Although most South Africans are sure to have heard the term ‘biosphere reserve’ before, very few are aware of what it actually means, let alone the profoundly positive influence these internationally recognised, UNESCO-approved pockets of land could have on our country’s ecological and socio-economic landscape.
I recently had the privilege of attending a Man and the Biosphere Programme (MAB) strategy session, where current issues facing biosphere reserves were brought to the table and tentative plans put in place to resolve them by 2020.
As an outsider, much of what was being discussed flew way over my head. Highbrow economic and ecological talk, interspersed with governmental and municipal jargon became a code I had to decipher – the crux of the day’s matters locked somewhere behind unintelligible acronyms and strange turns of phrase like filling the reserves with ‘warm bodies’.
No wonder one of the biggest challenges facing MAB in South Africa is the general lack of understanding from the man in the street about the integral role that biosphere reserves are playing in reconciling humanity with nature and, in so doing, establishing a more sustainable future for all.
If anyone should be able to understand exactly how these reserves/regions (the terms can be used inter-changeably) can save the world, it should be us – you and me, the ordinary citizens.
So, to start off, here are seven of the most important things to know about biosphere reserves in South Africa.
1. It’s not ONLY about protecting nature
One of the common misconceptions about the existence of biosphere reserves is that they are organisations largely dedicated to the conservation and protection of our natural resources – a similar structure to, say, SANParks, CapeNature or KZN Wildlife.
While this is an essential part of their purpose, it is underpinned by a strong focus on social development and sustainability. There is no boundary between the human realm and the natural one in a biosphere reserve – the two intermingle, feed off of one another and strengthen each other.
In other words, the biosphere reserve concept can be used as a framework to guide and reinforce projects that enhance people's livelihoods, while ensuring environmental sustainability.
UNESCO describes biosphere reserves as ‘living laboratories’ for testing and demonstrating integrated management of land, water and biodiversity. In many ways they are tasked with the role of showing the world how to survive.
In short, biosphere reserves hold the key to solving a host of very real crises facing the world today – food security, climate change, water pollution and the protection of threatened and endangered species, just to name a few.
This concept seems to suggest that perhaps the only way to move forward would be to retrace our steps to a time where the divide between civilisation and wilderness was less clear cut.
2. No fences
Which brings me to the next point – unlike traditional nature reserves, biosphere reserves do not require fences to keep nature in and humans out, or vice versa. This would defeat their entire purpose.
UNESCO’s statutory framework stipulates that biosphere reserves should consist of three zones: the core area, the buffer zone and the transition area.
Only the core area requires legal protection, and therefore often corresponds to an existing protected area such as a nature reserve or national park.
Take, for instance, the Kogelberg BIOSPHERE Reserve, often confused with its CapeNature-run core area, the Kogelberg NATURE Reserve.
While the NATURE reserve forms part of the BIOSPHERE reserve, the latter encompasses a whopping 100 000ha of land, comprising pristine mountain fynbos unseen by human eyes and untouched by human hands, but also the coastal towns of Rooi Els, Pringle Bay, Betty’s Bay and Kleinmond, as well as the settlements, farms and orchards of Grabouw and the Elgin Valley.
Signage is few and far between, booms, gates and sign-in books non-existent, making the transition from the ‘outside world’ into the biosphere reserve completely seamless.
In fact, even residents living within the buffer zones and transition areas of a biosphere reserve are often unaware or only partly aware of the complex and special place they inhabit.
3. International network
All biosphere reserves worldwide are designated by UNESCO and form part of the World Network of Biosphere Reserves (WNBR), currently standing at 671 in 120 countries around the globe. All projects undertaken by biosphere reserves are to be aligned with UNESCO’s MAB Programme, which has local (e.g. MAB in South Africa), regional (e.g. AfriMAB) and international tiers.
While biosphere reserves are internationally recognised, they are always nominated by national governments and remain under the sovereign jurisdiction of the states where they are located. On a local level, they should also be recognised as a vehicle to fulfil our country’s obligations and commitments regarding a number of international environmental and socio-economic agreements and conventions.
