World Wetlands Day 2002: South Africa


Consolidating wise use among communities for World Wetlands Day
(2 February 2002)

Another aspect of the Mondi Wetlands Project work of enormous relevance during this year of the World Summit on Sustainable Development, is its Community Wetland Management Programme

More than anyone else, poor rural people are dependent on the life-support functions of wetlands including water, food, fibre and a buffer against drought. Despite this, South Africa's wetlands in communal rural areas have received very little attention from conservation organisations until the Mondi Wetlands Project (MWP) launched a community wetlands programme exactly a year ago.

Its aim is to encourage the wise use and rehabilitation of South Africa's 'forgotten' wetlands. "At least 20% of KwaZulu Natal's wetlands occur on communal lands so it's imperative that these are conserved," says MWP manager David Lindley. "In fact, it is the work of one of our advisors, Dr Donovan Kotze, which catalysed the launch of our community programme. Donovan showed us how the people of Mbongolwane wetland near Eshowe in KwaZulu-Natal can get optimum benefits from the sustainable use of their wetland."

Wise use is the crux of community wetlands management, says Lindley. Poor people do not have the luxury of being able to ignore wetlands on their land since people badly need the resources, such as water, grazing, reeds or arable soils, they can provide. Yet communities would get far more out of their wetlands if they managed them sustainably, Lindley asserts. Yet often, communal wetlands are degraded through overgrazing, yearly burning, overharvesting of materials, or over-intensive subsistence agriculture (cultivating more than a third of the wetland). Sadly, this is simply due to ignorance, which can be tackled via awareness programmes.

Last year the MWP appointed a dedicated community wetlands co-ordinator - Vhangani Silima, a BSc Honours graduate from the University of Venda. Lindley met Silima after being inundated with requests for a one-day wetlands course at the University of Venda. Eager students needed guidance and Lindley obliged. He was immediately impressed by the fact that Silima had specialised in wetlands in his Honours year (his undergraduate degree was a BA majoring in Biology and Geography). During Honours Silima studied under Prof Ben van der Waal of the Department of Biological Sciences and then went on to obtain a one-year education diploma.

Silima is working with people's indigenous knowledge in managing wetlands and has observed how traditional beliefs have protected Lake Fundudzi, South Africa's only true inland lake which is situated in the Venda area near Thohoyandou in the Northern Province.

"Working with communities is challenging; we will be dealing with very poor people, often marginalised and reliant on natural resources for their basic needs," says Silima. "With community work you have to deal with complex social and political structures. You also need to understand the economics of the situation and find out what the community values. Sometimes people see a wetland as a fertile place for planting maize. Sometimes they see it as a liability that harbours mosquitoes. You have to show people the many benefits of a wetland they may not be aware of."

The MWP Community Programme will aim to develop the capacity of extension services, community based organizations, and NGOs, to help rural communities utilise their wetlands sustainably as well as rehabilitate degraded wetlands in communal areas. Communities will be empowered to manage their own wetlands.

Silima will first work closely with pilot projects in KwaZulu Natal, Mpumalanga, and the Northern Province - and later serve in an advisory capacity to extension officers who will in turn deal with communities hands on.

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