The recent high court decision on an application to remove ten milkwood trees from a property in the case of Nanaga Property Trust v Director-General of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and others ((4689/2014)  ZAECGHC 18 (16 February 2016)), is legally unremarkable yet at the same time highly informative.
The case is unremarkable in the way that court applied the principles of the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act No 3 of 2000 (PAJA) when setting aside a decision taken by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) to refuse an application to remove trees because the decision maker lacked the required authority.
The court, however, went a bit further in its judgement, and Hartle J took the opportunity to express an opinion on how the National Forests Act, No 84 of 1998 (National Forests Act) should be interpreted and applied in the future by DAFF. This was only an opinion (an obiter dictum) and is not binding on the department or on any court in the future, but the opinion could still be useful when assessing similar situations that could arise in the future.
The Nanaga Property Trust (trust) owned property at Kempton on Sea that was zoned for single residential use. The trust wanted to develop the property further and extend the modest residence that was situated on the property.
The trust submitted building plans to the local municipality, which approved the plans subject to the trust complying with the applicable provisions of the National Forests Act, expressed as follows:
[P]lease note, the National Forests Act (NFA) / Environmental Conservation Act (ECA) applies – it is up to each property owner to ensure that they familiarise themselves and comply with the provisions of the act prior to the clearing of any indigenous vegetation / tress (milkwoods etc.) The necessary permits can be obtained by filing in an application form at our Department … “.
The trust, assisted by its architect, contacted DAFF and was assisted by Ms Layini, a forester, who sent them what was believed to be the correct application form. The application form that was submitted by the trust was, however, incorrect because it was an application for a licence involving trees in a natural forest in terms of section 7 of the National Forests Act, and not the required application for a licence involving protected trees in terms of section 15.
A site inspection of the property was conducted by DAFF, and afterwards the application was refused. The refusal was conveyed through a letter received from Ms Layini. The reason given for the refusal was that:
… [e]xtending the building in any manner that will destroy natural forest cannot be allowed. … Section 3(3) of the National Forest Act states that natural forests must not be destroyed saved (sic) in exceptional circumstances, where, in the opinion of the Minister, a new land use is preferable in terms of its economic, social and environmental benefits. … [E]xceptional circumstances referred to in Section 3 are limited to development of national and provincial strategic importance, which excludes residential development”.Paragraph 13.
Eight months after the trust addressed a letter of complaint to Ms Layini at DAFF asking for the full record of her decision, the trust launched an application in terms of section 6 of PAJA to review and set aside DAFF’s decision to refuse the application.
The Court’s Decision to Set Aside the Department’s Refusal to Grant a Licence
The National Forests Act gives the minister the power to grant the licences needed in terms of section 7 or section 15 (section 7(1)(b)(i) and 15(1)(b)(i) respectively), but the act also gives the minister wide powers to delegate this power to a named official in the department, the holder of an office in the department, an organ of state, or any person who or which is not an organ of state (section 48(1)).
The questions that the court had to determine were:
who made the decision; and
was the person who made the decision, whether premised on section 7 or 15 of the National Forests Act, authorised to make the decision by the act itself or any applicable delegation.
DAFF’s answering affidavit in the case was deposed to by Ms Dzivhani, the Deputy Director General for Forestry Regulation and Oversight. Ms Dzivhani did not, however, clarify which official with the delegated authority was expected to consider the trusts application for a licence (paragraph 35 and 38). Later during the proceedings it was alleged that the decision on the trusts application was taken by Ms Sqwabe, the Deputy Director: Forestry Regulation and Support at the regional office (paragraph 30).
The court stated that it was a question of fact whether the decision to refuse the trusts application for a licence was taken by Ms Layini who was the forester that the trust was corresponding with and who had sent the rejection letter, or Ms Sqwabe who was a Deputy Director at the regional office (paragraph 30).
It was alleged by DAFF that the decision was taken by Ms Sqwabe who then instructed Ms Layini to convey the decision, and that Ms Layini was merely acted as a conduit for communication with the trust (paragraph 30 and 44)
The court looked at the facts surrounding the decision that was taken, including that:
Ms Sqwabe was only identified as the decision maker once the authority of Ms Layini, the forester, was challenged (paragraph 45 and 49);
Ms Sqwabe did not state what day she made her decision (paragraph 46);
Ms Sqwabe did not visit the property and did not explain how she could have reached the decision (paragraph 47); and
Ms Sqwabe did not state what input she received when making her decision, and what documentation or submissions she relied on (paragraph 47).
