In approximately 2008, Cobus Venter, who was part of Dr. Chris Mulder’s Uitzicht team and introduced at the open day as the manager-to-be of the Uitzicht plantation, became plantation manager of PG Bison.
The Western Heads Protection Group (WHPG) had collected some funds and wanted to approach Barlows with a plan to manage the fynbos on the Uitzicht land once it had been harvested. PG Bison refused to harvest their trees, despite the notice given four years earlier and despite the fact that the trees on their land of the same age had been harvested years ago. Initially we were told that Dr. Mulder had asked them not to harvest and later we were advised that they wanted to keep the trees on the land for policy reasons. At all times, we were advised that Barlows would not allow PG Bison to replant once they had harvested.
Finally from 2010 onwards, the trees were harvested and the indigenous vegetation recovered remarkably. This recovery is in stark contrast to Cobus Venter’s views expressed some years earlier.
At the end of January this year (2013), we noticed that vegetation was being cleared on the Uitzicht property. Ms. Campbell contacted Piet van Zyl, who is currently the PG Bison plantation manger, and he advised her that Barlows had given them permission to replant for 25 years. Ms. Campbell was shocked as the fynbos on the property was critically endangered. Ms Campbell contacted Mr. Pinn at Barlows and he denied that PG Bison had been given a fixed term to replant. He advised her that he was visited by Cobus Venter and Gary Chaplin from PG Bison in December 2012. They asked for a fixed term of some 20 years to replant and Mr. Pinn and Mr. Pratt laughed and said they would not be alive in 20 years time. They were advised that they could replant, but that they could be given six months notice by Barlows to vacate the property at any time.
Ms. Campbell contacted Mr. Joe Grove from PG Bison and requested him to stop clearing the vegetation. As she was unaware of the association between CMAI and PG Bison at the time, she advised him that she suspected that Cobus Venter and Dr. Mulder may be behind this as it made no commercial sense for a forestry company to incur significant expenses in establishing a plantation without security of tenure. During the conversation, Mr. Grove made no mention of the association between PG Bison and Dr. Mulder.
On the Monday, the 4th of February 2013 Ms. Campbell visited the site with a botanist from SANPARKS and was informed that the site fell within a listed critical biodiversity area and that removing the vegetation may be a listed activity. The botanist, Johan Baard, compiled a list of vegetation.
Ms. Campbell informed PG Bison that it may be a listed activity and completed the necessary investigation. Once it had been established that it was a listed activity, Ms Campbell sent an email to Mr. Grove on the 14th of February and asked for an undertaking that they would cease clearing indigenous vegetation. PG Bison had stopped clearing on the lagoon side and we were under the impression that they had stopped clearing altogether. On the same day, Ms Campbell’s staff alerted her to the fact that PG Bison were clearing a large portion of indigenous vegetation on the coastal side, where it was not visible from the N2. Ms. Campbell contacted Piet van Zyl telephonically and asked him to stop. He was advised that if they did not stop clearing, the matter would be reported to the Green Scorpions. He refused and they continued clearing and the matter was reported.
A few weeks later, Ms. Campbell received a call from Millicent Mkhatshwa from the Reactive Inspection and Complaints division of the Department of Environmental Affairs in Pretoria, commonly known as the Green Scorpions. Ms. Mkhatshwa advised her that she was travelling to Knysna to inspect the property on the 18th of March. SANPARKS initially agreed to send a botanist to the site inspection to identify the indigenous vegetation.
On the morning of the inspection, Ms. Campbell spoke to Piet van Zyl and asked him to contact her once they are on their way to conduct the inspection. He advised her that Cobus Venter did not want her or “her people”, in the same car as them during the inspection. Ms. Campbell advised him that she would only be accompanied by a botanist from SANPARKS. About 20 minutes later, SANPARKS advised her that they had been advised by management not to visit the site.
Ms. Mkhatshwa missed her flight and advised Ms. Campbell that she would arrive on Friday, 22 March.
The following day Ms. Campbell was advised by Mr. du Plessis of SANPARKS that Piet van Zyl of PG Bison had threatened to arrest any SANPARKS employee who sets foot on the Uitzicht property. Johan Baard, the SANPARKS botanist, later confirmed that Piet van Zyl had conveyed the same threat to him personally.
