Hailed as the most important thing to happen to conservation and a first for South Africa, 3 600ha of privately-owned farmland Mpumalanga was declared a Protected Environment this week.
Extending from Wakkerstroom to Luneberg, the KwaMandlangampisi Protected Environment – named after a local mountain – encompasses high altitude grasslands, wetlands and indigenous mist-belt forests and is home to threatened and endemic plant, bird and animal species, including the rare Oribi and South Africa’s three Crane species.
It is also forms a critical water catchment area that includes the headwaters of the Pongola and Assegai River that feeds the Heyshope Dam and provides clean water for national power generation.
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.
Mpumulanga Economic Development, Environment and Tourism MEC Jabu Mahlangu signed the final documents on Monday (subs: Sept 13), with the notice of this declaration currently being placed in the Government Gazette.
“This is the most important thing that has ever happened to conservation in this country,” said fifth generation Luneburg farmer, Horst Filter, whose livestock farm lies within the Protected Environment.
“The attention was always on game reserves and the Big Five 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.”
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Nedbank’s Green Trust have been a major force behind the initiative as part of their eight-year drive to recognize the critical water production role of high-altitude grasslands between KwaZulu Natal, Mpumalanga and the Free State which provide water to Gauteng and major power stations.
The leader of the WWF/Nedbank Green Trust project, Angus Burns, has played a large role in the project, working closely with farmers, communities and the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency (MTPA).
“What is really encouraging is that this Protected Environment has received incredible support at a high level,” says Burns.
MTPA Manager of Protected Area Establishment and Expansion, Brian Morris, said there were plans to expand the Protected Area networks.
“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,” said Morris.
He said the “support and enthusiasm” of landowners and land beneficiaries was encouraging.
“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.”
He said the farming community in the area were very environmentally conscious and had 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.
However, he warned that despite the commitment to conservation this did not protect the area from mining prospecting rights for intended future mining activities being granted.
“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,” he said.
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.
But he said with the farmers “firmly behind the declaration” there would be protection and better management of the land over the long term.
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.
“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,” said Burns. – Heather Dugmore, West Cape News