Pollution: A farmer’s desperate cry as waste swallows his land

What can farmers, like Byron Booysen, do when waste from a nearby informal settlement overtakes his farmland? Faced with a ‘plastic pandemic,’ experts say there are many ways to get local authorities to do their constitutional duty. It won’t be easy, though…

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While the nation is engulfed in the Covid-19 pandemic, a Western Cape farmer would also like to draw attention to, what he describes as, “the plastic pandemic”. His farm is surrounded by plastic and other waste, reports Dona van Eeden.

For most farmers, waking up in the morning is like plugging into nature’s soundtrack. Byron Booysen, though, cannot escape the litter and pollution overtaking his farm in Kraaifontein in the Western Cape.

“It’s a plastic pandemic.” 

The award-winning hydroponics farmer now wants the nation to address pollution and waste management; a growing problem that, he says, no one is prepared to assume responsibility for.

“Plastic pollution is a massive, unaddressed problem in our communities,” says Booysen, the visionary behind Booysen’s Tunnel Farming on the Avondrust farm outside the Wallacedene informal settlement. “It’s a plastic pandemic.”

Hydroponics farmer Byron Booysen, the managing director of Booysens Tunnel Farming in the Western Cape. He is now raising awareness about the "plastic pandemic" in farming communities. Photo: Supplied
Hydroponics farmer Byron Booysen, the managing director of Booysens Tunnel Farming in the Western Cape. He is now raising awareness about the “plastic pandemic” in farming communities. Photo: Supplied

Not only is this dangerous for residents of Wallacedene, but everyone else is paying the price of environmental degradation.

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For example, a nearby dam which used to be squeaky clean, is filled with polluted water which makes it unsafe for humans. And Booysen has had to endure years of litter being blown onto his farm.

He believes the “plastic pandemic” is not restricted to his farming area, but is representative of rural areas across Mzansi. People should be calling on the president, government, and other officials to urgently address this.

“No high-profile leader is out here advocating for people to look out for the environment,” Booysen points out. “There is not even evidence that city officials are trying to solve this problem.” 

ALSO READ: Farmer’s future on the line

For many years, Booysen has struggled to get feedback from City of Cape Town officials.

“Where service delivery fails, the fabric of society wears thin and the rule of law begins to break down,” says Peter Kantor, an advocate and chairperson of the Environmental Law Association. “It becomes difficult to detect the heartbeat of the foundational principles of our Constitution: dignity, equality and freedom.” 

plastic pollution
Peter Kantor is an advocate of the High Court of South Africa practising in Cape Town. Photo: Supplied

Our Constitutional rights are the mainstay of a larger legislative framework on service delivery by municipalities. These laws include the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) with an explicit duty of care on waste minimisation. 

All municipalities are further obligated to promote a safe and healthy environment and to give members of the local community equitable access to the municipal services to which they are entitled.  

“Sadly, South Africa falls below the standards it sets for itself when it comes to the provision of services, including waste management.” 

‘An unhelpful city council’

In an email thread seen by Food For Mzansi, it is clear that he has been trying to draw the City of Cape Town’s attention to this matter since, at least, 2018. Anzette Borcherds, who owns the Avondrust farm, originally wrote to Roderick Jacobs of the city’s solid waste management department to follow up on his visit to see the pollution problem.  

Borcherds mentions farm roads that literally cannot be driven on because it is too full of waste bags and litter. Farmers have, in vain, tried to make a dent in the heaps of waste dumped near the farm.

“waste management is one of the key underpinnings of South Africa’s economy and social fabric.”

When asked if there have been any decisions made regarding the removal of waste, the reply from councillor Jacobs was less than helpful.

“I sent a request to my colleagues with trucks and diggers to clean the area,” he says in his email to Borcherds. “I cannot confirm whether or not they completed the job until my senior foreman inspects the area… It might help if there was a fence between you and the (Wallacedene) informal settlement.” 

However, setting up a wall and removing waste does not address the plastic pandemic. Service delivery, adequate education and intervention methods regarding waste disposal and dumping are lacking. It cannot be improved by building fences and retroactively removing waste.  

Byron Booysen, a hydroponics farmer from Kraaifontein in the Western Cape. Photo: Supplied
Byron Booysen, a hydroponics farmer from Kraaifontein in the Western Cape. Photo: Supplied

“They do the same ‘problem solving’ time and time again,” Booysen says.

“But there is no intervention taking place to prevent the problem. There are no consequences for dumping waste illegally onto open areas. There are no bins in informal settlements to even provide space for waste to be exposed effectively and safely.” 

The discouraged farmer says, “I send messages to the city officials asking to address the problem and they sent me a reference number. Then I reply with an image of all the previous reference numbers I have received.

“The question arises whether municipalities are complying with their statutory duties, including the duty of care in section 28 of NEMA,” says Kantor. “We know that municipalities have severe budgetary and capacity constraints, but integrated waste management must be attended to.” 

