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Urban Conservation Leads to Hope in the Cape

In Focus, December 2005

by Ben Jolliffe

In 2003, a small community lacking proper housing in a southern township of Cape Town, South Africa, took advantage of the December holiday season to solve its own housing problems when many city officials were on leave.

Two thousand people set up temporary shacks on the edge of the Macassar Dunes, a narrow strip 15 miles south of the city center. The area provides vital protection from southwesterly winds as well as a habitat for unique coastal flora within the Cape Floristic Region Hotspot, one of the biologically richest yet most threatened areas in the world.

The community, which now numbers 14,000, was desperate for a way to persuade the city government to provide them with permanent housing in the city, and to do so as quickly as possible. They took a name to prove it too: iNkanini, which means “by force” in Xhosa, an indigenous language spoken across the Cape.

But while iNkanini residents were focused on their housing needs, conservationists like Lewine Walters were focused on the fact that the Macassar Dunes is a site within the city’s biodiversity conservation network.

For Walters, a conservation manager at Macassar Dunes, it was a difficult and conflicting situation. “I could have gone to the city parks department and asked them to put up a boundary fence,” she explained. “But how would I have felt if that was me without a home? I would have ignored it and I wouldn’t have wanted to talk reasonably to whoever put it there.”

Walters has been working with Cape Flats Nature, a program of the South African National Biodiversity Institute supported by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) and the city of Cape Town to bring biodiversity conservation into mainstream municipal government policy.

Despite the challenge of reconciling urban poverty and urban conservation issues, the program launched in four pilot sites, including one in Macassar Dunes, and has seen such successful results that Cape Town city councilors approved a resolution supporting the project’s rollout to other sites in the city’s biodiversity network.

Linking Community and City Government

Urban conservation draws on so many different government departments – housing, health, education, water, and waste, for example – that unless it is dealt with at the highest level, it is unlikely to be successful in the long term. In heavily deprived urban areas, conservation also means getting involved at the individual level, engaging with community leaders and community members to identify priorities and solutions.

Cape Flats Nature involves local residents and promotes innovative community involvement in conservation activities, one of CEPF’s four key strategies for the area. But for Walters and her team in the Macassar Dunes, it was unclear how best to engage the iNkanini community in discussion while also involving all the relevant stakeholders and city departments.

“The Macassar Dunes Co-management Association was a weak structure with no clear direction,” Walters said. “So we asked them and other mainstream organizations from the broader township community to join the Macassar Dunes Action Group, to focus solely on the question of the informal iNkanini settlement.”

The group meets every other month and includes local government, city planners, academics, and conservationists as well as, most importantly, numerous civil society organizations and overarching civil society structures from the neighboring Khayelitsha township, such as the Reconstruction and Development Forum.

Legacy of Deprivation

Most of Khayelitsha’s half million residents are rural black South Africans who moved to Cape Town looking for work in the 1980s. Under apartheid, they were not allowed to live in the city and settled instead where they could in the townships.

“Khayelitsha is a tight-knit community. People there are well organized and extremely politicized,” Walters said. “If you start getting a bad name for yourself, people from one group will stop listening to you and you’ll get nowhere.” Adding to the political complexity of the situation, conservation was historically carried out without concern for the needs of black people.

“But we are making progress. We’ve been able to negotiate a boundary for the conservation site which we all agree on - community representatives, local councilors and conservationists – and the physical markers went in about six weeks ago.”

Even with the markers in place on the Macassar Dunes, shacks are still going up on the Dunes side of the boundary, because sufficient housing is still not available. The under-resourced Informal Settlement Control department has 48 hours to remove the shacks; after 48 hours, city legislation (aimed at supporting those who have been disadvantaged for so long) states that the shacks cannot forcibly be removed.

“Community outreach is just as important – if not more so – than formal legal protection,” says Mzwandile Peter, Communications Manager at Cape Flats Nature. “Persuading people who have so little why they shouldn’t build on the Dunes is not easy. But there are good reasons.”

“First of all, the Dunes are moving all the time, the sands shift. [The Dunes] also protect the whole of Khayelitsha from the very strong winds off the ocean; at times, visibility in iNkanini is down to a bare minimum because of the wind. But once people make their home here, they often don’t want to leave, especially if they have work or family nearby.”

Jobs and Education

The Cape Flats Nature project has successfully developed opportunities for education and employment in all four pilot sites. These opportunities include clearing alien vegetation in the short term and tourism in the longer term. So far the project has generated 207 jobs. Over 12,500 people have visited the project’s nature sites through formal activities and many more have come informally. More than 8,000 youths participated in educational projects and 150 educators received training.

