The Portfolio Committee met virtually to be briefed by the Department of Forestry, Fisheries, and Environment (DEFF) response to public submissions on the National Forest and Veld Fire Amendment Bill.
The general comments on the Bill by the provinces were related to the role, responsibility and exclusivity of the Fire Protection Associations (FPAs). The Committee emphasised the need for the Department to facilitate awareness and build capacity for dealing with forest and veld fires. How did the Bill link the roles of the municipalities with the FPAs? The Department was asked how it would assist poor farmers in registering with the FPAs. Members proposed a water source or reservoir around the drought-stricken areas to mitigate the spread of fires. What would be the penalties that would result when a person or a state entity defaulted on the provisions of the Bill?
The Committee called for the decentralisation of the district fire brigades and consideration of the inclusion of penalties for acts of arson, and legal enforcement against the throwing of cigarette butts out of car windows -- a common cause of veld fires. How did the DFFE plan to deal with cross-provincial and national border fires? Who would be responsible for rehabilitating publicly-owned land ravaged by fire. What were the costs of the Bill? The Department was requested to include a financial clause in the Bill, and come back to make a detailed presentation to the Portfolio Committee.
Chairperson’s introductory remarks
The Chairperson said that the Committee had had a marathon of public hearings all over the country [on the National Forest and Veld Fire Amendment Bill]. They had finally heard from the communities, but not without some ups and downs. The saddest part was that one would meet community members, elderly people in particular, who would cry about the disservice from government. There had been a lot of these touching moments across the country. It was a pity that the most affected people were those involved in agriculture.
She told the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment (DFFE) that they needed to collaborate with other sectors from other Department, including the state-owned enterprises. There was a need to see the DFFE take the lead, so everyone must fulfil their responsibility when the National Forest and Veld Fire Amendment Bill was enacted as law. They would then have a quarterly report to ensure that all the issues encountered by the communities were resolved. She thanked all those who had been involved throughout this process. She commented that it had been humbling to see the officials leaving their offices in Pretoria and Cape Town to come down to the communities and understand the plight of the people.
DFFE response to public submissions on National Forest and Veld Fire Amendment Bill
Ms Maggie Sotyu, Deputy Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment, introduced her team and said that the Department had gone through all the submissions. Most of the matters had been followed up on. They therefore had responses to most of the issues that had been raised by community members during the public hearings across the country. The DFFE was collaborating with the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform, and Rural Development (DALRRD) and Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA), especially regarding those issues experienced at a municipal level.
Ms Mmamokgadi Mashala, Acting Director-General (DG), DEFF, said the Department would be briefing the Portfolio Committee on the comments and responses on the National Forest and Veld Fire Amendment Bill, and the principles of the Act.
The DFFE presentation was delivered by Ms Pumeza Nodada, Deputy DG: Forestry Management, who said that the general inputs from all the provinces included:
Clarity on the role of the Fire Protection Associations (FPAs), and the formation of FPAs. The DFFE said that the registration of the FPAs was dealt with in section 4 of Act 101 of 1998. The duties of the FPAs were in section 5 of Act 101 of 1998.
A refusal by the municipal and state-owned enterprises to join FPAs. The DFFE said that the amendment of section 3 of Act 101 of 1998 would make it compulsory for municipalities to join FPAs in their area.
Non-inclusivity of the FPAs - landowners in a given area were not allowed to join FPAs. The DFFE said section 4(6) of Act 101 of 1998 stated that all owners in an area for which an FPA had been registered, had a right to join that FPA, provided that the owners abided by the Constitution of the FPA.
(Please see attached document for the comments from respective provinces).
Ms C Phillips (DA) emphasised that community awareness was requested in every hearing. One could not expect people to fight fires without proper equipment. There was a need to ensure that people were empowered and equipped to deal with fire.
Ms A Weber (DA) was concerned about how the DFFE was going to monitor municipalities, which was highlighted in the Constitution. She was from Mpumalanga, and there were one or two towns without a fire brigade. She said that the execution of this Bill was limited in terms of linking the municipalities with the FPAs. Many farmers wanted to help but could not afford to pay the registration fees to aid the FPAs. How could the Committee assist these farmers so that they could be part of the FPAs? How could they ensure that their land would be protected from fires? Could the environmental laws and strategies within the FPAs make provision for the poor farmers and communities who lacked resources to be protected from forest and veld fires? Could the Department consider giving the communities training, awareness and guidelines on fire breaks? Could they look into ways so that the distance and time of responses from the municipal fire brigades to affected areas were shortened and reduced?
