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Conservation Stewardship in South Africa: Landowners to Lead the Way

In Focus, December 2003

In the southwest corner of South Africa lies the habitat of one of the most endangered types of vegetation in the Cape Floral Kingdom—renosterveld. For much of the year, many people might think it is dull looking and unimpressive but in the spring the vibrant tapestry of renosterveld vegetation within the Cape Floristic biodiversity hotspot is clearly and colorfully evident.

The Cape Floristic Region is home to more than 9,000 plant species, 70 percent of which are unique to the hotspot. One species, cancer bush (Sutherlandia frustescens) is being hailed as a wonder drug in the treatment of AIDS, cancer, diabetes and kidney and liver disorders.

Under threat from invasive alien plants, overgrazing, unsustainable burning practices, human encroachment and illegal flower collection, renosterveld is the focus of conservation efforts in the Cape region. And now local private landowners are emerging as the potential heroes of the day to preserve this species-rich threatened ecosystem.

Renosterveld contains large numbers of unique bulbs that are among the glories of the Cape. Many of the bulbs and cut flowers that have been hybridized and cultivated throughout the world, such as gladioli, freesias and pelargoniums, are actually originally renosterveld species. The diversity and abundance of bulbs can reach astounding levels. At one location, in just 1m² of renosterveld, 25,000 bulbs were recorded.

Today, less than 4 percent of coastal renosterveld remains (approximately 151,000 ha) and less than 1 percent of this is formally conserved. What does remain is fragmented in privately owned pockets of land, scattered throughout agricultural lands and therefore potentially under additional threat of being cleared for new agricultural land or other commercial development.

In fact, about 80 percent of South Africa's priority conservation land is in private and communal hands, so conservationists are having to develop innovative, commercially minded strategies that involve these landholders.

"A commonly perceived approach to conservation in the past was to buy up the targeted area," says Sue Winter of the Botanical Society of South Africa. "In the case of South Africa's scattered Cape renosterveld, this just isn't possible. The preferred approach is to engage the cooperation of the individual landowners with attractive stewardship options."

At first glance this kind of approach might seem extremely challenging but a partnership between Cape Nature Conservation (CNC) and the Botanical Society of South Africa is moving the concept forward to reality as part of the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund's strategic approach to promote innovative private sector and community involvement in conserving landscapes surrounding biodiversity corridors in the hotspot. Their experiences thus far will be of great interest to others seeking to engage the private sector in conservation goals.

Cultivating land stewards for conservation

The Botanical Society carried out an attitude survey amongst renosterveld landowners and found willingness to be involved was not the major limitation but rather it was lack of practical incentives and assistance that held back positive action to conserve renosterveld land.

Consequently, the CNC-Botanical Society partnership has initiated a two-year pilot Conservation Stewardship Program, testing the adoption of three different stewardship options in three pilot areas, two in the Overberg and one on the Western Coast.

"The program recognizes that while you can convince people of the value of their land for conservation, incentives are required that offer more immediate and tangible benefits that will influence landowners' decisions on how to utilize their land for subsistence, profit or leisure," says Chris Martens, CNC Stewardship Program Manager.

In the past, willing landowners designated their land as natural heritage sites, conservancies or private nature reserves, amongst other private conservation approaches. However none of these options necessarily provides long-term security for the land. A landowner can withdraw from any of these options at any time and when the property is sold, the new owner is not tied to continuing the conservation effort.

Financial incentives for private landowners to become active conservationists are currently limited and CNC quickly realized that it had to shift emphasis from incentives to stewardship motivation.

"For the program to work to maximum effect, we must understand the values and needs that a landowner is bringing to the table, and know the best way to approach him them and initiate discussions around entering into a stewardship agreement," Winter says. "Effective communication is the key and it can make or break the intended outcomes."

With this at the forefront of thinking, the CEPF pilot project recently conducted a Landowner Negotiation Enrichment Workshop for CNC staff. By focusing on the importance of balancing the landowners' needs with conservation goals and objectives, it should be easier to engage the interest and commitment of landowners (click here to see the report from the negotiation workshop in PDF format, including lessons learned from working with landowners in other situations).

"There exists a commonly held fear and suspicion amongst landowners that their land might be expropriated from them by the State or by Cape Nature Conservation if their land has high conservation value," Winter says.

"We want to move away from this acquisition mindset. We're trying to show farmers that stewardship is about them, as the landowner, wisely using, managing and protecting the natural resources under their care. A sense of pride and ownership for the valuable biodiversity on their land needs to be deeply instilled."

While the program is still in its youth, approximately 10 landowners are now seriously engaging with the program about the possibility of securing their land through one of the program's stewardship options.

One engaged landowner's farm includes close to 900 hectares of renosterveld, the largest area of privately held renosterveld in the country. The farm is also home to the largest population of the endangered geometric tortoise.

Stewardship options

The new stewardship model allows for varying degrees of engagement but provides a clear framework for the provision of incentives in accordance with the length of commitment and the biodiversity value of the land.

There are three options within the model: Conservation Areas, Cooperation Agreements and Contract Nature Reserves. The higher the biodiversity value or importance of the site, the more stringent the development restrictions, and the more substantial the assistance and incentives offered from the conservation agency. An attractive feature of the new stewardship scheme is that the terms and conditions for any of the stewardship options can be tailored to meet the specific needs of the owner and the property.

The Conservation Area option is flexible with no defined period of commitment and few land-use limitations, and above the normal level of advice and support that CNC extension services can provide, the landowner could receive assistance with management plans and farm maps.

The middle option, a Cooperation Agreement, is a negotiated legal agreement between CNC and a landowner for conserving biodiversity in the medium term, such as five to 10 years. This option is suitable for conservation-worthy land, especially wetlands and water catchments, and could allow limited biodiversity-friendly development provided natural processes are not jeopardized on the property. Benefits could include assistance from CNC with fire, alien, plant and animal management.

Contract nature reserves, which are recommended for critically threatened sites such as renosterveld remnants or other priority areas could enjoy increased marketing exposure and substantial assistance with habitat management. Very little development will be contemplated in this category, but owner access and residence rights will not be restricted in any way. Any of the three options could be applicable to just a portion of a property such as an isolated forest patch or an entire property.

While financial incentives remain few and far between, a great boost to the stewardship program comes in the form of new legislation announced at the recent World Parks Congress in Durban. The soon to be promulgated Property Rates Bill in South Africa allows for sites with conservation merit to qualify for rates rebates, provided they enter into binding, contractual arrangements with state nature conservation authorities. Rural land use has not previously been charged rates and therefore this new bill, is likely to make the contract nature reserve stewardship option all the more attractive.

"What makes this project so new and cutting edge is that, in South Africa, the concept of stewardship has not really been branded as such," Winter says. "Private landowners have a pivotal role to play in conservation. We need to work harder to communicate both the motivational and financial incentives of responsible stewardship to these landowners so that the benefits of conservation are clearly in their favor as well."

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© Botanical Society

The name renosterveld comes from the characteristic species called renosterbos (Elytroppapus rhinocerotis), a shrub that gives the renosterveld countryside a gray-black appearance.

Some people maintain that renosterveld got its name from the rhinos that used to roam on the plains; others believe that when viewed from a distance, the dark gray shrubs resemble a rhino's hide.

Related information:
Landowner negotiation workshop report (PDF)

Conservation stewardship: pilot projects in the Swartland and Overberg (PDF)

Conservation stewardship: options for landowners (PDF)

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