these memories close, as well as his humility and dignity at all times and his selfless sharing of knowledge with the next generation of conservationists, which was always at the forefront of his influence.”

Rose Williams, director of Biowatch South Africa said: “I remember Keith for his kindness, his lifelong commitment to the environment, the way he made opportunities for one to ‘see’ and how he gave so much support to the work of Timberwatch. Our thoughts are with Keith’s beloved family – Mae, his children and grandchildren – and with the many people who have connected with Keith during his extraordinary and committed life.”  

The Timberwatch Coalition 
30 June 2020

Community leader and eco-activist, who stood against mining at St Lucia, has been murdered. 

Philip Mkhwanazi ǀ Photo credit: Daniel Lin

In the midst of the Covid-19 lockdown, on 25th May 2020, Induna Philip Mkhwanazi was shot dead in cold blood in what appears to be an assassination by pro-mining elements, once again emerging, in attempts to mine heavy minerals from coastal sand dunes within the southernmost buffer zone of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park in northern Kwazulu-Natal. In the process, this is threatening to re-ignite the battle that ensued over the proposed mining of the dunes, on the eastern shores of St Lucia, in the 1990s.  

Philip Mkhwanazi was a well-respected environmentalist, municipal councillor and traditional leader. He was the induna (headman) of Khula Village and a celebrated member of the community for his success in promoting eco-tourism in the area. He was gunned down by unknown assailants claiming they wanted letters of proof of residence in order to open bank accounts. To date, no arrests have been made.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were moves by communities – who had been displaced or removed to make way for industrial tree plantations and sugar cane – to reclaim their ancestral rights to the Dukuduku Forest. This resulted in these communities being pitted against the apartheid authorities. Philip Mkhwanazi was one of the community leaders who lived in the Dukuduku Forest and when a settlement was reached, he established the Khula Village on the north side of the St Lucia Road.

At the same time, the controversial proposal to mine the eastern shores of St Lucia had been set in motion. When Earthlife Africa organised the first meeting with communities in Mtubatuba, Philip Mkhwanazi was one of those who attended. It was at this meeting that the idea of community based tourism was advocated, with a presentation on how this was working in Zimbabwe. Philip saw an opportunity and established the Veyane Cultural Village as one of the first community tourism projects in the area. He then went on to become one of the pioneer, black majority owned tour operations in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.

Interestingly, the late Keith Cooper, who passed away suddenly on 20th June 2020, had long acknowledged that there were communities living in the Dukuduku Forest. He first encountered them when he worked at a local bank in nearby Mtubatuba as a young man. When the struggle to reclaim the land started, Keith was encouraging a young anthropology student to research the expansion of the Dukuduku settlement and in 1991, we made several trips there in Keith’s Kombi to meet with people from the community. Unfortunately, the then Natal Parks Board, which controlled parts of the Dukuduku, refused permission for the student to continue her research. See Timberwatch’s tribute to Keith Cooper above.

Philip Mkhwanazi also recognised the importance of indigenous forests and when Khula Village was established, he made sure that most of the village was situated in a former pine plantation. The resettlement was controversial as it was said that people with no traditional links to the area were settling in the forest and that parcels of land were being sold off to outsiders. The area grew and eventually the south side of the road was settled. It has continued to expand on to the Mfolozi floodplain, where some of the last examples of swamp forests exist. The controversy has been ongoing in what is a complex and sensitive social, environmental, economic, and political situation. An example was when we carried out one of our trips with Keith to examine the extent of the settlement and came across sugar and banana plantations on land owned by the Monzi sugar farmers, as opposed to local subsistence farmers.

This was one of the issues pointed out by Keith Cooper, who maintained that the people of Dukuduku had always had a small settlement in the forest at the entrance to Monzi but were displaced over time by commercial sugar plantations and SAFCOL-owned timber plantations. I personally saw the expansion of these communities as I travelled to St Lucia using public transport. In the early days, before the proliferation of minibus taxis, the route was serviced by bakkies, which would stop at designated points along the road, one of them being at the entrance to Monzi and the other, where Khula Village was eventually established. As time progressed, so did the settlement in the Dukuduku Forest.

