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Ecological Restoration: Catalyst for Economic Development 2006-04-26
Prof James Blignaut

* Part-time professor in Economics, University of Pretoria, director of Jabenzi & Beatus & affiliated to GreenGrowth Strategies, three companies aiming at making rural development in southern Africa a reality.


Giyani is a small, yet hustling and bustling town. Funny, I still have to find the centre of this very dispersed and outstretched town but I presume it is not too far from the taxi rank, hospital and shopping mall, which are all but a stone’s throw apart. If you look at the available maps, there is no road east of Giyani; east of Giyani is the Kruger National Park. In reality, however, there is a dirt/gravel road east of Giyani going due south parallel to Kruger. Once you travel this road you get the impression of what is meant by ‘deep-rural’. Every 5 to 10 kilometres there is a village with approximately 1 000 to 1 500 inhabitants consisting mainly of women and youths, all living in traditional huts sided by the occasional ‘RDP’ house. Each village carries the name of the chief of that village (Khakhala, Gawula, Mahlati, Hlomela, Ndindani, etc.) and the language spoken here is Tsonga. Chiefs are still in high regard and utterly important in this part of South Africa. Water is provided by boreholes and central taps collectively used; only a few of these villages have been connected to the grid and that only since last year. Nothing, however, lies as close to these villagers’ hearts as their land.

                The elders still talk about the days when they hunted antelope and buffalo on their communal land. One story, told by the cousin of the man in question, is particularly remarkable. This man killed six lions armed only with a spear. One lion was caught and killed in the cattle kraal while some villagers was watching. The land is communally owned and collectively farmed by the people under the custodianship of the Chief and his council. Members of the community have free and unrestricted access to the land to harvest products from the wild such as fruits, herbs, medicinal plants, and to graze their cattle. In many respects cattle are still the denominator of wealth, though this is changing.

                The change is being forced upon the people simply because of the realisation that an increased population of cattle - linked to an increase in human population - cannot be sustained indefinitely. Overgrazing has led to serious soil erosion, the formation of gullies and the loss of vegetation. Subsequently, last year, at the peak of the drought, a large number of cattle died as a result of the drought and the lack of grass. Some argue that the ancestors are unhappy since when they where there, the area was beautiful and green, and now, given the effect of overgrazing, their land looks like a graveyard.

                Yet, the communities live very close to nature. To them nature is not the context and pretext for a holiday in the bush; nature is home, it sustains life for both man and animal. It is the proud constant factor that link generations with each other over time and it is the ‘storeroom’ in needy times. But nature has to be managed; it has to be taken care of. As in all relationships, it takes two to tango. Nature will provide (or nourish us), but we have to look after the well-being of nature as well (we need to nourish her). And it is this ‘looking after’ aspect that makes the mentioned villages so unique.

                Since June 2005 these communities on the border of Kruger have, with the help of the National Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism and the intervention of private entrepreneurs (Environmental Offset Investments) commenced with the ARISE programme. ARISE (an acronym for Africa’s Rural Initiatives for Sustainable Environments) consider the two evils of poverty and land degradation - which often reinforce each other in a negative way, creating a downward spiral of degradation and despair - as the two opportunities to pushstart rural development through a process of ecological restoration. Ecological restoration can be the vehicle whereby a rural economy is jumpstarted. In the past, public works programmes were concentrated on building dams, roads and railways. Now the hour might have come to shift the focus of public work programmes to the restoration and rehabilitation of nature. In this way, there are only winners. The taxpayers’ money is spent on something really useful, and there is a multiple benefit stream that flows to the local community-in-dire-need. Not only is ecological restoration labour-intensive - more than 300 people are currently employed in ARISE among those communities, it also restores the community’s relationship with nature. Also, it enables the marginalised, so-called 2 nd economy to be integrated into the 1 st economy simply by selling ecosystem goods and services, including among others, carbon sequestration, water quantity and quality management and aesthetics (restoring the landscape’s beauty). Ecological rehabilitation has become a development strategy as much as it is a conservation strategy.

                A couple of key questions are at stake, however, such as the selection process of workers for the programme. How do we know if it will be a long-lasting project with long-lasting benefits? How do we know that the land will not become degraded again? The people to work on the programme are selected by the members of the community themselves. The community selects the ‘poorest of the poor’ among them to have first right to the opportunity. The community, sanctioned by the chief’s council, decides which areas are to be fenced in and restored. The project that not only involves the fencing-in of selected areas of communal land, also involves the re-introduction of indigenous plant species and rotational grazing. What is the likelihood of the project to have long-lasting effects? No one really knows, but the villagers are convinced that this will work, simply because they are the ‘owners’ of the project. It is theirs. They work on it, they decide which areas are to be restored and they appoint the people to work on the project. It is still early days and one cannot say whether or not the project will have benefits 10 or 20 years down the line, but the start is encouraging and the prospects are bright.

                Could this be the beginning of something really big in terms of scale, scope and time that could have a meaningful impact among the rural communities of southern Africa? I think it is. Considering all the people living adjacent to national and provincial parks, just developing buffer zones where people and the rest of nature live together in some harmonious way and the development of alternative forms of nature-based tourism is going to be a significant project likely to take years, simply because of the degraded state of the areas surrounding these parks. When going adrift, restoring riverine areas and mountain catchments is a logical next step in securing both water and soil with these two such precious commodities. Restoring the remaining expanses is essential from a food security and crop production perspective. Truly, the scope to provide employment and improve the quality of life and simultaneously improving the ecosystem function across the country is large. Given that fact that we’re seeking ways to integrate the rural 2 nd economy with the urban 1 st economy, ecological restoration seems like a practical and meaningful way to do so.


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