A litter-filled farm

Booysen has recently taken to Twitter in a desperate attempt to get the City of Cape Town’s attention in a public forum. He hopes to create a civil movement by raising awareness of the waste pollution online, urging people to stop dumping waste and littering, as well as cleaning up places where it is already polluted.  

“Nobody is taking ownership for the environment or the pollution. There is no government prevention happening. I want to inspire people to stop littering, to care about the environment around them.”

Municipal officials should empower activists and environmentalists, he believes.

“If we need equipment, dumpsters, plastics bags, they should help us.” 

There are also many cases of litter being picked up and put into blue refuse bags. These bags are left outside until a truck can remove them. Too much time passes before the truck arrives and the bags are left to be ripped open; its contents flying freely into surrounding areas and the water reservoir.

“So, it’s not really a great attempt to clean up the rubbish,” Booysen says. “The actual problem and the citizens (guilty parties) are not being addressed. The problem is getting bigger and bigger every day. It is a very troubling cycle to be in.” 

This damn, close to Byron Booysen’s farm in Kraaifontein in the Western Cape, is now filled with polluted water which makes it unsafe for humans. Photo: Byron Booysen
This dam, close to Byron Booysen’s farm in Kraaifontein in the Western Cape, is now filled with polluted water which makes it unsafe for humans. Photo: Byron Booysen

What does the law say?

There are human rights issues at play here as well, emphasises Kantor. We all have the right to a clean and safe environment. It is not just about unsightly litter. It is a detrimental environmental impact that infringes on our human rights.  

People in South Africa do not have a Constitutional right to services such as waste or water provision services, according to Kantor. We do, however, have rights to municipal service delivery, such as section 24 of the Constitution, and the right to access sufficient water.  

Poor waste management disproportionately impacts upon the poor, causing environmental injustice. The state, as well as waste management companies, have constitutional duties to ensure that environmental harms are not disproportionately experienced by the poor. 

Kraaifontein in the Western Cape want toilets and taps fixed. Photo: Vincent Lali/GroundUp
Residents of the Wallacedene informal settlement in Kraaifontein in the Western Cape want toilets and taps fixed. Photo: Vincent Lali/GroundUp

The reaction speed from Cape Town’s municipal officials is troubling for Booysen, who has tried to engage with them on the issue for over three years. 

“People do not deserve to live in these conditions,” the farmer says. “We should not have to wait for the problem to get so out of hand before the government deems it an issue (worthy of their timeous response).”

This is a social issue as much, or more than, it is a legal one,” says Kantor.  

“The POLLUTION problem is getting bigger and bigger every day. It is a troubling cycle to be in.” 

In principle, and at face value, the municipality seems to be infringing on the community’s and individuals’ rights to a clean environment by not actively trying to solve this problem.

“How to sustainably address this issue may, however, not be an answer that sits inlaw,” says Kantor. “As it may also concern issues of political will, non-payment for municipal services, inadequate cooperative governance, and poor communication between the local community and the municipality.” 

Communities’ responsibility

We must find new systems to serve our communities and provide clean environments, and not rely on using the same ineffective strategies over and over again.  

“One way to engage is at the political level on the implementation of these policies and the enforcement of the waste by-law,” says Kantor.  

There are a number of ways to do this, such as via the local councillor, or through protest action, by campaigning around this issue, or by requesting a meeting with the mayor. Engagement with citizens needs community organisations and feet on the ground. It could be through trade unions, civic associations, religious bodies, community leaders or NGO’s, to mention a few.  

“Inter-generational equity requires that we demand more from those in public office,” says Kantor. “But it is difficult to see a way to solve the broader issue of waste without the city prioritising and implementing its waste policies. Service delivery is likely to rank alongside other pressing socio-economic issues ahead of the municipal elections later this year.” 

Another way is legal engagement, which is much more difficult, but can happen. 

Section 28 of NEMA enforces a duty of care. 

This means that any individual can trigger a legal process by writing to the relevant provincial or national government demanding that they take action to stop anyone (including a landowner or a person in control of land) who has caused significant pollution or negligently failed to prevent it and to make that person clean it up. 

If the government then fails to take action, they can be ordered by court to do so. This could, in the right circumstances, be used against a municipality who owns land on which an informal settlement is situated or who negligently failed to provide services.  

Hope for the future

Kantor updates Food For Mzansi that just last week the National Waste Management Strategy 2020 (an update from 2011) was published with impressive principles and objectives. Among other things, it “unequivocally locates waste management as one of the key underpinnings of South Africa’s economy and social fabric.”

Nice words, but perhaps it is easier for national government to formulate policies than it is for local authorities to implement them. 

  • On 13 January 2021, Food for Mzansi reached out to the council ward overseeing the Kraaifontein area that is being impacted by Booysen’s concern. Despite several follow-ups, we have not received official feedback.
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