Makuleke Contract Park is the winner of the Community Conservation Award.
Land restitution across South Africa has left some land claimants disgruntled, but a success story in the Kruger National Park has empowered a community and broken new ground in conservation.
June last year saw the finalisation of the Makuleke Contract Park Conservation and Development Framework, a deal for the management of land taken from the Makuleke people in 1969.
Apartheid authorities removed the community from their land to expand the Kruger National Park. They were forcibly resettled 100km away in an area called Ntlaveni, near the Punda Maria border of the park, and their livelihoods were lost when they were unsettled.
The Makuleke community regained their land in the Kruger following the success of their land restitution claim in the 1990s. Instead of moving back onto the land, they signed a groundbreaking deal to establish the Makuleke Contract Park.
Sustainability consulting firm Environmental Resources Management (ERM) worked pro bono with the Makuleke community over two years to finalise the framework setting out the parameters of the deal.
The Makuleke Community Property Association, which owns the land, agreed with South African National Parks (SANParks) and private-sector concessionaires to retain the land's valuable conservation status, says David Shandler, a partner at ERM.
The framework confirms the vision for the area, which is to establish "a partnership celebrating Africa's nature, people and visitors", he says.
It sets goals, zonation of the land for different uses, governance arrangements and a business development plan.
The framework "recognises the leading role of the Makuleke community in taking decisions for their land, but also builds in structures and processes for collaboration with the SANParks to ensure that the latter's requirements are also met".
"The 24 000ha tract of land has exceptional biodiversity, with over 400 recorded bird species and seasonally high densities of large mammals like elephant, buffalo, lion and leopard," he says.
In addition to its richness in fauna and flora, it is also culturally significant, with tribal ruins dating back some three to four centuries.
The agreed framework guides the community and its partners to "gain social, environmental and economic benefits", says Shandler.
"The community entered a joint management agreement with the national parks authority, and contractual agreements with tourism companies which operate lodges and ecotourism activities in the area."
A joint management board, made up of representatives from the Makuleke villages and SANParks, governs commercial development through the concession of ecotourism opportunities, and decides on the way that wildlife in the area is protected.
The Makuleke land is based in the north of the Kruger Park and includes the confluence of the Luvuvhu and Limpopo rivers.
These important water sources and their associated wetlands have been declared an international Ramsar site, and the Makuleke framework also deals with the future management of the wetlands.
Shandler says the project is an example of a "collaborative approach to managing conservation and development for community benefit.
It successfully balances the community's need to derive an income from its natural land asset, while at the same time setting out clear parameters for maintaining its conservation status".