The situation came to a head, post 1994, when the late Kader Asmal, then Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry, tried to reach an agreement that settlement could only take place north of the St Lucia road. The other part of the agreement was that what was left of the Dukuduku and the Futululu State Forests would be fenced off and eventually incorporated into the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. The balance of the SAFCOL plantations were sold off to Mondi, who joined in a partnership with local communities to form SiyaQhubeka Forests. This was fenced off and incorporated into the iSimangaliso Wetland Park with some 4 000 hectares given back to conservation, allowing the Western Shores section of iSimangaliso to be opened up for conservation. The area has now been rewilded and all signs of timber plantations have gone from the watershed side of the area. The balance of the area, towards the N2, is still under eucalyptus plantation.

Tragically, the struggle has never ended and despite land settlements being reached, outside interests have opened the mining can of worms again, triggering deadly conflict. In eMpembeni village near Richards Bay, more than thirty people have died, with those seen as opposing mining being targeted. Philip Mkhwanazi joins Richards Bay environmental campaigner Kevin Kunene, another victim of the St Lucia struggle, who was killed execution style in the Kwambonambi area in July 2012. 

Hamba Kahle Baba Mkhwanazi!

By Bryan Ashe, Chair of Timberwatch 
On behalf of the Timberwatch Coalition
30 June 2020 


Opposition to mining may have led to ANC councillor’s murder Sandile Mother, Mukurukuru Media, 26 May 2020

Witnessing the ‘Miracle’ of iSimangaliso Dan Lin, National Geographic, 27 October 2015

Statement on the assassination of community activists Sikhosiphi Bazooka Rhadebe and Kevin Kunene Inyanda National Land Movement, Pambazuka News, 31 March 2016


by Tony Carnie Times LIVE 29 March 2020

The timber industry is under pressure from civil society groups and government water regulators to halt 'unauthorised' land conversion from pine to gum trees in the sprawling Mpumalanga timber plantations because of growing concern over regional water scarcity. It is also under pressure to reduce the size of some newly established gum tree plantations by as much as a third, to compensate for the increased water use by these trees.This is because extensive national and international research by scientists has shown that, with some exceptions, eucalyptus (gum) trees use significantly more water than pine trees -- on average about 30% more and in some cases as much as 51% more.

The plantation industry, however, is focused on the growing global demand for wood fibres from gum trees to produce dissolving wood pulp, including increased production at the massive Sappi pulp mill at Ngodwana, about 50km from Mbombela. Forestry SA (FSA) -- representing the plantation industry -- contends there are no legal mechanisms to prevent timber companies from converting from pine to gum, and further claims that there is a 'negligible' difference in water use between the two tree types. FSA argues that should companies be compelled to reduce the area of new gum plantations by up to one-third, or if any plantations were to lose accreditation from the international Forest Stewardship Council, this could threaten the financial viability of numerous growers.

Over recent months, civil society activists in Mpumalanga have been urging Sappi and other timber growers to halt any further conversion due to low river and dam levels in the wake of the recent drought. Philip Owen, head of the water and environmental conservation group GeaSphere​, also wrote to Sappi CEO Stephen Binnie, urging the company to immediately halt current and planned conversions: "We have been experiencing less than usual rainfall for the past number of years. This is leading to a serious situation where some areas are experiencing acute water shortages, even though we are now at the end of the rainy season."

The department of water affairs was adamant this week that timber companies are obliged to obtain formal authorisation when changes occur between the two tree species. Spokesman Sputnik Ratau said his department required tree conversions to be based on stream-flow reduction tables published by the Water Research Commission. Ratau stressed that these tables do not require a blanket reduction of 33% when land use is converted from pines to gum, as there were different ratios for various water catchments. 

