Photo Credit: Birdlife SA

South Africa is introducing a new, additional mechanism to grow its biodiversity conservation footprint in order to achieve its international commitment as a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) by 2030.

This is not a “nice to have”. Biodiversity and ecosystem services are being lost at a dangerous rate. Their conservation worldwide has become critical, not only for economic, environmental, and social sustainability but for the survival of life on Earth. Ecosystem services include a sustainable freshwater and oxygen supply, clean air, food pollinators, healthy soil, healthy oceans and all the basic services that make life on earth possible.

The CBD commitment secured in 2011 through an ambitious set of global goals aimed at protecting and conserving global biodiversity, called the Aichi Targets, requires the conservation of at least 17% of the land area and inland water sources, and 10% of coastal and marine areas in South Africa’s “conservation estate”. This is an inclusive term referring to all conservation areas including Protected Areas (PAs) and “other effective area-based conservation measures” known as OECMs.

OECMs are recognised internationally as an important mechanism to grow biodiversity stewardship (biodiversity conservation agreements with private or communal landowners, led by conservation authorities) and expand the conservation estate outside the boundaries of traditional protected areas. The OECM is an area that is managed in ways that achieve positive, sustained biodiversity and ecosystem conservation but that does not require the formal legislation of Protected Areas (PAs) which fall under the National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act.

OECMs can include a wide range of landscapes and waterscapes, such as farms, national botanical gardens, military land, indigenous forests, heritage sites, marine environments, and estuaries. OECMs contribute significantly to biodiversity conservation, which helps address critical issues such as climate change and biodiversity loss. OECMs are suited to multi-use landscapes, for example, a farm where most of the land is used for agriculture, but a part of it is identified as having important biodiversity value, and it is then this part that is assessed according to the OECM criteria which include ensuring the long-term sustainability of its conservation value. Some landowners are nervous about formal environmental legislation to secure the biodiversity on their properties but are committed to conservation and would like to receive recognition for what they are doing.

The WWF Nedbank Green Trust is funding a two-year OECM pilot project in the Western Cape, coordinated by Whitecross and other BirdLife South Africa team members. The project began mid- 2021 and is currently working with the Western Cape’s provincial conservation agency, CapeNature, and conservation organisations such as WWF SA and Conservation Outcomes to identify and then assess existing potential OECMs in the province.

BirdLife South Africa’s OECM implementation team is currently working with more than 20 potential OECM sites in the Western Cape, including Nuwejaars Wetlands Special Management Area near Cape Agulhas, Boschendal Wine Estate in Franschhoek, and the Karoo Desert National Botanical Garden in Worcester.

OECM review committee meetings are held with CapeNature, biodiversity specialists and other conservation organisations where recommendations for sites as OECMs are presented. Nuwejaars, Boschendal, two military sites and the Karoo National Botanical Garden have all been recommended as OECMs.

The Western Cape’s first recommended OECM is the Nuwejaars Wetland Special Management Area (NWSMA), a voluntary landowners’ association (LoA) of 25 farmers (mostly grain and livestock, but also wine farms) and the town of Elim, spanning an area of 47 000 ha in extent in the Agulhas Plain bordering the Agulhas National Park.

The extensive Nuwejaars wetland in this area had heavily degraded over time, and in 2001 the landowners met and took a group decision to work together to rehabilitate the wetland, protect their water systems and biodiversity, which includes highly threatened fynbos and renosterveld. The region is a biodiversity hotspot for fynbos, with 1850 plant species found here, at least 315 of which are of special conservation concern or endemic. The region is also home to many threatened bird species and is included in BirdLife South Africa’s Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas/Key Biodiversity Areas.

The NWSMA participates in an alien invasive plant species clearing and restoration programme, supports extensive biodiversity monitoring and research, and they do a great deal of conservation education and awareness-raising. All the landowners have signed restrictions against their title deeds in perpetuity, to live and farm according to agreed conservation principles.

Boschendal Wine Estate is a WWF Conservation Champion, thanks to its biodiversity and water stewardship programmes, and has recently been recommended for OECM status. Conservation Champions commit to biodiversity-friendly and regenerative farming practices, conserve their natural areas and continually improve their energy and water efficiencies such as with water- conserving irrigation systems. Their efforts are internationally recognised through the Integrated Production of Wine (IPW) Scheme, with the IPW sticker on their bottles.

Boschendal has set aside 1024ha of natural environment on the estate and has cleared more than 500 hectares of alien vegetation – including acacias, hakeas and pines. This has had a significant and positive impact on the river flow, securing a constant water supply.

Also recommended is the 154ha Karoo Desert National Botanical Garden in Worcester, which has a wide variety of indigenous arid and semi-arid plants. It is situated at the foot of the Hex River Mountain range, 120 km north of Cape Town.

At the same time as OECMs are being piloted in the Western Cape, BirdLife South Africa is partnering with the national Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment (DFFE) and the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) to work out how best to support the integration of OECMs into biodiversity stewardship, and South Africa’s conservation estate.

Key questions remain as to how each province will integrate OECMs into provincial operational frameworks, and what additional resources and capacity will be required by provinces to identify, assess, and report on their OECMs, so as not to divert decreasing resources away from Protected Area commitments, which are not being met in several provinces. This is a key aspect the WWF Nedbank Green Trust- funded OECM project is looking to explore and quantify.

There is a legitimate concern that the provincial biodiversity stewardship programmes are already under-resourced and not meeting their commitments. BirdLife South Africa has therefore made itself available to work with provincial stakeholders to quantify the capacity and resource requirements, and provide skills development, to support OECM assessments and reporting. A number of training sessions with CapeNature, other stewardship practitioners, as well as landowners, and managers of botanical gardens and military land have been completed. OECMs will hopefully support stakeholders across all sectors to work together to safeguard South Africa’s biodiversity rich areas in a long-term and sustainable manner.

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