The first Protected Environment in South Africa has been declared.
On Monday 13th September the MEC of Economic Development, Environment and Tourism for Mpumalanga, Jabu Mahlangu, signed the final document officially announcing that 23 600 hectares of privately-owned farmland extending from Wakkerstroom to Luneberg in the high altitude grasslands of southern Mpumalanga is a Protected Environment. The notice of this declaration is currently being placed in the Government Gazette.
A Protected Environment is effectively one step under a National or Provincial Nature Reserve, enjoying a high level of formal protection with major conservation gains.
CRITICAL WATER CATCHMENT AREA
Called the KwaMandlangampisi Protected Environment it is a critical water catchment area for South Africa that includes the headwaters of the Pongola River and the Assegaai River, which feeds the Heyshope Dam and provides clean water for national power generation.
Ranging from 1400 metres to 2000+ metres above sea level, it spans threatened high altitude grasslands, wetlands and indigenous mistbelt forest, and is home to threatened and endemic plant, bird and animal species, including the Oribi and South Africa’s three Crane species (Wattled, Grey Crowned and Blue).
“This is the most important thing that has ever happened to conservation in this country,” says 5th generation Luneburg farmer, Horst Filter whose livestock farm lies within the Protected Environment. “The attention was always on game reserves and the Big 5 and never on critical areas like the grasslands. I think it’s very important that this whole initiative filters through to the rest of South Africa.”
WWF AND THE GREEN TRUST – A DRIVING FORCE
WWF and Nedbank’s Green Trust has been a driving force behind the protection of this region and beyond. Recognising the critical water production role of the high-altitude grasslands between KwaZulu Natal, Mpumalanga and the Free State (which provide water to the whole of Gauteng, as well as to several of South Africa’s major power stations), eight years ago WWF/The Green Trust agreed to fund a project spanning 1.6-million hectares in this region, called the Enkangala Grassland Project.
The KwaMandlangampisi Protected Environment is situated within the Enkangala Grassland Project area.
The leader of this project, Angus Burns, has been a driving force behind the creation of South Africa’s first Protected Environment, working closely and tirelessly with farmers, communities and the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency (MTPA).
SUPPORT AT A HIGH LEVEL
“What is really encouraging is that this Protected Environment has received incredible support at a high level,” says Burns. “Eighteen months ago the MTPA appointed its first Manager of Protected Area Establishment and Expansion, Brian Morris, who has played a large role in the declaration of this Protected Environment, as has Nomcebo Malatji, Manager of Biodiversity Stewardship for MTPA and Mervyn Lotter from MTPA’s Biodiversity Conservation Planning Division.”
In 2005, in consultation with MTPA and the National Grasslands Programme, the 23 600-hectare area was identified as a key ecological environment in need of formal protection because of its water production, conservation and biodiversity value.
“By securing this area for conservation, the MTPA will go a long way in meeting its targets for Protected Area expansion over the next few years,” comments Morris. “By 2014, the MTPA plans to expand the protected area network within the province, by means of stewardship agreements with private landowners, by 154 000 hectares. The declaration of KwaMandlangampisi is therefore a true milestone for the MTPA and its partners.
THE DEDICATION OF ANGUS BURNS
“It has been really encouraging working with the landowners within this Protected Environment as the work we are doing to expand protected areas can only be achieved if we have the support and enthusiasm of landowners and land beneficiaries,” adds Morris. “The dedication of WWF and in particular Angus Burns in building relationships with landowners has been crucial in getting the necessary buy-in to have the area declared.”
“The farmers in the area had long since recognised its value, and tried to protect it by establishing a conservancy,” continues Burns.
The farming community here is extremely environmentally conscious. The farmers have a deep and respectful link to the land and they have been farming sustainably with livestock for five or six generations. Sustainable livestock farming is compatible with the biodiversity conservation of the area and it is healthy for the grasslands, which need to be grazed to maintain their vigour.
Despite the farmers’ commitment to conservation and the establishment of a well-run conservancy, this did not protect the area from mining prospecting rights for intended future mining activities being granted here.
THE NEED TO CAREFULLY MANAGE OUR WATER
“The need to carefully manage our water and water production areas in South Africa is self-evident, yet coal-prospecting rights were granted on farms in the most water sensitive areas between Wakkerstroom and Luneburg, which include the headwaters of several river catchments,” Burns explains.
The farmers, together with WWF, BirdLife South Africa and the Botanical Society, lodged two high court applications to have the prospecting rights set aside. The mining company ultimately abandoned its rights and it recently concluded settlement negotiations with the affected parties.
It was a victory for conservation but this example of conflicting land use threats emphasized the vulnerability of this region and the need to declare it a Protected Environment.
A FANTASTIC MOTIVATION
“Brian Morris and Mervyn Lotter from MTPA put together a fantastic motivation to the MEC, and together with WWF and the South African National Biodiversity Institute’s grassland programme, developed a comprehensive management plan through consultation with all the landowners as per the requirements of the Act governing Protected Areas,” says Burns.
It was given the name KwaMandlangampisi Protected Environment after a local mountain named by the Zulu people.
In addition to the water production and conservation benefits, substantial provincial conservation targets for vegetation types are met through its proclamation, including 44.9% of the provincial target for Northern KZN Mistbelt Forest, 16% of Paulpietersburg Moist Grassland and 26.9% of Wakkerstroom Montane Grassland.
Apart from protecting the environment, the declaration protects rangeland farming according to sound environmental principles.
FARMERS FIRMLY BEHIND THE DECLARATION
“The farmers are firmly behind the declaration that will ultimately result in the protection and better management of their land in the long-term,” says Burns.
Through the Protected Environment declaration the landowners in this area will also benefit from a range of incentives – such as tax rebates and rates exemptions in some instances, as well as extension support, including assistance with invasive weed control and support from Working for Wetlands.
It is the achievement of a dream that conservation-minded farmers like Horst Filter have entertained for decades. “Horst has an intimate and incredible knowledge of the unique biodiversity of the area,” says Burns. “You can ask him for the location of a particular ground orchid species or any other endemic plant and he will take you right there.”
CONSERVATION IN THEIR VEINS
Conservation runs deep in the veins of all the families in this area – the Van Wyks, Klingenbergs, Schüttes, the list goes on.
“Working towards this Protected Environment has been a true partnership between many different collaborators and we are all really excited that so many years of hard work have paid off. The precedent for Protected Environments has been established and it can only get better from here.”