The problems at Driftsands Nature Reserve

A road in the central part of the nature reserve, with Table Mountain in the distance

A road in the central part of the nature reserve, with Table Mountain in the distance

Conservation Manager, Teboho Maliehe, faces many unenviable issues whilst protecting Driftsands Nature Reserve. Encroachment from human settlement is the most obvious. Driftsands is located within one of 34 global biodiversity hotspots, the Cape Floristic Region. A staggering 9,000 plant species are found crammed into this tiny area in the south western extremity of South Africa, 6,000 are found nowhere else on earth. When UNESCO designated parts of the region as a World Heritage Site, it described the area as “one of the richest areas for plants in the world”. 

Cape Town is one of the most diverse areas within the floristic region and also the most heavily populated. One vegetation type found exclusively within city limits is False Bay Cape Flats Dune Strandveld. This Strandveld (Afrikaans for “beach scrub”) is endemic to the Cape Flats area of Cape Town and so cannot be conserved elsewhere. Under a quarter of this Strandveld’s original extent remains undeveloped. Driftsands, run by the provincial government conservation body CapeNature, is one of the few protected remnants.

The reserve is surrounded by some of the most densely populated and poorest townships. Whilst the increasing human population is the cause of the reserve’s main threats, it is also a reason to protect it. Driftsands is the only facility in the area providing open space, a library with internet access, an environmental education centre and hiking trail. Its non-indigenous vegetation removal program has created 340 local jobs in an area with overwhelming unemployment.

Many residents near Driftsands are Xhosa, people historically from the largely rural Eastern Cape. One Xhosa custom is an initiation ritual, a sacred rite of passage to mark adulthood. The custom includes a period of seclusion, circumcision, a celebratory feast and much more. There is a local demand for initiation but Teboho explains “in recent years, initiation sites were being located next to roads, railway lines or close to residential areas. This affects the integrity of the practice.” He continues “we have a mandate to grant community access to protected areas for spiritual and cultural activities and initiation is part of that.” After a lengthy community engagement process, CapeNature opened an initiation facility within the reserve. An agreement has made the community responsible for the facility with CapeNature providing the infrastructure. Teboho concludes that the facility means “people’s dignity is restored”. The reserve therefore has cultural significance to locals as well as botanical interest to conservationists. 

Driftsands embraces community involvement, with one project involving propagating plants for wetland rehabilitation creating jobs and providing skills development. CapeNature has also encouraged the establishment of small businesses to undertake nonindigenous vegetation removal.

Nevertheless, with space in the Cape Flats at a premium, the threat to the reserve from swelling informal settlements is substantial. In January 2012, former residents of the depressingly overcrowded neighbouring township of Khayelitsha constructed 200 shacks in the south of the reserve, in one night.

Green Park is an incongruously named informal settlement inside the west of the reserve. Here, through successful local engagement, CapeNature has persuaded the community to prevent the building of further structures. The plan is for Green Park to be de-proclaimed from the reserve, the municipality would then gain responsibility and provide utilities and other facilities. If Green Park remains its current size, the plan will proceed more quickly. This pragmatic approach has meant encroachment in this section of the reserve ceased long ago. The situation is less promising elsewhere, Teboho warns “our challenge is to ensure the reserve does not get taken over by informal settlements.” Other informal settlements in the reserve are growing.

Los Angeles is an informal settlement located within a wetland component of the reserve. Homes are made from corrugated iron and wood and lack electricity or private toilets. Los Angeles residents are living in damp wetland conditions known to increase the likelihood of contracting TB. Standing behind one of the structures on a higher dune in Los Angeles provides two contrasting views; endangered and beautiful Strandveld one way and the informal settlement stagnating in a wetland the other. No one aspires to live in such conditions, but when there is nowhere else to go what is the alternative?

Part of the Los Angeles settlement, inside the nature reserve.

Part of the Los Angeles settlement, inside the nature reserve.

A dirt road bisects the reserve. The lack of fencing means vehicles use the road to dump piles of rubble, tyres and other industrial waste. This is not dumping by the local community but rather companies from outside the area wanting to save money on landfill fees. The road is also used by locals to walk to work opportunities on the other side of the reserve. If CapeNature were to close the road, it could deprive these people of their access to employment. However, without fencing it’s impossible to prevent the waste dumping and continued introduction of livestock, which browse indigenous flora and spread seeds of invasive grass via dung. Driftsands has no funding for such fencing. Therefore the reserve remains threatened by settlement encroachment, waste dumping, cattle grazing, fires started by herders to encourage grass growth and the non-indigenous grass growth restricting the indigenous Strandveld plants.

The population of the Cape Flats is increasing, which will surely exacerbate the challenges faced by Driftsands. The importance to the local community of the reserve highlights many reasons to prioritise protection in addition to biodiversity value. CapeNature are undertaking an admirable job and achieving successes with their community involvement work. If funding for the fencing were provided, the Strandveld could be protected more easily and it would be harder for people to access and build homes in wetlands unsuitable for human habitation. Any long term solution requires urgent resolution of the national housing crisis. This is not imminently likely and it is not the remit of a small threatened nature reserve with a highly restricted budget. The future will be tough.

As originally published in the Population Matters Magazine, August 2012 - to view the original article, click here (and see page).