Xolobeni's stunning waterfalls, rolling hills of light-gold grass, crystal-clear rivers, and palm forests are home to fish, monkeys, and snakes. The beautiful landscapes of the Wild Coast attract tourists from far and wide.
The coastal region is home to 200 endemic species, called the Pondoland Centre of Endemism. It's one of 34 biodiversity hotspots in the world.
A project by Transworld Energy and Resources, subsidiary of Australian mining company Mineral Commodities Limited, to mine the sands along 22 km of the Xolobeni coast, in a Marine Protected Area, is fiercely resisted by those who think the future of the area lies in eco-tourism.
SANRAL's Wild Coast N2 Toll Road project, which will cut through the coastal area, is also being resisted by some community members who belong to the Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC). They argue that the road will pollute the area and disturb their way of life.
Our three-part series on Xolobeni on the Wild Coast
But not all residents of the region oppose the road. A few expressed their support for it, but did not want to do so on the record, for fear of being intimidated.
And although the ACC opposes the road, some of their members also told us that although they oppose the mine, they will support the road as long as it is developed in a way that benefits the community and respects customary law.
The prospect of better access roads to and from main centres is enticing to those who are in need of job opportunities and markets to sell their produce. As part of the Toll Road development, SANRAL will be building various community access roads in Amadiba.
SANRAL says the Toll Road will also benefit eco-tourism, providing easier access to an area that can currently only be reached with a high-rise vehicle.
For those living along the coast, a small but promising economy has developed.
Local tour-guides are trained by local tourism initiatives, many funded by international organisations, in the area's botany and history. Visitors can stay at one of the rustic lodges, which employ local cooking and maintenance staff, in a traditional rondavel. The matriarchs of these homesteads, referred to as "magic mamas", charge between R150 and R300 a night and feed the guests from their own gardens.
A key figure in Xolobeni's eco-tourism scene is environmental activist Sinegugu Zukulu. Born and bred in Xolobeni, Zukulu holds a master's degree in environmental management from the University of Stellenbosch. He has committed his life to the development of his community.
Zukulu has been working for several different organisations on a variety of projects, from eco-tourism and biodiversity training to education and farmer training. He is passionate about unlocking economic opportunities for Xolobeni residents through sustainable agriculture and eco-tourism.
"Agriculture and eco-tourism are the industries of choice," Zukulu tells a group of hikers on the red titanium-bearing sand dunes that would be obliterated by the mine, often referred to as "red deserts". He gives them the run-down on the archaeological significance of the area, explaining how the coastline has evolved over millions of years.
Human settlements survived in this area over thousands of years despite flooding and climate change, he says.
Zukulu shows the tourists some of the stone-age tools that lie scattered across the red desert. "This is part of what the mine will destroy," he says.
While both Zukulu and the ACC oppose the mine and the N2 Toll Road they say they are not anti-development. They would welcome the development of eco-tourism initiatives that benefit the community, opportunities to sell their produce and improve their farming, and infrastructure that increases access for tourists and investors, such as access roads.
Nonhle Mbuthuma, spokesperson for the ACC, says that they are fighting a "propaganda war", in which they are being painted as anti-development. "We are not anti-development, we are anti-extractivism," Mbuthuma says.
Mbuthuma and Zukulu are both affiliated with Sustaining the Wild Coast, a donor-funded organization that develops eco-tourism and agriculture in the area. This organisation has also played a pivotal role in advocacy and education on the mining issue.
Zukulu says that because of these community projects, the local and provincial governments are starting to show interest in sustainable development. But he says more investment is needed for the local industries to reach their full potential.
But tourism as an industry could also pose some challenges, to the natural environment and to the way of life. The rocks at Mtentu are popular with tourist fishermen. GroundUp saw several driving illegally on the dunes, which has been banned by the Department of Environmental Affairs for causing erosion. Some employed local residents, who would sit in the back of the bakkie while the white fishermen visited Mtentu Lodge for a round of beers.
There is also increased interest in holiday homes. Private land ownership could threaten customary land use by the communities. When the Wild Coast Sun casino, for example, was built during apartheid in the then-Transkei because casinos were illegal in South Africa, many homesteads were moved and the natural environment was turned into a golf course.
There are also fears that the proposed development of a five-star eco-resort in the Mkambati Nature Reserve, across the river from Mtentu Lodge, will close off access to the reserve, including the waterfalls, to those not staying at the new lodge.
Zukulu says that big developments such as the mine and road will increase the market value of customary land, attracting private investments that do not benefit the local communities.
The land around the Wild Coast Sun comes at a cost 200 times higher than land in Mtentu, although it is still customary land administered by the same traditional leadership, Zukulu says.
Private land ownership could threaten the vast fields used by communities for cattle grazing, says Zukulu. He is therefore working with SANRAL on their Biodiversity Offset programme, which he hopes will help protect the grazing areas as well as the rich biodiversity in the area.
SANRAL's regional manager for the Southern Region, Mbulelo Peterson, says that the Biodiversity Offset programme will include a 20km stretch along the eastern bank of the Mtentu gorge. A community nature reserve is planned as part of the project. Further protected areas could include the Mnyameni Gorge and the coastline areas.
Mbuthuma says the local community should be supported in developing sustainable agriculture and eco-tourism projects to tackle unemployment and food insecurity. The national government, she says, must think long-term, and not short-term.
"Short-term thinking kills our society," she says.
This is the third and last in our series on Xolobeni, where members of a small community have been battling for years against a road project and a mine project.