Thirty young people from iNkanini have been trained as volunteers and are now running a door-to-door awareness campaign helping others in the community see how important the Dunes are both to them locally and in the context of the city-wide biodiversity network. While project participants are thrilled with their successes, they recognize that challenges still exist.

“Reactions to the awareness campaign are mixed,” Peter said. “Some people can see the bigger picture but others are angry and point to nearby areas where large communities have been established on dunes. But the Macassar Dunes really are vital: remove them or build on them and the pressure on the whole local ecosystem might be overwhelming. The wind will rip right through Khayelitsha, bringing with it a lot of sand and debris.”

To help people understand why conserving the Dunes is so important, a weekly one-hour slot is broadcast on a local radio station and specially-commissioned plays have been staged dealing with the themes of poverty, development, and conservation.

Youth activities in all four pilot sites in the Cape Flats are on the increase, including clean-up walks, “enviro hikes”, and educational activities, such as learning about the medicinal qualities of plants like the snake flower (Bulbine frutescens), which is used to treat skin infections associated with HIV/AIDS.

Growing Conservation Role for the City

While the city has long been a supporter of Cape Flats Nature’s conservation activities, the sprawling city bureaucracy sometimes leads to difficulties coordinating different departments. In one instance, a city department installed water distribution points in the iNkanini settlement to better serve community members, but did not inform Lewine Walters or her usual city colleagues until after the event.

On the whole, however, biodiversity conservation is working its way into the heart of city government policy. Walters and her colleagues at Cape Flats Nature’s other pilot sites were officially added to the city payroll in July, joining the new 80-person strong Nature Conservation division, part of the Environmental Planning Department. Local conservationists hope that the structural change will help drive a more coordinated response to the complex challenges that lie ahead.

Furthermore, in an unlikely reshuffle, staff from the recently closed city abattoir will join Walters and her colleagues to retrain on nature sites across the Cape Flats in January. “By all accounts it’s a coincidence, but it’s still a timely indication of the gradual change in city priorities,” said Tanya Gold, Cape Flats Nature project manager.

A Model for Sustainable Development

Building good practice in sustainable management across the Cape Flats has been the focus of CEPF’s support to Cape Flats Nature since it began in 2003, and despite the challenges that still plague the Macassar Dunes (crime, sand mining for construction, and 4x4 offroading, for example), there are positive signs that the entire community is committed to conservation and sustainability.

At the recent celebration of the 50th anniversary of the nearby Edith Stephens Wetland Park, another of Cape Flats Nature’s four pilot sites, local councilors, residents, teachers, and conservationists joined with school children, city planners, and representatives from CEPF.

This gathering of an extraordinarily wide array of partners demonstrated not only a community that has made conservation a priority, but also how deeply embedded the participatory approach is in conservation work in this area.

Significantly, this participatory approach is attracting new funding. Projects in the Macassar Dunes and the Wolfgat Nature Reserve have secured grants from international donors and the South African Department of Local Government, respectively. Both provide money for community centers and educational work but some warn the grants might stir up ill-will if communities are not kept on board.

“We have to ensure that these parks deliver very serious community benefits,” said Howard Langley, until recently a regional manager for South African National Parks. “Otherwise, not only will they be rejected and abused by surrounding communities, but they will also be under- resourced and neglected by local government.”

One example would be to create “living boundaries” around the parks, consisting of shaded walks and landscaped walking, jogging, or cycling lanes. “We can easily protect the biodiversity values of our urban parks by channeling people over, through, or around them,” Langley said.

If the unique fauna and flora of the parks can be interwoven into the lives of those who live around them to the same degree, the small irreplaceable areas that are left can hopefully continue to provide a model for urban conservation across Cape Town and beyond.

For further information, visit Cape Flats Nature.

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© Cape Flats Nature
Ndihleli Kandekane, Chairperson of the Amagqirha Trust and Traditional Healers' Association and HIV/AIDS Forum of the Western Cape, speaks to community members at the Macassar Dunes.

© Cape Flats Nature
Temporary settlements on the Macassar Dunes threaten protection of species in this biodiversity site.

© Cape Flats Nature
Youth from neighboring communities, shown here participating in a clean-up walk in Wolfgat Nature Reserve, are taking a more active role in looking after their unique environment.

Two people featured in this story – Lewine Walters and Mzwandile Peter – are graduates of a CEPF-supported program to create new conservation managers who can help bridge the gap between conservation and social development. Learn more about their success stories and the program.

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