The Amazon Africa development in Cape Town has been one of the most contentious fights in recent South African history. What started out as a run-of-the-mill development deal has descended into court case hearing after court case hearing. The development has created clashes between indigenous groups about heritage and the sanctity of the land itself. In a two-part series, LING SHEPHERD takes a look at all the arguments.
This story was produced as part of the Indigenous Story Grants, a journalism fellowship organised by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.
In part 1, Ling details the Amazon Africa development site’s ecological factors. This part details the historical environmental impacts through the years and explains the arguments for the development.
There are a myriad of faulty processes from 2016 up until the present about this development. The development was approved. The court case was about challenging an existing approval. Amazon possesses the rights to develop. This is the important nuance in understanding the development. There was an appeal against an interdict to stop construction handed down in March 2022, and the case continued. The development is going ahead. The court case was successful, the next challenges will be about who is responsible for demolishing what has been built and restoring the site to its previous condition. The other pertinent detail to comprehend is that the site has been a site of urban development since the early 20th century.
All the while the question of the environment within the development seems to have taken a backseat. There is no doubt that heritage and preservation is important and must take precedence within the South African context of erasure of indigenous history and identities.
The fact is multiple truths exist. For the purposes of this piece, we will focus on the ecosystem of the Amazon Africa development, and the impact of developing the site.
The development is situated in the Two Rivers Urban Park (TRUP). This is where the Liesbeek and Black Rivers meet. It is one of Cape Town’ largest urban green lungs, and is 240 hectares in size. TRUP has sensitive ecological systems, habitats, and extensive open space areas. The park is also wetland – an area of land covered by water or saturated with water.
Rivers run through it
Historically the flooding of the lower Liesbeek river floodplain and estuarine has always been a problem. There have been unsuccessful attempts through the decades to reduce the floods by channelling the river. Consequently, this has moved the heavy winter rainwater into the sea level marshes, spreading out in sheets of flood water. The concrete canalisation and the urban surfaces have prevented rainwater filtering into the ground. The latter has also resulted in higher speed at which flooding reaches the sea level marshlands.
There have been attempts in the late 20th century to slow down the storm water. Artificial wetlands and small holes have been cut in the floor of the concrete to allow the water to soak into the ground. Severe flooding in 1917 was the impetus for the canalisation of the Liesbeek. Major construction occurred between then and the 1950’s – this was mainly to accommodate urban expansion. It was also another attempt to lighten the flooding. The 1950’s was pivotal in that significant human intervention changed the actual course of the Liesbeek. Large parts of the wetland were filled to make way for freeway developments. Initially the river was diverted into quarry excavations that were dug to raise a sports field (Hartleyvale) above flood level.
What is now known as the Liesbeek Lake was formed by flooding the quarry site by restraining it with a concrete weir. This diversion provided space to construct a parkway between the river and the sport fields. It also gave rise to water features and wetlands west of the Liesbeek Lane. The river was still flowing on its original course in 1958. By the 1960’s another major diversion took place with the construction of a new concrete canal between the Liesbeek Lake and Black River.
A case for development
The developers (the River Club Development) contend that 65% of the site will be retained as Green Space. They conducted an independent biodiversity assessment that concluded the redevelopment will improve the environment – specifically for the Western Leopard Toad inhabiting the area. The assessment highlighted the degradation of the rivers, and the low ecological value of the reed-bed wetlands fronting the site. The Raapenburg wetland close to the site that has high ecological sensitivity won’t be negatively affected by the redevelopment. The assessment also found that the site’s terrestrial areas hosted no indigenous plant communities. The faunal habitat corridor’s only function was only important for the Western Leopard Toad. The site is degraded, and the conclusions were that the redevelopment would include removing the canal, to rehabilitate the Liesbeek river course. This in turn would improve the aquatic and terrestrial faunal habitat next to the site.
The developer’s study also concluded that the redevelopment would have a miniscule effect on the flooding of the site. In their investigations they also studied the impact of the development on flooding and flood abatement. It also concluded that there may be localised effects on flows and water levels, but that hazards, and potential damage would be insignificant.
Peta Brom, PhD candidate in Urban Ecology at University of Cape Town, said she had been following the environmental impact assessment from the beginning of the proposed development. Brom said the concerns were around the endangered Western Leopard toad, the highly congested traffic in the area, and that it was in a flooding zone. The developers subsequently worked with a freshwater ecologist and adjusted the proposal and assessment of the river system.
The plan for restoration is to restore the river and its ecological functioning, Blom said. She also pointed out the duties of the developer to build a road extension and the BRT (Bus Rapid Transit System) must be extended. It is more efficient and effective to increase density within the city, and to protect biodiversity. Beyond the city limits there are green field developments that transform land into housing, these impact ecosystems in pristine condition. Those against the redevelopment are not aware of the extent as to how the city of Cape Town is expanding, said Blom.
The Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust (LLPT), the developer recently reiterated its commitment to rehabilitating the degraded development site. This includes spending R38 million rand to rehabilitate the riverine corridor, and improving the habitat of the western leopard toad, the giant kingfisher, and the cape dwarf chameleon. The LLPT concluded the redevelopment will have a positive impact on the local environment.
Part Two is available here.