Making land claims work for conservation in South Africa

Lion

If the South African government is to meet its 20-year land-based protected area targets, 2.7 million hectares must be added in the next five years

Give land back to its rightful owners, assist them to make money from conservation-based tourism, and end up with the perfect symbiosis between indigenous communities and the surrounding biodiversity. That was the hope of land restitution schemes in and around South Africa’s National Parks and Nature Reserves. But after more than a decade of attempts, there are few success stories to tell, which prompt questions about methods used so far and potential ways forward for the future.

Through the 1990s, as apartheid fell in South Africa and a new democratic dispensation was born, mechanisms were created for the country’s people to re-claim land from which they were previously forcibly removed. This land-claim process was seen by many to be a threat to established National Parks, but others saw it as an opportunity to re-engage the disenfranchised African majority with the nature around them, and even to expand and diversify South Africa’s conservation network.

Inside Protected Areas

Approximately 6.1% of South Africa’s land area is currently under statutory protection. Although claims are permitted in these areas, the land must remain in perpetuity as a national protected area, and the state has the power to block residential development and veto commercial operations which they deem detrimental to the conservation area. This may come as a relief to nature lovers but, with the balance of power so heavily weighted towards the state, many communities are struggling to appreciate the real benefit of ‘owning’ their newly acquired land.

When land claimants can be persuaded to convert to conservation, the benefits can be considerable

The Makuleke community successfully reclaimed a 22,000 hectare area in the north of Kruger National Park but were blocked from selling hunting concessions, which cost them over US$200,000 in potential revenue. Although permitted to use the land for limited cultural use, they cannot hope to live or farm on the land. Tourism based on game viewing would require private commercial partners.

Yes, the claimants have, in theory, been provided with a Western-style solution to the problem of income generation from their land, but many of these people remember being thrown off this same land for the expansion of the Park in 1969. It is easy to understand how the concessions made by South African National Parks have done little to ameliorate the perception that National Parks are fortresses from which African ways are excluded.

Conservation areas without protection

Claimants may possess little power inside Protected Areas, but there are fears that the opposite is true within the eight million hectares of conservation land under the auspices of regional authorities or private land owners, which have no statutory protection.

The privately owned Lapalala Wilderness Reserve in the UNESCO Waterberg Biosphere has played a pivotal role in breeding programmes for the critically endangered black rhino. Now, with a claim lingering over half of the 36,000 hectare Reserve, investment has been restricted and the Reserve operates on a skeleton staff.

Elephant in Kruger

The Makuleke community successfully reclaimed a 22,000 hectare area in the north of Kruger National Park but were blocked from selling hunting concessions

If this claim is successful, there will be little or no restriction on land use change – from farming and housing to full-scale commercial development. Fortunately, the owners at Lapalala understand that conservation, not just in South Africa, but the world over, must involve and no longer exclude local people. They see the landclaim as an opportunity to take this step forward and have worked tirelessly to engage the community in Lapalala’s biosphere vision whilst also importantly emphasising to local people the potential financial benefits of their becoming part owners of the Reserve.

Conversion to conservation

If the South African government is to meet its 20-year land-based protected area targets, 2.7 million hectares must be added in the next five years. When land claimants can be persuaded to convert to conservation, the benefits can be considerable.

On receipt of 20,000 hectares of farmland, the Somkhanda community had three objectives: to settle; to farm; and to create a sustainable business. Four thousand hectares of land were immediately put aside for farming and housing. On the rest, fences were dropped and game introduced. With the assistance of a private commercial partner, the project yields revenue from hunting, safari tourism, and property development. There has been a high success rate with community skills development and employment. Now black rhino have been reintroduced and the reserve is perfectly located to become an important member of the proposed transfrontier Peace Park between South Africa, Swaziland and Mozambique.

While this philosophy is not a general panacea for all problems, it can certainly help. It is ironic that a community can make a conservation and community success story out of tourism on marginal agricultural land when a community attempting the same feat in the world renowned Kruger National Park is failing.

Governments and conservation agencies must accept that the new generation of conservation areas, protected or not, must fully integrate communities and provide a diverse portfolio of livelihoods and land use. This is what is failing in Kruger, what might save Lapalala, and has been the ingredient for success in Somkhanda.

Written by

Twitter Digg Delicious Stumbleupon Technorati Facebook Email

No comments yet... Be the first to leave a reply!

Leave a Reply