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Meet the guardians of the grasslands

Driving along dirt roads in the north-western corner of KwaZulu-Natal, we are greeted with amazing views as we ascended a pass that leads to the beautiful high-altitude grasslands.

© WWF South Africa Angus Burn
These stunning mountainous grasslands are home to many bird species as well as South Africa’s strategic water source areas.

After a 50km journey from Newcastle towards the town of Utrecht and then another 60km beyond, we arrive at the rural Mgundeni community. In this remote and biodiversity-rich landscape, Mgundeni owns a total of 1 472 hectares that they successfully claimed in 1999. The community and its traditional leadership have a long and highly positive association with WWF. When we meet, instead of the traditional formalities, there is a warmth between us that is only built up by trust and developed over many years.

WWF goes way back with Mgundeni

Mgundeni’s traditional leader, iNkosi Mabaso, signed a communal biodiversity stewardship agreement in 2009. Mgundeni committed to conserve 124 hectares  co-creating a management plan with Ezemvelo KZNWildlife (the provincial authority) and recently expanded the area to a Protected Environment for a substantial portion of their land (455 hectares). This is part of the general approach and willingness to conserve biodiversity that has contributed to the remarkable success story behind this community’s land reform and biodiversity stewardship work over the past decade, in partnership with WWF South Africa and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife.

The iNkosi and his 300-strong community approached Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife in 1999, wanting to protect their natural land from unsustainable activities. By 2003, WWF was engaged to work with the community and introduce plans for biodiversity stewardship and social upliftment. This was the first time we’d done anything like this. It was an exciting conservation approach, of working closely with the people who know the land best and who want it to remain healthy for generations to come. 

© WWF South Africa Angus Burn
Some of the projects WWF has helped to set up include fencing and developing grazing plans, amongst others.
Community conservation is the future

Taking an approach that moves from pure conservation to helping communities with addressing social development has started to change the way communities and government departments view conservation.

The Mgundeni community has become an inspiration of what is possible when biodiversity stewardship and visionary leadership combine. One of the strongest points contributing to their success was the establishment of an advisory forum consisting of community members, NGOs and government departments who meet monthly to discuss community needs and aspirations.

As the Mgundeni community is largely reliant on cattle farming for their livelihoods, WWF has supported them with the implementation of a sustainable cattle farming initiative, developing grazing plans and training in bull and pregnancy testing as well as accessing grant funding to introduce vaccination initiatives and supplementary nutritional requirements. Other capacity building initiatives include invasive weed control and fire training.

© WWF South Africa Angus Burn
The Mgundeni signed a voluntary biodiversity stewardship agreement in 2009 to commit 124 hectares, and have since upgraded this to a protected environment of 455 hectares.

Whilst farming responsibly and protecting biodiversity, Mgundeni have successfully transitioned from subsistence to semi-commercial cattle farming – selling 150 cattle for the first time at an auction in 2018.

A stellar example of sustainable use

I love listening to iNkosi Mabaso talk about how the cattle farming project has made his community hungry to succeed, as well as being an eye opener to the value in protecting and maximising the potential of their land.

This community is an excellent example of how the natural environment, sustainable use, partnerships and good leadership can result in a wonderful outcome for nature and all involved.

And recently, in late 2018, the Mgundeni community signed more of their land – now a total of 455 hectares – into a formal protected environment declaration agreement. This will go even further towards keeping their land secure and well managed for future generations.

© WWF South Africa Angus Burn
High-lying mountainous grasslands are the origin of many rivers which supply water to cities, farms and industries downstream.
Meanwhile in Thekwane…

Driving another 60kms north east from the Mgundeni community across more lush rolling grasslands, we cross many rivers and wetlands to arrive at the community of Thekwane. Seeing clean free flowing rivers along the way is a reminder of the importance of these water-generating  landscapes that are critical for our country’s water security. 

This next stop is to visit one of WWF’s more recent land reform and biodiversity stewardship communities: Thekwane. This community is unique as it is headed by a female iNkosi, a shining example of women empowerment in the context of traditional leadership. 

© WWF South Africa Angus Burn
The Thekwane community is under the leadership of iNkosi Shabalala (front).

WWF first started engaging this community in 2014 when we introduced the concept of biodiversity stewardship, and soon after co-ordinated a learning exchange to the Mgundeni community.

With 755 people living on the land that they successfully claimed in 2002, the Thekwane community owns a total of 875 hectares in this biodiverse part of the grasslands. Last year, they signed a biodiversity agreement with Ezemvelo KZNWildlife – facilitated by WWF – for the inclusion of more than half of the land they own.

© WWF South Africa Angus Burn
Located in the rural grasslands of northern KwaZulu-Natal, the Thekwane community is home to over 700 people.

Their property provides good habitat for different animal species as well as various endemic plants. These grasslands also contain healthy wetlands and a few expanses of invasive species such as blue gums which are mostly nearer to their homesteads.

The Thekwane community has a vision of conserving the biological diversity on their property and to pursue sustainable farming, production of nutritious food and cultivation of indigenous medicinal plants and trees.

They also envision developing a grass harvesting businesses for improved livelihoods and they want to implement sustainable veld management with correct burning regimes and alien plant control.

They have already implemented a number of projects including vegetable tunnels as a way of making an income, as they receive no external financial support. They sell whatever they cultivate and then share the profit to purchase additional seedlings and manure. They plan to expand this basic business model if additional funds become available. 

It’s not always easy living off the land

As part of Thekwane’s biodiversity agreement, veld condition assessments were done and grazing camps developed. But as there is no proper fencing, it will not be easy to implement the grazing plans although we’re still exploring solutions to address this.

Thekwane is also close to the Zaaihoek Dam which supplies water to Majuba power station – the country’s second largest coal-fired plant. Yet, despite being so close to a dam, the community’s basic water needs are not met. For use in their homes, irrigation and for their livestock, they rely on a few small springs and water trucks to supply water, or they have to carry their water in buckets.

© WWF South Africa Angus Burn
Despite being close to the Zaaihoek Dam, residents have to fetch water with buckets.

Even with the challenges facing the people of Thekwane, the visionary iNkosi Shabalala knows the value of the biodiversity stewardship programme. Together with WWF and partners, this relationship will develop and grow in a mutually beneficial direction – hopefully to be a Mgundeni-style success story in years to come.

As we’ve worked with these willing land reform communities living in some of South Africa’s most valuable biodiversity abundant landscapes, we’ve seen how most of these rural emerging farmers are not supported. We’ve realised that people are given farms without any training on how to maximise their land.

We have learnt to employ a holistic approach that helps to build trust and address other community challenges where possible. We’ve proven that conservation objectives are best when contributing to community development such as job creation and food security.

We pack up and head back to the office but we’ll be back again. Working with communities is an ongoing process, one which we’re committed to in the long term for the benefit of people and nature because we know what’s possible when we employ a holistic approach that helps to build trust with communities while addressing their challenges and focusing on our shared responsibility to the environment.

Angus Burns Photo
Angus Burns, Senior Manager: Land & Biodiversity Stewardship Programme

Angus is a passionate environmentalist who believes people can be key enablers for positive change.


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