World Wetlands Day 2002: South Africa

05/02/2002

Mondi Wetlands Project launches 'wise use' programme on World Wetlands Day (2 February 2002)

Mondi Wetlands Project has launched a brand new programme focusing on the sustainable use of wetlands which makes it an ideal initiative to showcase at the World Summit on Sustainable Development later this year

Mondi Wetlands Project (MWP) is launching a programme on the sustainable management of wetlands which will bring a whole new constituency into the wetlands conservation arena - commercial farmers and agricultural extension officers. Its aim is to kick start wetlands conservation on the ground and train people to manage their wetlands wisely and sustainably. It is called the Extension Support Programme (ESP).

"For the past five years we have been using wetland rehabilitation as the vehicle to promote wetlands conservation," says MWP manager, David Lindley. "We worked largely with forestry companies and governmental conservation agencies, and created great enthusiasm, interest, awareness and knowledge in the field. Our programme was so successful that national government has launched its own rehabilitation programme - the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism and the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry have launched a joint initiative called Working for Wetlands which will spend R30 million a year on this work. We are thrilled to have catalysed this important partnership which frees us to move into a new area - the wise use of wetlands. At present, wetlands are utilised in old-fashioned and damaging ways but we aim to change all that."

"Sustainable use of wetlands will be a bit like having your cake and eating it at the same time," says Lindley. "Farmers will obtain certain financial benefits from using a part of their wetlands for crops or grazing, but they will retain the integrity of the wetlands and thus reap the many free services that wetlands perform as a bonus. We predict that we will generate the same amount of energy and enthusiasm as we did with our rehabilitation programme. This will translate into more wetlands under proper management around South Africa."

MWP's timing is also fortuitous since South Africa will host the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in August this year. "The concept of 'sustainability' will be at the forefront of people's minds and our message will fall on fertile ground," says Lindley. The WSSD will bring world leaders together from around the globe to discuss environmental protection and putting an end to poverty - and sustainable wetland use is high on the agenda.

"With sustainable use we are moving away from a strictly hands-off conservation approach which excludes people, to one that includes people in ecosystems," Lindley explains. "But the privilege of use carries the responsibility for environmental care. We are by no means suggesting that people should rush out and utilise every wetland - what we are saying is that if a wetland is already being used, landowners or communities must do it in such a way that the wetland is not wrecked."

The Extension Support Programme will play a catalytic role, and develop the capacity of governmental and non governmental extension services to work with farmers on the wise use of wetlands. It will concentrate on both commercial agriculture and emerging farmers (the latter in partnership with the MWPs' Community Wetland Management Programme launched last World Wetlands Day, under Vhangani Silima, a BSc Honours graduate from the University of Venda). "We want to get buy-in from all farming sectors for sustainable wetland management," Lindley says.

The new Extension Support Programme national co-ordinator is Damian Walters, the perfect man for the job because he comes from an agricultural background (he studied agriculture at Cedara Agricultural college in KwaZulu-Natal). He therefore understands agriculture and sympathises with the problems faced by farmers. He also knows what is practical and possible. At the same time he is studying for a post graduate degree in nature conservation and will thus be able to explain ecology to farmers in terms they understand. Walters has been with MWP for four years; three as a part time fieldworker in the Natal Midlands and full time for the past year as the national training co-ordinator.

"We will work mainly with government and agricultural industry extension officers, training them in the principles of managing and using wetlands wisely. They in turn will help us educate farmers," says Walters. MWP will regionalise the work, initially working in KwaZulu Natal, Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga and Northern Province.

"Our first step will be to find out who's who and establish everyone's priorities and policies," Walters says. "Next we will set up workshops to train people about "Wetland - Use" the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism's (DEAT) field guide for the wise use and sustainable management of wetlands. Wetland - Use is currently available on the DEAT website which outline how to gather information and then decide the best use for any wetland. Later, we want to concentrate on individual landowners and create model farmers who can set working examples of best practices to other farmers. They can be role models and mentors to spread the conservation message."

So how does one use wetlands sustainably? "Most wetlands are used for grazing," Walters replies, "and therefore the secret of wise use in this case is not to overgraze them since this leaves wetlands soils exposed and vulnerable to erosion. Other people use wetlands for planting crops. The secret is to plant no more than one third of the wetland and choose crops which require minimum modification of the wetland. If a crop hates water and requires you to drain the wetland, it make little sense to plant it in a wetland. Rather choose water tolerant species such as rice, madumbes or water tolerant pastures. Also, farmers should only plant in the least sensitive portions of the wetlands. The rule of thumb is to plant in the drier portions of a wetland because the wetter parts can then retain their wetland functions. Another huge impact on wetlands is made by farm dams. Here the best way to mitigate damage is to build dams in the least sensitive areas of the wetland."

"We are certainly not encouraging people to cultivate, graze or dam their wetlands," cautions Walters. "What we are saying is that in wetlands that are already planted, grazed or dammed, let's mitigate the negative effects on the environment as far as we can. Many wetlands were drained before protective Agricultural legislation was set up and even today, some farmers still apply to drain wetlands legally. We want to tweak and modify the way they work with their wetlands so they manage them properly. "

And what about MWP's trademark rehabilitation work? "Some rehabilitation may still take place under this programme. If we notice that a farmer is no longer using a portion of a wetland that was once drained, we will suggest that he close the drains and allow the wetland to re-establish itself. In this way we will build on our past expertise and reclaim some wetlands for water management."

Wise use is also 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 wetland resources such as water, grazing, reeds or arable soils. Yet communities would get far more out of their wetlands if they managed them sustainably, Lindley asserts. Through ignorance communal wetlands are often degraded through overgrazing, yearly burning, overharvesting of plants, or over-intensive subsistence agriculture (cultivating more than a third of the wetland). Luckily, ignorance can be tackled via awareness programmes.

The MWP Community Wetland Management Programme (CWM) will aim to boost the capacity of extension services, community based organisations 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. Vhangani Silima, who co-ordinates the CWM Programme will first work closely with pilot projects in KwaZulu Natal, Mpumalanga, and Northern Province - and later serve in an advisory capacity to extension services who will in turn deal with communities hands on.

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