Protecting the magnificent grasslands and Strategic Water Source Areas for South Africa

Photo Credit: Angus Burns

No rest until the dream is fulfilled

‘My dream is to see the magnificent grasslands of the Eastern Cape Drakensberg and Southern Drakensberg protected through strong partnerships and formal protected-area expansion mechanisms – and I will not rest until it is fulfilled.’ – Thembanani Nsibande, WWF’s Grasslands Programme Manager.

The region includes the upper catchment of two of South Africa’s Strategic Water Source Areas (SWSAs) and is a critical biodiversity area and agricultural production landscape, close to the Lesotho border at over 2500m. Communal and commercial farmers graze their sheep and cattle in these remote mountains around Lady Grey, Barkly East, Rhodes, Naudé’s Neck Pass, Elliot (Khowa), Ugie, Maclear (Nqanqarhu), Mount Fletcher (Tlokoeng), and Matatiele.

‘The 1st initiative is where the proposed 30 000 ha Grasslands National Park, the 1 st  of its kind in South Africa, is being established as a collaboration between SANParks, WWF and other partners from the national level to the local,’ says Nsibande, who was appointed by WWF as the project coordinator for the establishment of the new park.

The 2nd initiative is the Biodiversity Stewardship Programme. This is a national initiative and is being implemented by all the provinces. It is aimed at expanding the footprint by a further 15 000 ha and is being spearheaded in the Eastern Cape by the Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency (ECPTA).

The WWF Nedbank Green Trust, funded by Nedbank, has provided catalytic funding for both initiatives from the outset and supported many other water, grassland and livelihood projects in the Eastern Cape Drakensberg area, which extends over 500 000 ha. ‘Both initiatives contribute towards the expansion of South Africa’s protected-areas network,’ Nsibande explains.

Malaika Koali-Lebona, Head of ECPTA’s Biodiversity Stewardship Programme, says: ‘The approach for both initiatives is to find farmers and landowners interested in entering into formal agreements, in terms of South Africa’s Protected Areas Act, either with SANParks or ECPTA. The approach is a cost-effective way of expanding much-needed protected areas in South Africa without the state having to buy and manage the land.’

Both initiatives are progressing well. ‘With regard to the Grassland National Park, the 1st phase of properties whose landowners have indicated willingness to participate will soon be declared as either national parks or protected environments,’ says Nsibande.

With regard to the ECPTA initiative, Thando Mendela, who is managing ECPTA’s project on the ground, says: ‘There are 2 sites that have already been declared and 5 additional sites are in the final stages of being declared.’

The first 2 declared properties are the 4 400 ha Balloch Protected Environment in the Barkly East area and the 289 ha Golden Fleece Nature Reserve near Matatiele. Balloch is a livestock farm that has been in the Frost family for 4 generations. Paul Frost says that looking after the natural environment has always been high on their family’s priority list. Their farm is home to a range of threatened, endangered and vulnerable species, including the bearded and Cape vultures and the reedbuck.

The Rawlins family, who owns Golden Fleece Nature Reserve, decided to commit their land to full nature reserve status because they wished to conserve it for future generations. ‘It aligns with our Christian belief in stewardship,’ says Georgie Rawlins. ‘If this is the legacy that we can leave on Earth, we have done something.’

‘Gaining people’s trust takes time and we are proud to say that 5 years later the communities we are engaging with know and trust the projects,’ says Nsibande. ‘It was not like this initially when the farmers received me with a combination of interest and suspicion because they were naturally concerned about what would happen to their land.

‘We go to great lengths to explain that the stewardship agreements are about partnering with them in their farming landscapes. These agreements are absolutely not about fencing off areas and moving people off the land. With stewardship agreements the farmers continue to farm and graze their livestock sustainably, while at the same time showing their commitment to landscape conservation programmes,’ says Nsibande.

These commitments include well-managed livestock, which are essential for maintaining the health and vigour of grasslands and wetlands, which are, in turn, essential for a healthy water supply. Healthy grasslands and wetlands slow down the flow of water from the mountain catchment, prevent erosion, and act as a sponge when it releases water throughout the year, which is critical for a landscape that serves as a water factory.

For the first 3 years from 2019 Nsibande worked alone from his home in Maclear Town, without a dedicated office for the project. There is now a fully functional, dedicated office for the project, with 8 project team members from SANParks, WWF and ECPTA working collaboratively.

There is a range of benefits for farmers and landowners who commit to the programme. Koali-Lebona explains that national parks and nature reserves may qualify for property rates exemption (in terms of section 17 of the Local Government Municipal Property Rates Act, 6 of 2004) and fiscal tax incentives.

The fiscal tax incentive in terms of section 37D of the Income Tax Act, 58 of 1962, allows taxpaying landowners to deduct 4% of the value of their land (when their land has been declared as a national park or nature reserve) from their taxable income for 25 years. Section 37C of this Act allows expenditure deductions related to costs incurred to conserve or maintain land that is declared as a national park, nature reserve or protected environment. All 3 are also afforded protection against unsustainable development.

Protected-area management plans are codeveloped for each participating site and the team works with the farmers and landowners to implement conservation management practices. Improvements in the landscape are monitored through veld condition assessments and BioBlitz events. Apex grass species like Themeda triandra are indicators of good veld condition.

Protected-areas expansion is also happening in other parts of the Eastern Cape Drakensberg where ECPTA and WWF collaborate with a range of partners, including local NGOs such as Environmental and Rural Solutions (ERS) under the uMzimvubu Catchment Partnership in the Upper uMzimvubu catchment near Matatiele. They are working on landscape and water restoration projects and receive support from the WWF Nedbank Green Trust and other organisations.

The flagship biodiversity stewardship project of ECPTA in this area is the proposed Maloti Thaba Tsa Metsi Protected Environment (MTTMPE), a 29 000 ha protected area including 5 chieftainships and spanning over 45 rural villages along the uMzimvubu watershed. The Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development has facilitated the required land holders rights resolutions, and all participating communities have signed resolutions for their land to be declared a protected environment.

Soil scientist Sissie Matela, who established ERS in Matatiele 22 years ago together with environmental scientist Nicky McLeod, says: ‘All our conservation work starts with people’s livelihoods, as it’s so much easier to engage people in environmental conservation if we improve their livelihoods. When the grasslands flourish and the livestock get fat and healthy, the farmers and their families’ living conditions improve as they make more money at the livestock sales.’

The ERS team’s engagement with the communal farmers in the 5 chieftainships led to the formation of rangeland associations and the reintroduction of some of the traditional methods of rotational grazing and rest. This, in combination with high- density, fast-rotation grazing, has improved the health of the rangelands and reduced landscape degradation and soil erosion.

These projects are not only critical for local livelihoods and rangeland conservation. They are also critical for the whole country because we have only a handful of SWSAs in South Africa. The people living and farming in the SWSAs are the stewards of our country’s freshwater supply and we owe a lot to them.

‘No single entity can do this alone,’ says Nsibande. ‘Every day I’m challenged in a positive way by the uniqueness of the Eastern Cape and Southern Drakensberg landscape and what we still need to achieve. I will be here until these 2 initiatives become a reality across the entire upper catchment area. My commitment to the landscape is forever.’