Farmers: Unlikely biodiversity champions?

First published in Sawubona, South African Airways' in-flight magazine, in May 2014. Click here to open a PDF of the article as featured in Sawubona, or read the original text below.

Africa’s burgeoning human population is placing increased demands on the continent’s finite landmass. That’s bad news for nature conservation. And, when combined with budget constraints, pressure by humans makes national park expansion by land acquisition progressively harder to achieve. New models are needed to protect biodiversity, observes David Johnson, who may have encountered just such a model when he visited the Eastern Cape in South Africa. He explains the unique thinking behind the Mountain Zebra–Camdeboo Corridor Project.

On an Eastern Cape livestock farm Stella Loock laughed and told me, ‘Are you sure you want to hear our first reaction to the Corridor Project? You couldn’t print it!’ Stella and her husband Phillipie’s farm lies within the Mountain Zebra–Camdeboo Corridor Project’s roughly 530 000 hectare footprint. Phillipie was blunter. ‘A national park telling us how to run our commercial farm would have led to financial ruin, complete and total disaster,’ he said, then paused and cracked a smile. ‘That’s the printable version of our first reaction,’ he continued. ‘But now we know that that’s not what the Corridor Project is all about though and so we’re proud our farm is signed up to be part of it.’

So what is the Mountain Zebra–Camdeboo Corridor Project? Driven by concerns about the protection of the biodiversity in valuable grasslands between the Mountain Zebra National Park near Cradock and Camdeboo National Park surrounding Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape, the project is a partnership between SANParks and the Wilderness Foundation. Its prime aim is to improve the integrity of the landscape by entering into voluntary agreements with private landowners.

Initially, thinking that ownership or control of their land was threatened, other farmers in the area reacted in much the same way as the Loocks had. However, once the project and its aims had been explained, the farming community came around, said Bronwyn Botha, the initiative’s manager. ‘The objective is not to drop fences, buy land or convert farms, but to gain formal protection for the private land between the parks and preserve one of the country’s least conserved biomes – grassland,’ she explained. ‘The interests of farmers and SANParks are primarily the same,’ she continued. ‘We are all [concerned about] the condition of the veld.’

The scheme is entirely voluntary and will permit the continuation of existing land uses, subject to maintaining the natural landscape. Peter Burdett, the Park Manager of Camdeboo National Park, said, ‘We’re very lucky that the majority of livestock farmers between the parks have kept the veld in such good condition. That’s why the project is possible.’

Private landowners, whether stock farmers or game reserve owners, can choose to adopt one of three levels of environmental protection. The first involves signing a SANParks’ Proud Partner agreement. Signatories at this level wouldn’t benefit from legal protection for their land, but would receive SANParks’ habitat management best practice advice.

The second option entitles land to be designated as a ‘Protected Environment’ under the Protected Areas Act. Farmers choosing this scenario would not have to change the use of their property, but rather try to reduce further transformation of the natural veld. Crucially, their land would receive partial protection from certain forms of development, including fracking. The potential benefits for farmers and biodiversity go beyond legal protection, Botha explained. ‘Let’s say a group of farmers in a Protected Environment have an alien plant problem,’ she said. ‘SANParks could apply for government funding under the extended public works programme, the Green Fund or other bodies to address the issue.’ As individual farmers cannot access these forms of funding, the positive effects could be substantial. Mountain Zebra National Park’s manager, Megan Taplin, told me there were over 100 people in her park paid for by similar government poverty relief projects.

Having access to SANParks’ expertise on soil erosion is another often-cited advantage for farmers choosing the second level of involvement, but the full range of benefits will only become apparent once the farms have been designated and a Protected Environment managing committee has been appointed. However, it’s anticipated that other perks will include, for example, an extension officer to oversee conservation projects in cases where such assistance is sought. Recent proposals from farmers include united strategies on markers for power lines to help save blue cranes and measures to help Verreaux’s eagles.

The third and highest level of partnership is that of a contractual national park. Although there would be no change in land ownership, this level requires compliance with SANParks’ standards and policies although legal title is not transferred. Upon proclamation, the land will receive full protection against prospecting and other inappropriate development, be given additional assistance with habitat management, receive the publicity benefits associated with national park status and be considered for further species introductions.

Currently, the majority of private game reserves within the project area lack formal legal protection. Of these, three landowners are seeking the highest designation. When I spoke to Sarah Tompkins of Samara Private Game Reserve, it was easy to hear her excitement at the concept of the bulk of Samara becoming a contractual national park, with the balance becoming a Protected Environment. She explained, ‘For 15 years we’ve benefited from the wonderful guidance of SANParks on habitat restoration. It’s a growing relationship and we can’t wait for the next step.’

At Mountain Zebra National Park, manager Megan Taplin highlighted a further benefit. ‘The scenic views from the plateau of Mountain Zebra National Park are one of the park’s highlights,’ she said, ‘and the Corridor Project helps preserve those views. A Protected Environment is a wonderful buffer for national parks.’ A surprisingly low six per cent of South Africa’s landmass is formally protected.

The country’s human population has increased by 1.2 million since the 2011 census, making the formal protection of additional land, by traditional protection methods, far more difficult. Schemes like the Corridor Project are likely to become increasingly important as a means of preserving biodiversity.

I asked Peter Burdett how the concept compared to alternatives for Camdeboo National Park, such as land acquisition. ‘The Corridor Project is the only option,’ he replied. ‘It will never be the case that a wildebeest will be able to walk from Camdeboo National Park to Mountain Zebra National Park, there’s always going to be a patchwork of land uses between them involving fences but we must remember fences don’t hinder baboons, birds, dragonflies, plants or many of the small animals.’ It’s simply not possible to convert vast swathes of agricultural land into national parks when swelling human populations need more food and other resources.

Initially, the target was to sign up 25 000 hectares of land to Protected Environment status. Thus far, 66 farmers owning a staggering 269 000 hectares have applied for this designation. These landowners now belong to the newly constituted Mountain Zebra–Camdeboo Protected Environment Landowner Association, which will become the management authority for the Protected Environment once declaration is finalised. It’s no mean feat, and, it’s anticipated that a further 14 270 or so hectares of contractual national park will also be designated. The national parks and their neighbours have established a strong relationship. With increasing human populations and heightened land-use demands, the Mountain Zebra–Camdeboo Corridor Project could be one of conservation’s best models for the future.

Samara Private Game Reserve in winter.