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- European Policy Office
Helping rural communities realise the value of their land and its benefits to livelihoods has always been my dream from an early age. Even though the path was not clear then, I believed it was possible.
It all began in a tiny village of Mambulwini in uMzimkhulu in KwaZulu-Natal, where I grew up. I recall seeing people buying vegetables from local shops, with the little money that they had, and I wondered why they were not growing their own in their backyards instead. I used to wish that someone could teach them how to plant so they would not need to pay for fresh veggies.
Even though I did not know how I would go about fulfilling this dream then, I have managed to make it happen. Today I work with 13 land reform communities across northern KwaZulu-Natal and southern Mpumalanga, doing exactly what I dreamt of when I was a child – and more! I do not only guide them in their farming activities, I also help them understand the benefits of sustainable land use, to both people and nature.
When I joined WWF’s land reform and biodiversity stewardship team as an intern in 2013 – young and shy, straight from university as an Agricultural Extension graduate with no experience of working with rural communities – I could have never imagined being where I am today. Especially as I didn’t even have a background in conservation or biodiversity!
But, I worked closely with my colleague Ayanda Cele who had been with WWF since 2010. He helped me build my knowledge and confidence and later enabled me to work on my own.
Fortunately, when my internship ended in 2015, I was offered a full-time job with WWF to continue to do what I love.
The community I have worked with most recently is also the latest to enter the biodiversity stewardship programme. Mkhothane is a small village of 44 households about 45 km from Newcastle in KwaZulu-Natal and less than 10 km from Volksrust in Mpumalanga.
I started working with the community trust members in 2016, reigniting the light that was started by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife many years back when their land was identified as being worthy of conservation. This made my work less challenging as the foundational knowledge of conservation was already planted in the community. But, what the community did not know was just how special their land is, and how they could benefit by just committing to using it sustainably through the biodiversity stewardship programme.
Being part of the programme opens doors for them to receive support for things such as developing a sustainable land management plan; potentially acquiring funding for wildlife and livestock care; arranging the clearing of alien vegetation; and assistance to address some of their social issues.
When Ayanda and I, together with community representatives and other provincial partners, did land and biodiversity assessments in early 2017, we discovered that the Mkhothane’s land is an important foraging ground for vulnerable species of birds such as blue, crowned and wattled cranes. It is also home to endemic plant species and it has important habitats like wetlands, rocky outcrops, indigenous forest patches and grasslands.
The community representatives, who are part of the Mkhothane Community Trust, were delighted when I presented the biodiversity stewardship programme to them in 2016, and they accepted it with open arms.
Even though it took two years to facilitate the process to sign a voluntary agreement, it was worth it! One of the things that thrilled them is the fact that their land qualified for nature reserve status, the same category as the popular Hluhluwe and Mfolozi game reserves which are both very successful tourism destinations.
It is indeed something that is worth celebrating, as it has the potential to also become a tourism destination that could potentially create job opportunities in the area.
But, as much as this is exciting, it requires a lot of commitment. For instance, access to the property and the activities allowed on the land are governed by the provincial management authority. So, to ease the load, the community opted for a protected environment which is more flexible than a nature reserve. However, it requires more commitment than a basic biodiversity agreement category.
For example, when declared as a protected environment they are allowed to keep game animals, but they are not allowed to practice large-scale mining on their property. Communities have to weigh up the pros and cons.
Every year, some tourists from England make their way to Mkhothane to visit graves of their forefathers who died during the English and British war in the 1800s. To accommodate these visitors and attract more tourists, create job opportunities and generate more income, the community plans to introduce game animals and build lodges on a portion of their property.
This is an exciting time for them, and so I have ensured that they have the support they need.
Last year (2018) I took them to Mndawe, a community that specialises in game ranching in Mpumalanga. I wanted them to learn more and understand what it takes to be a game farmer.
The Mkhothane community is focussed and determined, and they work hard for their livelihoods.
They currently generate their income in a number of ways, such as livestock farming, selling wood from the cutting down of invasive wattle trees, and also from a well-established berry farming business which they run with an external partner.
While the future looks promising for Mkhothane, there are some challenges on the horizon.
The big issue they face, apart from social challenges, is the invasion of water-thirsty and fast-growing wattle trees which have spread so much that they formed a dense forest in the area.
Even though the community is making some money from selling the cut-down wood from these trees, their invasion is a more pressing problem because they reduce the capacity of rangelands to fully support livestock and wildlife, as they crowd out local plants.
This is one of the imminent issues that we wish to help them tackle to ensure the long lasting natural health of this special place.
Seeing people using their land sustainably, and their lives improving, is a great reward for me as it is something that I have always believed in.
I enjoy everything about my job, especially knowing that I am not just contributing to bettering people’s lives but also to caring for the environment.
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