Ms. Campbell fetched Ms. Mkhatshwa at the airport on Friday, 22 March. From their discussion it became clear that Piet van Zyl and Cobus Venter had advised her that they did not want Ms. Campbell to accompany them on the inspection. Ms. Mkhatshwa feared confrontation and it was agreed that they would meet after Ms. Mkhatshwa had inspected the property in the company of Cobus Venter and Piet van Zyl, who are both foresters. No botanist was present.
After the meeting Ms. Mkhatshwa indicated to Ms. Campbell that they had pointed out various weeds to her and Bitou as well as other plants. Ms. Mkhatshwa did not know the local vegetation and she was advised that Bitou was indigenous.
By preventing a botanist from SANPARKS and Ms. Campbell from accompanying them, PG Bison’s representatives had placed themselves in a position where they could give information to Ms. Mkhatshwa, without being corrected or contradicted by the botanist or Ms. Campbell. Ms. Campbell advised her that she would obtain written reports from the soil expert and a botanist.
The above events gave rise to suspicion that the actions of PG Bison may in some way be related to Dr. Mulder’s development plans for Uitzicht. The reason for this suspicion was that Dr. Mulder had clearly never given up on his plans to develop Uitzicht. We were advised in 2007 that some time after the termination of his mandate, Dr. Mulder approached Barlows with an offer to purchase the Uitzicht property and that Barlows had declined to sell the property. However, time had passed and Mr. Surgey, who terminated his mandate, had retired and the present management of Barlows could possibly be persuaded to reconsider the decision not to develop or sell the land.
Dr. Mulder may have succeeded in persuading Barlows, as Barloworld Uitzicht is listed as a current client on the website of CMAI.
During the Uitzicht process, Dr. Mulder advised us that he would never have tried to develop the property if it was under fynbos. In January this year, prior to the clearing of the vegetation, the indigenous vegetation was recovering at a remarkable rate. The property has been listed since 2011 as falling within a critical biodiversity area in terms of the Biodiversity Act and the recovery of the fynbos would almost certainly prevent any future development of the property.
During March, some members of the WHPG and the Conservancy found out that Dr. Mulder had tendered for the ISDF process and that CMAI had been contracted to prepare a structure plan for Rheenendal. This was the first time that we became aware of a link between Dr. Mulder and PG Bison.
At the same time, the SDF is in the process of being reviewed, and if the Knysna municipality can be persuaded to adopt a wide urban edge policy, properties being developed by Dr. Mulder and his clients, such as PG Bison and Barlows, could be included in the urban edge.
Part of the SDF process involves “ground truthing” vegetation in critical biodiversity areas. The Uitzicht property will in all probability be included in the core or secondary conservation area in the impending SDF process, as it is covered by 98% indigenous vegetation and is located within a listed critical biodiversity area. The destruction of the indigenous vegetation by PG Bison and replanting of the pine plantations could make the rehabilitation of the fynbos more expensive and difficult, which may prevent the Uitzicht property from being placed in a core conservation area.
The suspicion of an ulterior motive for the slashing of the indigenous vegetation is purely based on speculation. However this is fuelled by the extraordinary behaviour of PG Bison management. It is difficult to believe that representatives of a listed public company would resort to such bullying tactics and incur potentially wasteful expenditure in the reforestation of a pine plantation that takes 25 years to mature, when they have can be given six months’ notice to vacate the property at any given time. Their behaviour suggests much more may be at stake.
The existing SDF envisages inclusion of the Uitzicht property into a secondary conservation area upon harvesting of the pine plantation and for the area to be rehabilitated in the long term. See annexure “O”. Dr. Mulder is now positioned to oversee the review of the SDF, giving him exceptional ability to influence the outcome in favour of himself and his current and future clients. For example, including Uitzicht and PG Bison properties in the urban edge and preventing Uitzicht from being included in the core or secondary conservation area, could result in significant personal benefit.
Click here to read:
- Environmental Groups Object 1: ISDF Tender Award & Chris Mulder
- Environmental Groups Object 2: CMAI & Chris Mulder’s Plans
- Environmental Groups Object 3: PG Bison/500 Houses for Rheenendal?
- Environmental Groups Object 4: PG Bison Bullies Environmentalists?
- Environmental Groups Object 5: Mike Maughan-Brown
- Environmental Groups Object 6: Conflicts of Interest
- Environmental Groups Object 7: Conclusion