Major conservation win for famers

‘KwaMandlangampisi’ might be a bit of a mouthful, but it’s a name to savour because it’s the country’s first Protected Environment, and it bars an important catchment area from mining. Heather Dugmore finds out how this giant step for conservation in South Africa carries a range of other benefits for farmers.

On 13 September, 23 600ha of privately-owned farmland, extending from Wakkerstroom to Luneburg in southern Mpumalanga, was officially declared a  Protected Environment by Jabu Mahlangu, Mpumalanga MEC of economic development, environment and tourism.

About 23 farmers/landowners with farms ranging from 500ha to 1 600ha, are affected.This is the most important thing that’s ever happened for conservation in this country, says fifth-generation farmer Horst Filter, whose 500ha livestock farm in the Luneberg district is one of those affected.

For one thing, KwaMandlangampisi is now a no-go area for mining companies seeking prospecting rights. Their activities could pollute this critical water catchment area that includes the headwaters of the Pongola River and the Assegaai River, that feed the Heyshope Dam and provide clean water for national power generation.

“We’ve seen how our country is going backwards with mining exploration, and we were adamant that our farms were not going to disappear in a big heap of ash when we were faced with ill-conceived mining prospecting,” Horst explains. A  Protected Environment is effectively one step below a National Park or Provincial Nature Reserve and enjoys a lot of formal protection. Landowners will also benefit from a range of incentives – such as tax rebates and rates exemptions in some cases, as well as extension support.

Called the KwaMandlangampisi Protected Environment, after the Zulu name for a local mountain, this is the first  Protected Environment to be declared in South Africa under the National Environmental Management Protected Areas Act of 2003. Ranging from 1 400m to more than 2 000m above sea level, it spans threatened high-altitude grasslands, wetlands and indigenous mistbelt forest. It’s also home to several threatened and endemic plant, bird and animal species, including the oribi and South Africa’s three crane species (wattled, grey crowned and blue).

KwaMandlangampisi’s creation also meets substantial provincial conservation targets for vegetation types, including 44,9% of the provincial target for Northern KZN Mistbelt Forest, 16% of Paulpietersburg Moist Grassland and 26,9% of Wakkerstroom Montane Grassland.

Farmers’ side of the deal
What’s expected of farmers within the  Protected Environment? “Farmers enter into a legal agreement for 30-plus years,” explains Brian Morris, manager of protected area establishment and expansion for the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency (MTPA), “They’re required to manage their operations according to the biodiversity management agreements (BAMs) we draw up with them,”

The specific biodiversity management plan (BMP) varies according to the sensitivity of different areas on the farms. For example, in forests where yellowwood and stinkwood sapling growth is compromised by grazing and trampling at certain times of the year, grazing would be limited and the stocking rate reduced from, say, 6:1 to 3:1.

Invasive alien weeds such as black wattle and lantana must be controlled. Burning may take place only when necessary and at the right time of the year, followed by a sufficient resting period. “Burning too often or at the wrong time, or bringing in livestock too soon afterwards, harms the landscape, specifically the area’s many geophyte or bulb species,” explains Morris.Refugia areas have been identified on each of the farms.

These include biodiversity-rich dolorite outcrops, sensitive wetlands and nesting sites for endangered species, and must be protected.Conservation and management expenses in terms of the BMP may be deducted from the income generated from the land covered by the BAM. If farmers don’t comply with the conditions they can lose their  Protected Environment status and benefits, and be prosecuted for breach of contract.

“There’s an annual review of the BMP and an assessment on the ground to see what’s been implemented and what the effect has been. The idea is not to wield a big stick, but rather to work with the farmers in a mutually supportive relationship,” says Morris.

The farmers win
The benefits go deeper than mere tax breaks or even saving the land from mining. The BMP improves all the vegetation types over time, enhancing the land’s long-term sustainability and improving the natural water systems. In certain areas stocking rates may even improve.

“Farmers have access to government programmes like Working for Water, Water for Wetlands and Working on Fire, and we provide technical support and expertise,” adds Morris. Formal protection status also lets farmers enforce the law in the face of local threats, such as the illegal hunting parties that regularly poach on their land. “It’s been really encouraging working with the farmers and landowners, as the work we’re doing to expand protected areas can only be achieved with their support,” says Morris.

The farming community here is very environmentally conscious. “As livestock farmers, we’ve been farming with grass for five or six generations,” says Horst. “Grass secures our livelihood. We make sure we protect the grasses, forests and all the biodiversity here because you can’t quickly rehabilitate the land if you’ve overgrazed, polluted or mined it.”Heinz Schütte, whose family has been farming in the Luneburg district since the 1860s, agrees.

“Conservation awareness in our area is ‘in-bred’ over generations because we’re here for the long-haul,” he says. “KwaMandlangampisi farmers have received incredible support.“We’ve had the Working on Fire Group advising us. Grassland specialists like Francois de Wet analyses our grasses, showing us where our grasses are, in a climax state, and putting together a grazing formula for our area.

“They narrowed the plan down to eight dominant grass species with different ‘weights’ attached to them, which is practical. If they’d presented us with 100 species it would have been overwhelming.“As farmers we’ve been respected for our input and knowledge of the area, and the BMP has been adjusted where appropriate.

For example, the natural forest was initially classified as a zero grazing area, but if you don’t graze it, then it increases the fire threat. Now the BMP includes sustainable grazing.”Heinz says he’d like to work towards nature reserve status, the next step up from  Protected Environment. “I’m happy to commit to 99 years of conservation and have it added to our title deed. The conservation of this special area through sustainable livestock farming is a natural fit.”