She said that the DFFE's excuse of financial constraints regarding the rangers was invalid. The availability of the rangers would prevent the fires, so there would be no need to cater for the finances. Could they seriously look into hiring rangers? She suggested that the DFFE needed to think of creating a water source to deal with fires, especially in drought-stricken areas.
She said that many fires were started by people near illegal dumping areas. People set waste alight because the municipality did not collect it, so could the Department look into waste and illegal dumping and its impact on fire?
Ms T Mchunu (ANC) agreed with the DFFE that the responsibility for fighting fires lies within the district's responsibility. Why were they not including and inserting the responsibility of municipalities to deal with fire in the Bill? The insertion of a municipal responsibility would further assist the Department in terms of where the municipal boundary lay. FPAs would be associated with the municipal boundaries, so they would become covered by the Municipal Demarcation Act as the municipal areas changed. Why could they not insert a clause in the Bill that spoke to state land? What would be the penalties that would result when a person or the state defaulted on the provisions of the Bill?
Mr D Bryant (DA) agreed with the points raised by Ms Mchunu, Ms Weber and Ms Phillips.
One of the central themes that had come through very strongly in the public hearings was the lack of basic infrastructure and service for poor communities, such as fire hydrants and lack of manpower. Rural communities had been left behind regarding fire management issues. These communities relied on the assistance and benevolence of local farmers, community workers and the FPAs, filling the gap left by the municipal government. He was concerned about the registration of the FPAs. How could they ensure that the registration did not prejudice any FPAs while ensuring that groupings were correctly registered?
Mr P Modise (ANC) said that he had issues with the summarised version presented by the DFFE. He said most of the important issues arose from the hearing, such as cigarette butts being thrown out by motorists next to the roads, and starting veld fires. He had not heard the DG highlighting what constituted a fine or what kind of fine would be given to such a motorist. He stressed that this should be stipulated in an act, such that law enforcement would know how to name and categorise such offences.
He spoke about the decentralisation of the fire brigades in all the provinces, because the provinces had raised a concern that the fire brigades were all based in metropolitan areas and did not respond timeously to veld fire calls. Would it not be advisable that an act must be promulgated to legislate that each municipality must have its own fire brigade and response team to respond to veld fires within their areas of operation and jurisdiction? How did one deal with fires that occurred within two municipalities, and the central district could not respond to both? How did the DFFE plan to deal with cross-provincial and national border fires? What law would regulate such cut-across fires?
He said that the provinces had recommended that it be compulsory to employ firefighters as an institution to prevent veld fires and to limit reliance on "Working On Fire" programmes and other stakeholders. What would the DFFE do about this recommendation of employing firefighters? He asked the Department to comment on whether the formation of FPAs was an obligation for the affected stakeholders. He said the DFFE fundamentally objected to the Communal Property Associations (CPAs) forming FPAs. Why was it objecting to that link, because this would increase the amount of manpower needed to stop the fires?
Mr N Paulsen (EFF) said that the communities across the country had offered valuable inputs and raised serious issues. He agreed with the DFFE that CPAs should not just form FPAs. CPAs consisted of people with massive resources at their disposal, and the properties were usually at threat. People would then volunteer to the CPAs and extinguish the fires. They should not allow CPAs to join FPAs to become an entity that could hold organisations and municipalities to ransom in terms of demanding payment for their work. He suggested that the CPAs join legitimate FPAs to counter veld and forest fires.
He added that the Act was silent on assigning responsibility for public land ravaged by fire? Who was responsible for rehabilitation? He asked the DFFE how it was planning to inform the public about the responses relating to questions at the National Forestry Advisory Council. How did it plan to appreciate the work done by the Council, including the current and former council members?
Ms N Gantsho (ANC) said the summary did not reflect the issue of initiation schools. Last week, a community in Stellenbosch had been up in arms, fighting the municipality, which had stopped them from exercising their right to host an initiation school, without any alternative given. The issue needed to be dealt with so that the DFFE was not seen as a government institution insensitive to traditional and cultural rights of passage.