The department of environmental affairs (DEA), then, is the overarching custodian of South African biosphere reserves. They determine policies and guidelines and are the direct link to UNESCO, but they do not provide any financial support.
Which may raise the question: where do they get their money from?
4. Funding and collaboration
It’s important to remember that all South African biosphere reserves are NGOs and that keeping them going strong is a collaborative effort.
As mentioned above, they do not receive any funding from the national government, nor from UNESCO. Thus all funding has to be generated through the establishment of firm partnerships with various bodies and stakeholders, both international and local.
For example, currently the Western Cape biosphere reserves receive much of their financial support from the provincial government’s department of environmental affairs and development planning (DEADP) as well as WWF’s Table Mountain Fund.
Operating on the premise of the ‘whole being greater than the sum of its parts’ has seen the South African MAB Strategy identifying the strengthening of ties and forging of partnerships (between the biosphere reserves themselves, but also with a variety of outside stakeholders) as one of the most important objectives for the next five years.
One of the ways this is being effected is through the South African Biosphere Reserve Trust, which was established in 2014. All eight of South Africa’s biosphere reserves belong to the trust and each has its own trustee dealing with individual logistics.
5. There are 8, almost 9 in South Africa
By this time you may be wondering about the facts and figures of these South African biosphere reserves being mentioned. Well, there are currently 8 officially designated reserves in the country, with a ninth in the process of being nominated.
They all vary in size and are located all over the country – four in the Western Cape (one overlapping with the Eastern Cape), three in Limpopo (one overlapping with Mpumalanga) and one in Gauteng/North West.
The Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve in the Overberg was the very first to be declared in 1998. Home to more than 1 880 different plant species, it is considered to be the very heart of the Cape Floral Kingdom. At 100 000ha, it is the smallest biosphere region in South Africa.
Cape West Coast (378 000ha) was declared in 2000, followed by Kruger to Canyons (2 474 700ha) and Waterberg (417 000ha) in 2001, after which came the designation of Cape Winelands (322 000ha) in 2007, Vhembe (3 070 000ha) in 2009, and the Gouritz Cluster (3 187 893ha) and Magaliesberg (357 870) in 2015. The Garden Route Biosphere Reserve is in the process of being nominated as an official biosphere reserve.
It’s interesting to note how very different each of these regions is – apart from size and ecological/social make-up, each was also nominated for different reasons by different organisations.
For instance, the establishment of Cape West Coast was initiated by the West Coast District Municipality, with spatial planning as a driving force. The designation of Vhembe, on the other hand, was initiated by individual landowners, with conservation and community benefits as the main drivers.
6. They run amazing sustainable projects and create jobs
Each of these 8 (almost 9) reserves is doing incredible work as far as conservation, education, job creation and sustainability is concerned.
Some of the most noteworthy projects currently running, include:
Cape Winelands Biosphere Reserve’s food forests – Food security throughout the winelands is not guaranteed, with as much as 70% of the population not knowing where their dinner will come from on any given day. As a result the CWBR has embarked on a program to educate and empower people to create their own food sources. It entails planting hardy fruit-bearing trees and vegetable gardens in informal settlements, schools, rural areas and anywhere else where food is scarce.
Kruger to Canyons (K2C) Environmental Monitor’s Program – Working closely with SANParks and a number of different institutions, K2C has managed to create more than 200 jobs to date by getting local communities involved with various conservation projects.
Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve’s ongoing alien clearing projects – As the heart of the Cape Floral Kingdom, it’s no surprise that the KBRC pilots various alien clearing projects throughout the region, creating jobs for locals as they go along.
7. You can help
South Africa’s biosphere reserves rely heavily on the generous support of volunteers. Offering their expertise in various fields and of course also their precious time, has helped the MAB Programme accomplish the amazing feats it has to date.
If you live within a biosphere reserve and think you have some skill or special interest that could serve their purposes, why not sign up as a volunteer?
Financial support is also always welcome and contributions can be made via the South African Biosphere Reserve Trust.
Should you be interested in getting involved with biosphere reserves on some level, you can contact MAB South Africa’s Dr Ruida Pool-Stanvliet via email firstname.lastname@example.org
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