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Only 13% of SA’s land surface is suitable for agriculture, so use it wisely

Business Day published a piece by Wandile Sihlobo in which he detailed the growing trend in the communal areas of the Eastern Cape where agricultural land is increasingly being used for settlement purposes.

This article struck a chord as it could easily have been written about any province in SA, such is the magnitude of the trend. SA may be a rather large country but only 13% of our land surface is suitable for crop production, with only 2% to 3% truly being regarded as high potential.

The 13% is spread across the areas of the Eastern Cape referred to by Sihlobo, as well as large areas of KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, Limpopo, the coastal areas of the Western Cape, and Gauteng. Coincidentally, many of these areas are also densely populated, being rapidly urbanised or sought after by other sectors of the economy due to the presence of mineral and coal deposits, as well as water resources required for electricity generation and heavy industry.

Land is about more than just agriculture. Land is required to build homes and settlements; cities and towns need space to expand, and mining and industry must go where the natural resources are located. Where these legitimate needs compete for space with agriculture, it is vital that an equitable dispensation be found to meet all needs while safeguarding high-potential agricultural land for agricultural purposes. The current status quo is simply not good enough.
Large agricultural areas deemed critical for food security could be declared as protected agricultural areas. This  could function in a similar manner to nature conservation legislation
Land-use management and zoning are functions the constitution reserves for local government. These entities may not have the ability to distinguish between land that is used for non-intensive agriculture and those areas that are crucial to maintaining national food security.

Certain municipalities also adopt a laissez-faire attitude to spatial planning whereby all land outside the urban periphery is deemed agricultural land until an application is brought to develop the land into shopping centres or golf courses.

If this does not change soon, our most precious agricultural resources may disappear quicker than many may think.

While still in its infancy, the draft Preservation and Development of Agricultural Land Bill seeks to address this issue in two ways. First, the bill seeks to map out all land in SA according to its agricultural potential. The department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries must then help municipalities act proactively and identify the areas within their jurisdiction that should be reserved for agricultural use, and channel developments towards least-impact areas. Through the process, land can be earmarked for emerging farmers on the peri-urban edge.

Secondly, large agricultural areas deemed critical for food security could be declared as protected agricultural areas. This  could function in a similar manner to nature conservation legislation, although the object would be to protect scarce agricultural resources such as high-potential land as opposed to biodiversity, per se.

To keep red tape to a minimum, regulations should specify which non-agricultural activities should be prohibited in these areas, which could take place under permit conditions and should simply be subject to norms and standards to minimise the impact on agricultural activities.

The exact areas to which this should apply, as well as the content of land-use restrictions, should be very carefully considered to prevent the creation of an additional layer of red tape and to reduce bureaucratic delays as far as possible. Be that as it may, it is high time that SA attaches the same weight to its agricultural resources as it does to our precious nature reserves, mineral deposits and growing urban areas.

• Boshoff is manager: legal intelligence at the Agricultural Business Chamber (Agbiz).


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