He acknowledged that a moratorium was likely to hit the industry economically as it would not be able to replant, or would be required to replant pine, a crop for which they did not have a market: "We understand the concern regarding the impact on the domestic use and economy of downstream users as a result of the 'over-abstraction' of water by the planted trees and do not regard the forestry industry's economy as more important than that of other users." According to Ratau, Sappi and FSA are aware of these authorisation processes, despite the fact that draft genus exchange regulations published in 2015 were suspended a year later following lobbying by FSA. But Sappi and FSA are adamant that such conversions are lawful. 

Sappi spokesperson Mpho Lethoko said: "There is no requirement in the legislation to obtain an authorisation prior to switching genera. Similarly, there is no requirement in the legislation to reduce area when doing so. At the outset, let us assure you that Sappi takes a serious view of its neighbours' concerns and remains committed to working with local stakeholders and to collaborate on issues, including the issue of water and conversion. Sappi believes that our investments into SA will earn more foreign revenue, create jobs, contribute to environmental sustainability and will consequently be of great benefit to SA and its citizens. It should be mentioned that in recent years, several catchments have seen an exponential increase in the establishment of irrigated crops and an increase in human settlement in small towns such as Barberton, which is experiencing water shortages." 

FSA chief Michael Peter did not respond to questions sent last week, citing increased responsibilities due to the coronavirus crisis. But responding to similar queries by the Mpumalanga News Horn newspaper on March 19, Peter repeated the legal positions outlined by Sappi: "The most recent hydrological research done by the country's erstwhile leading hydrologist instead demonstrates that the difference in the total water usage between the two genera is negligible, and in some cases pine trees can use more water than eucalyptus."

Last week he also threatened to sue Owen or seek a court interdict to prevent him from making 'libellous allegations' against the timber industry.Owen denies he has made any libellous statements and suggested the justice system "would not look kindly on such an attempt to silence criticism, or to curtail my or any other activist's constitutional right to free speech".


Tractor collecting timber near Howick (Photo credit: Siphiwe Sibeko Reuters)

By Tony Carnie, New Frame 16 April 2020

This is an important article by Tony Carnie (16 Apr 2020) in which he lays out the potentially catastrophic situation unfolding in Mpumalanga where -- in a process that will jeopardise already scarce community water sources -- the timber industry has begun replacing pine plantations with gum trees. Read full article

Overview: Philip Owen of GeaSphere (a member of the Timberwatch Coalition based in Mpumalanga), has been campaigning for two decades against the timber and pulp industry and its negative impacts on water resources and the environment. In January this year, GeaSphere became aware that pine to gum conversions were taking place due to an increased demand from the Sappi Ngodwana Mill to feed its new cellulose production line.

Mpumalanga's water supply is already in jeopardy due to less than average rainfall over the past few years. Historically, water scarcity has been worsened by the large-scale timber plantations in the region and, in addition to these factors, we are now facing global climate breakdown. Eucalyptus trees use up to 35 percent more water than pine so these conversions could have a catastrophic effect on an already critical situation. Eucalyptus plantations also have a much higher impact on biodiversity and soil sustainability as the rotations are shorter and the trees spaced closer together.

Anything that can have such a devastating impact on communities and the environment must be transparent and carefully considered by a wide body of stakeholders. GeaSphere therefore contacted the relevant Government department to reinstate the SFRA-LAAC (Stream Flow Reduction Activities Licensing Application Advisory Committee), has asked that a comprehensive SEA (Strategic Environmental Assessment) be conducted, and has called for a blanket 30 percent reduction in planted areas when land is switched from pine to gum

These actions have resulted in the threat of a SLAPP suit (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) by Forestry South Africa (FSA). Owen has responded to this apparent attempt to intimidate him by saying:“I am advised that the justice system would not look kindly on such an attempt to silence criticism, or to curtail my or any other activist’s constitutional right to free speech.” Owen is not the first activist to be threatened with a SLAPP suit. The Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) has noted an increase in the number of these actions in South Africa and has recently helped launch a campaign known as Asina Loyiko, an IsiXhosa phrase that means 'We do not fear'.