The Chairperson said that the DFFE had to cross-reference relevant legislation, especially to make the Bill readable and user-friendly. She had to defend the DFFE at the Parliament and replace the mention of the Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Act with the Traditional and Khoi-San Leadership Act. She requested the DFFE to advise the cost of the Bill with the Committee -- after the enactment of the Bill, and before it was legislated.
She said that what had been presented today were just a few issues that had been picked up. If the DFFE was unsure on the issues to address, it should deal with the research and secretariat team. The Committee needed a detailed response from the DFFE to facilitate the discussions around the Bill. The team travelling with them needed to go through their notes, province by province. She added that for record purposes, the DFFE needed to note all the questions and answers given during the hearings, even if they had been addressed then.
Mr N Singh (IFP) emphasised the need for funding to support the National Forest and Veld Fire Amendment Bill. National and other levels of government were far too quick to pass on responsibility to lower levels of government, without ensuring that those levels had the required funding. He stressed that implementation took place at the local level. One of the requirements of a Bill was a financial implication clause. The DFFE needed to include the clause before the enactment of the Bill. He further raised the training issues involving "Working for Fire" workers. When there was a fire, the workers could not move because the company could not be held liable for their injuries. He added that water reservoirs needed to be built in areas with water scarcity. It did not need to be pure water -- just water that could save property and the lives of people in rural communities.
The Chairperson said that when the Bill was enacted, the DFFE needed to brief the Portfolio Committee on its state of readiness, including the financing part. It was the DFFE’s responsibility to state whether the Bill would be financed within the Departmental grants, or by any other means. The Department had to make sure that the finances for the Bill were accounted for when it motivated for funds to National Treasury. She further emphasised the need to capacitate the local government with enough resources. The legal team needed to examine the issues around norms and standards to address all the concerns. When the Bill was enacted, they had to give the Minister a right to issue regulations to cover aspects that were not covered. Certain things could not be put into law.
Deputy Minister Sotyu said issues such as security and rangers that had been raised by Members would be helpful in the process of implementing the Forest Master Plan. She agreed that each piece of legislation must be funded. Her experience was that after the public hearings, one would discover that most of the issues raised by the communities were not budgeted for. It was only when one implemented the legislation that one would realise that the issues were under-budgeted. She would raise the funding issues with the legal team and revert back to the Committee.
Ms Linda Garlipp,Chief Director: Law Reform and Appeals, DFFE, said that the citing of the legislation would be fixed. There was also a need to bear in mind that there were consequential amendments, so they had to ensure that there was correct cross-referencing of the legislation.
She said the DFFE was not in favour of the insertion of penalties, but it would be further discussed with the state law advisor. She added that some of the new amendments were not included in the Bill. The parliamentary law advisor had alerted the Department to get permission from the National Assembly according to the National Assembly rule 286 .4(c). She promised to present the proposals on offences and penalties after the Department had consulted with the state law advisors.
She said there were provisions for the inclusion of norms and standards. “These would be new provisions that were currently not in the Bill. They would then make suggestions in that regard, and discuss them with the parliamentary and state law advisors. She said that arson had already been dealt with according to the Criminal Law Amendment Act and the Criminal Procedure Act, but there was still a strong feeling that where fires were started negligently, that should be covered in terms of the Bill. The DFFE would discuss the feasibility of arson being accommodated in the National Forest and Veld Fires Amendment Act with the parliamentary and state law advisors.
Ms Mashala said that DFFE would develop a support strategy that would look into awareness, equipment, and finance-related fire aspects. The matters mentioned would be deliberated with the DFFE’s internal governance structures to facilitate solutions and proper implementation of the Bill. DIt would facilitate accredited training to ensure that there were skilled firefighters and community members when responding to veld fires. She said that issues addressed during the public hearings were not included in the presentation, and she committed to draft the detailed issues and submit them in writing.
