When communities come together, they make magic! They raise the roof with songs. They inspire change and excellence, and encourage each other to maximise their potential. This was epitomised during the unveiling of the Bambanani and Ukuthanda Ukukhanya Biodiversity Agreements by the chairperson of Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency (MTPA), honourable Sipho William Lubisi.
The event took place on the 18 of September 2014 at Wakkerstoom in Mpumalanga Province. The Ukhuthanda Ukukhanya and Bambanani CPAs form part of the existing 21 land reform projects under the Land Reform and Biodiversity Stewardship Programme (LRBS).The LRBS is a programme spearheaded by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) in partnership with the Department of Land Reform and Rural Development (DRDLR) and Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA).
A Biodiversity Agreement is a formalised partnership between a landowner or community and the conservation authority to improve management of specific biodiversity features or elements of the landscape. It is entered into under contract law rather than specific environmental legislation such as the Protected Areas Act, and as a result can be more flexible than other categories of biodiversity stewardship. The successful signing of these agreements is a result of a joint initiative between the Grasslands Programme led by SANBI, the World Wide Fund for Nature South Africa (WWF-SA), MTPA and the Bambanani and Ukuthanda Ukukhanya CPAs. During the unveiling ceremony, various speakers reiterated the importance of fostering such partnerships between government, landowners and civil society in delivering on biodiversity targets and government priorities.
The two CPA’s are located in a large unfragmented grassland area of Wakkerstroom and are listed in the Mpumalanga Biodiversity Sector Plan (MBSP) and the 20-year Mpumalanga Protected Areas Expansion Strategy (MPAES). These are MTPA’s two systematic biodiversity plans used to spatially prioritize areas with critical biodiversity. The CPAs are also part of a critical water catchment area for South Africa that includes the headwaters of the Pongola River and other nearby rivers. The high conservation value is ascribed to the relatively pristine state and its potential to meet conservation targets for the Wakkerstroom montane grassland type.
The two sites are part of communally owned farmland areas obtained through the land redistribution programme of the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform . The conserved sites cover a total of 1 683 hectares and mark a significant milestone for the MTPA in meeting its targets to expand the protected area network through biodiversity stewardship agreements within the province.
The lessons learnt in this joint initiative can be used to influence the national agenda on biodiversity conservation and management, by demonstrating how biodiversity really supports economic and social development and improves the well-being of marginalised communities.
Mr Philemon Mnisi, chairperson of the Bambanani CPA, remembers the effect of the learning exchange he had with the Mgundeni Trust that owns Mabaso CPA. “If we didn’t go to Mabaso, we would have not signed, because we know that iNkosi Mabaso cannot sell-out his people, he really has the love for his people, so after spending some time with him and his people, we started believing that stewardship works, and could also work for us” said Mr. Mnisi.
The chairperson, together with his counterpart from Ukuthanda Ukukhanya, Mrs. Sibongile Msibi, continued to mention the benefits derived out of this commitment. “This event is an eye opener to our community and we are still expecting more to happen. Since we agreed to work with MTPA and WWF-SA a lot has happened in our community, the benefits are countless including receiving the title deed which took us so long to obtain” says Mrs. Msibi. Benefits include provision of electricity, water, farming assistance and more, which were facilitated by the task team working with the partners.
The government is currently faced with a serious challenge of service delivery and job creation, and the conservation of biodiversity through stewardship with communities provides an alternative . This should not be seen as an enemy of progress but an ‘enabler’ that has the potential to help facilitate other government initiatives. “We are not here to keep people away from their land but to help them use it in a sustainable manner that improves their lives” said Morne du Plessis, CEO of WWF-SA. His words were also echoed by the chairperson of the MTPA who said the “opportunities now exist for communities to use their land in a sustainable manner that protects biodiversity”.
Speaking on behalf of SANBI, Kristal Maze, Chief Director for Biodiversity Information and Policy Advice, said that the achievements of the Bambanani and Ukuthanda Ukukhanya communities were an inspiration to all. She emphasised that SANBI would play a lead role in ensuring that the valuable lessons from these projects reach other communities across the country through the Land Reform and Biodiversity Stewardship Programme.