When considering the allegations the court found that the decision not to grant the licence application was, in fact, made by Ms Layini (paragraph 49 and 51).
The next question to be determined by the court was whether Ms Layini, the decision maker, was authorised to make the decision to grant or refuse the trusts application.
By considering the act and the written delegations of the minister’s powers, the court found that Ms Layini, a forester, was not authorised in terms of the National Forest Act or any applicable delegation to make the decision (paragraph 51). This lack of authority was also conceded by DAFF during the proceedings (paragraph 30).
It was this lack of authority by Ms Layini that lead to the court deciding to set aside DAFF’s decision to refuse the trusts application for a licence to remove the ten milkwood trees.
When setting aside DAFF’s decision the court declined to substitute its own decision for that of DAFF, leaving it up to the trust to submit a new application, and for DAFF to consider this new application afresh.
The court’s opinion on the proper application of the National Forests Act
After setting aside DAFF’s decision the court expressed an opinion on some of the other arguments that the parties presented in the hope of avoiding litigation between the parties in the future (paragraph 53).
The trust had alleged that its application to remove the ten milkwood trees was misconstrued by DAFF, and that is application was:
treated as a request for permission for destruction of a forest (paragraph 73);
equated to an application for the change of land use (paragraph 74); and
viewed as an application for permission to build (paragraph 75).
When rejecting the trusts application DAFF relied on section 3(3) of the National Forests Act, stating that “natural forests must not be destroyed saved (sic) in exceptional circumstances … which excludes residential development” (paragraph 13).
The court, however, held that the application was not an application for either the destruction of a forest, the change of land use or for permission to build (paragraph 73, 74 and 75), but that all DAFF had to decide was whether it was permissible for the trust to remove the trees when taking into account the acts founding principles (paragraph 76).
The court highlighted that the National Forest Act does not have an absolute prohibition of the removal of trees, and the removal of trees in a forest is permitted in terms of the act (paragraph 83).
The court stated that because DAFF misconstrued the application as the trust alleged, it failed to apply the founding principles in a balanced way (paragraph 81 and 83).
The court then went on to consider what the position would have been if the trusts application would have resulted in the destruction of a forest. The court stated that even in this situation the minister would still have to consider the application, considering whether the change is preferable in terms of its economic, social and environmental benefits as required in terms of section 3(3) of the National Forests Act (paragraph 84).
The court stated that the principles laid out by the Constitutional Court in the decision of Fuel Retailers Association of South Africa v General-Director Environmental Management, Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Environment, Mpumalanga Province and others (2007 (6) SA 4 (CC)) would be applicable when DAFF considers an application that falls in the ambit of section 3 of the National Forests Act (paragraph 84). This includes the principle that:
“sustainable development” does not mean the end of socio-economic development, but only regulates the methods used when development takes place;
people and their needs must be placed at the forefront of environmental management;
that the social, economic and environmental impact of a development must be considered, assessed and evaluated, and a decision must be in light of this assessment and consideration; and
a decision must take into account the interests, needs and values of all interested and affected parties (paragraph 86).
By considering the provisions of section 3 of the National Forest Act against the principles laid out by the Constitutional Court, the court laid out 11 factors that may be relevant for DAFF to apply when considering an application that falls under section 3:
the nature and degree of vulnerability of the forest type;
the forests purpose and place in the grand scheme of things, namely does the forest serve an important function or provide an important habitat that contributes to biodiversity;
the constitutional imperative to protect the environment generally;
the objects of the National Forest Act as they are relevant to the particular forest and set of facts being considered;
the fact that the National Forest Act does make provision for permits to be granted to remove protected trees;
the vested development rights that the land owner has in its property;
the fact that the plans for the extension of the property was validly approved by the municipality;
the actual and projected effect of the removal of the trees;
the owners right not be deprived of the use of his property;
the social, economic and environmental impact if the permit is granted; and
the social, economic and environmental impact if the permit is refused (paragraph 87).
The court stated that from the court papers filed by DAFF it was apparent that there was no consideration, assessment or evaluation of the social, economic and environmental impact of the particular application.
The final decision of the court to set aside the refusal of DAFF to grant the trusts application did not hinge on the departments failure to consider the application properly. From the court’s judgement it is, however, clear that Hartle J held the opinion that each application must be considered, assessed and evaluated against the applicable constitutional principles, and the failure to do so could be fatal to a decision taken by DAFF.