Ms Nodada noted the input by Ms Phillips about equipping the community. She said the DFFE would consider how it could support and augment farmers with the registration of fees related to joining FPAs, together with the DALRRD. The Department would consider the fire break guidelines as part of guideline documents to ensure that the information was shared with the stakeholders. COGTA was in the process of amending the Fire Brigade Services Act in collaboration with the DFFE, to ensure alignment with the Bill and to prevent gaps. She added that when the Bill was finalised, it would be cross-referenced with the Fire Brigade Services Act. The DFFE would discuss and require support from the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) regarding the water sources or reservoirs to stop the spread of forest and veld fires.
She noted the alignment of the FPAs services and the municipal borders, to stop realignment when borders changed. The registration of the FPAs was covered by the Bill and was also part of the DFFE’s support strategy. They already had colleagues who were responsible for the Department 's fire management, and also assisted with the facilitation of the registration and stakeholder collaboration.
COGTA would assist the DFFE in dealing with fire service delivery and stretch the resources from the district to the local municipality. It would amend and put measures in place to support municipalities regarding fire brigade services. The Bill provided for support by the Minister in terms of providing fire bridges, especially in the cross border/international spaces. The DFFE was engaging with the neighbouring countries through the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Protocol on Forestry to draft an agreement for integrated fire management across borders. South Africa had a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Lesotho that needed to be implemented. Discussions were ongoing with Botswana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
The DFFE had recognised the need to increase fire awareness and ensure that fire information was shared as widely as possible. The Act was specific regarding the terms of the National Forestry Advisory Council. DFFE had issued letters to the members of the previous board. She would follow up to ensure that the oversight was rectified.
Ms Vanessa Bendemann, Regulatory Compliance and Sector Monitoring, DFFE, said that caution must be exercised to avoid duplicating the provisions of the Act that may be contained in other pieces of legislation, which might create conflict. The DFFE would consult with the state law advisor regarding the valid and useful suggestions made by the Members. It would provide a detailed response in terms of the issues that were addressed during the public hearings.
Follow- up discussion
Mr Modise said that researchers had travelled with the Committee Members and taken notes, so the "hand picking of issue" would not be welcomed. There must be a comprehensive response to the issues that have been raised. The other provinces had cautioned them that this exercise should not be taken as a box-ticking exercise. They did not want to come across as people who took the communities' views for granted. He added that the Committee was very cautious about the interpretation of legal matters. They were raising some of the issues on their own accord, without the public hearing influence, and had also applied their own minds. He asked for a response on the issue of cigarette butts and penalties.
The Chairperson said the Committee had made assurances to the communities in the provinces that their views mattered, so they needed to make sure as the legislature that all their relevant and critical inputs were incorporated in this Bill. If they did not do that, they would be failing the people.
Ms Garlipp said that the Department would discuss the issue related to cigarette butts. She agreed that the Department needed to show that it had considered all the inputs received. The DFFE would also indicate very clearly why they agreed or disagreed with some issues, and the reasons behind the decisions. She added that the DFFE would consult with the parliamentary officials to check to what extent issues had been missed, and then address all of them. She repeated that arson was already accommodated by the Criminal Procedure Act, and they would have to consult with the state law advisor to check to what extent a penalty could be included in the Bill. The DFFE would make the recommendations on the cigarette penalty at the next Committee meeting.
The Chairperson said the DFFE could send the detailed document while the Committee Members were at the COP 17 Conference. Members would be ready to consider and adopt a consolidated report on the provincial public hearings on the National Forest and Veld Fire Amendment Bill on 22 November 2022.
Mr Bryant proposed that a meeting on 2 December with Minister Creecy on rhino management be switched to 29 November.
Mr Singh agreed with Mr Bryant, and said 2 December would be a busy day for the Members.
Ms Weber asked if there would still be an oversight visit to Knoflokskraal, site of an illegal land invasion.
Ms Phillips said the Minister had said that the Knoflokskraal issues were no longer her responsibility, even though the court judgment involved her. She thought it was the Committee's duty, because the forest had actually been destroyed. They needed to find out who had allowed it to be destroyed. The biosphere in Grabouw could also be impacted and lose its status. They should be there to ensure that the environment is protected.
Mr Modise confirmed that the resolution of the meeting was that there would be an oversight visit by the Members to Grabouw. They wanted to go and satisfy themselves, over and above what they received through reports.
The meeting was adjourned.
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