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Healthy land, happy people
In early March when the grasslands are alive and vibrantly lush, my WWF colleagues and I went on a road trip to visit some of the land reform communities they work with in the conservation priority areas in Amajuba district, northern KwaZulu-Natal. I was amazed by the dedication that people living in these remote areas have in caring for the environment, despite the many societal challenges that they face every day.
The rural communities we visited – Mgundeni, Thekwane and Charlestown – are three of the 13 special communities that WWF works with. These communities have voluntarily committed to conserving part of their land by signing agreements in the biodiversity stewardship programme. Others include Ndlamlenze, Mkhothane and Babanango in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN); and Bambanani and Ukuthanda Ukukhanya in Mpumalanga.
Like many rural communities in South Africa, the people living in these remote areas struggle for work and have limited opportunities for generating income, compounded by a lack of basic services and low financial support. As a result, they mostly rely on the land to make a living.
Working hand in hand with communities
As we travelled along rural yet picturesque dirt roads, I asked lots of ‘newby’ questions to get a better understanding of our role in this area. I found out that WWF doesn’t work alone, but partners with the provincial conservation authorities, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency, as well as other stakeholders including the community leadership committees.
Once a biodiversity stewardship agreement is signed for communally owned land, we equip the community landowners with the necessary skills to benefit the people and their land.
These committed communities retain their land rights while receiving advice on land management best practice as well as potential support for setting up commercial enterprises or being connected to funding partners. WWF works with the communities’ basic needs and bold aspirations in mind.
My colleague Ayanda Cele, who was with us on the trip, says each community has progressed immensely over the years because of the support that they have received from WWF.
Putting food on the table
Some of these communities are primarily cattle farmers, namely Mgundeni, Bambanani and Ukuthanda Ukukhanya. If you know a bit about cattle farming, as I do from my uncle, you may agree that it is not child’s play. It requires a lot of dedication and care for both the livestock and the land on which they graze. You cannot have degraded land and hope to have healthy grass and healthy livestock.
Through WWF’s stewardship support some of these farmers have received training on various aspects of cattle farming, as well as assistance in accessing monetary support to implement associated initiatives. This has included creating a camp system for rotational grazing, vaccination and nutritional supplementation for livestock and most recently funding for upgraded fire equipment.
When these initiatives succeed, they also provide an example for others.
For instance, the Ndlamlenze community – who live near to the source of the Pongola River in KZN – signed their biodiversity agreement in 2014 under the leadership of iNkosi Nzima. From this community of 1 300 people, a few members went on a learning exchange to the Mgundeni community in 2013. iNkosi Mabaso and his farmers shared their lessons and experiences in sustainable cattle farming and how they went from subsistence to semi-commercial farming.
I was inspired to see the quality of the grass, and the size and number of the Mgundeni community’s livestock!
Cattle farming is only one of the many ways that communities make a living in these areas, as I discovered on the next stop of our rural road trip. We visited the Thekwane community, home to 855 people and led by the inspirational iNkosi Shabalala, one of the few women in traditional leadership roles.
This community has vegetable tunnels where they plant and grow various crispy vegetables, like cabbages, carrots and potatoes. These fresh veggies provide nutritious food for the residents. What’s left over is sold and the profits are shared among the community. This is but one of their many plans to improve life for all in their community.
I can’t imagine the amount of work that goes into this, as well as ensuring that every community member gets a fair share. I have huge respect for their traditional leader, iNkosi Shabalala, whom I was fortunate to meet during our visit. This is a huge undertaking, and credit for it goes to iNkosi Shabalala who ensures that every community gets their fair share.
Making life better
Something that reminded me of my childhood at Thekwane was seeing how the women carried 20 litre buckets of water balanced on their heads. Not far from us we could see the Zaaihoek Dam, yet the women in the community have to collect heavy loads of water three to five times a day and walk it back to their homes.
Despite many of these land reform beneficiaries living close to wetlands and rivers that form part of South Africa’s strategic water source areas, many still do not have access to clean water on tap. They rely on municipal trucks or have to fetch water from rivers and springs. Some of them do not have electricity either. Access to these basic services could change their lives.
With WWF’s support where possible, communities are met half way to address some of these critical challenges. A few years back, WWF partnered with Nedbank and facilitated funding to donate ‘hippo rollers’ to each of the 123 households in Ndlamlenze community. These innovative barrels carry 90 litres of water at a go and can be pushed or pulled to transport water from the river to their homes.
They also received solar lamps for charging cell phones and lighting their homes, which proved to be critically important to high school learners when studying at night.
The rampant spread of invasive alien vegetation is one of the big environmental challenges in South Africa. These invasives suck up more water than indigenous trees, placing even more pressure on our stress water resources. Therefore, one of the things that WWF facilitates in these communities under the biodiversity agreements is to prioritise alien clearing. While this is helpful for the environment, it also creates much-needed job opportunities for locals – addressing another societal issue.
Dreams for a brighter future
The last stop on our road trip – and the latest community to join the biodiversity stewardship programme – is Charlestown. This small community consists of only 44 households, but they have big dreams for their property and its sustainable future. They wish to expand their existing berry farming initiative as well as building game lodges in the future to attract tourists to this beautiful part of the country.
Charlestown is home to some important bird species, such as the attractive crowned crane, wattled crane and our national bird, the blue crane. It also has a number of wetlands, rocky outcrops and small forest patches with a few endemic plant species.
My trip to Mgundeni, Thekwane, and Charlestown was a true inspiration of how people live in harmony with nature. I left there with great hope knowing that there are people who are dedicated to looking after the environment, despite the challenges that they face in their everyday lives.
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