How green is your golf course?

Pinnacle Point was voted one of the world’s top 10 new golf courses and South Africa’s Real Estate Project of the Year 2008. But its fairways and mansions came at a shocking price to South Africa’s natural heritage and archaeological resources. By Alison Westwood

When the Department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning (DEA&DP) approved a plan to build an 18-hole golf course estate on 400 hectares of ‘disused’ coastal fynbos near Mossel Bay, it wasn’t a popular decision. Many appealed, including the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (Wessa). ‘But our experience is that when there’s an appeal, most of the time the development is approved anyway,’ said Louis de Villiers, a member of Wessa and an attorney. So Wessa entered into an agreement with the developers of Pinnacle Point in an attempt to reduce the negative impacts of the development..

One condition of the agreement was that the golf course would be constructed behind the St Blaize Trail, a hiking trail that’s part of the world famous Oystercatcher Trail. Another was that the golf course irrigation, which uses effluent water, would return all water to the treatment works. The developers had to put in a subsoil drainage system to prevent the grey water going into the natural environment.

But Pinnacle Point didn’t honour the agreement. Greens were built right on top of the St Blaize trail, and the required drainage system was not installed on 11,5 of the 18 holes. As a result, highly toxic, acidic effluent water is dripping into the caves in the cliffs below. And these caves happen to be one of the world’s most important archaeological and geological sites.

Prof. Curtis Marean of Arizona State University and Dr Peter Nilssen have been working on the caves since 1998. Their work has shown that they contain the earliest evidence of modern human behaviour and shellfish collection – 165,000 years old – and clues to how we survived an ice age that made most of Africa uninhabitable.

What’s more, the caves’ stalagmites are rare terrestrial equivalents of ice cores. Oxygen isotopes in their layers tell us how rain systems changed over thousands of years and carbon signatures show how vegetation followed shifts in rainfall. From one set of stalagmites, Marean’s team has developed a high resolution map of South Africa’s coastal climate for over 50#000 years. They can use this to make forecasts of how ecosystems will respond to global warming.

‘I can take you to one of the caves today and it smells like a sewer,’ said Marean. ‘That site is an essential record for southern hemisphere climate change research and it’s being damaged.’ Luckily, his team obtained a permit to take several stalagmites out. ‘We did that just in time,’ said Marean. ‘Otherwise their evidence would have been destroyed. The only way to protect the rest of the material would be to shut off the water.’

Which is exactly what Wessa tried to do. ‘In July 2007, we realised there was significant damage being caused to the caves,’ said Dr Steve du Toit, Wessa’s head of conservation for the Western Cape. ‘While the developers said they agreed there was a need for urgent action, we didn’t see enough being done to stop the damage.’

A press release on their website quotes Ashley Stone, the CEO of Pinnacle Point Holdings, saying, ‘We are proud of this heritage site… No effort is being spared in ensuring the protection of this discovery.’ However, no effort besides installing temporary measures was made – and those took a year to complete because of a delay in funding.

Then in March 2007, with no warning, Pinnacle Point reseeded the grass for the Pilsner Urquell Golf Challenge. A massive increase in irrigation sent polluted water pouring into the caves. ‘You could almost have taken a shower in there,’ said Kate Collier, who manages the Centre for Heritage and Archaeological Resource Management. ‘The temporary protection was never designed to handle those volumes of water’, said  archeologist Kyle Brown. Wessa decided it was time to act and went to court to seek an immediate halt to the irrigation.

But although South African law makes it clear that damaging archaeological artefacts is illegal, the people responsible for enforcing this law don’t seem to think it matters. Heritage Western Cape, who are responsible for the caves’ protection, have a catastrophic lack of capacity (there’s only one archeologist), the DEA&DP has already withdrawn one directive to stop watering the greens (they issued a new one with a deadline suggested by Pinnacle Point), and a high court judge ruled against Wessa on a technicality, with costs.

So the grass on the greens continues to grow – as do the algal blooms on the cave walls. ‘In the US we’ve destroyed so many sites,’ said Prof. Marean. ‘Now people say, “How could we have done this?” Here you have fast development without conservation of a record that in 20 years you’ll wish you had. It’s up to South Africans to make decisions about what they are going to value.’ And, since geological and archeological resources are non-renewable, it won’t help if we change our minds later.

Originally published in Getaway Magazine, August 2008

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