The battle over use and ownership of municipal land and nature reserves on the eastern escarpment is complicated further by limited water resources.
Stretching from God's Window to the Blyde River Canyon, the northern Drakensberg escarpment is a dramatic and arresting landscape. Home to the earliest Tsonga and Sotho settlers, its vast herds of game and promise of mineral wealth lured European frontiersmen, resulting in bitter confrontations over land and resources that continue today.
The busy rural town of Bushbuckridge nestles in the heart of this contested land. The area is a conservationist's dream, surrounded by the Kruger National Park, Sabi Sand and Timbavati game reserves, the Kruger-to-Canyons biosphere reserve and the Blyde River Canyon. Bushbuckridge caters to the high-end tourism market, with some of the best wildlife tourism experiences anywhere.
Yet these conservation assets were created at a terrible cost. The restitution of land rights is a burning issue for the people of Bushbuckridge, who have little stake in the local tourism and wildlife economy. Just more than half a million people live in the Bushbuckridge local municipal area, with 52% unemployment and few economic options outside the reserves.
About 80% of the municipal area is under land claims. All the reserves have areas under claim and the Bushbuckridge, Manyeleti and Andover reserves are 100% under claim. Conservationists see these unresolved claims as a profound threat to their industry.
The battle over the use and ownership of the land is complicated by pressure on the natural systems that support people and parks. The eastern escarpment is water-stressed, and forestry and a leaky old irrigation scheme have reduced run-off to the rivers flowing through Bushbuckridge. Water flow in the Sand River is now too low to maintain the reserves' ecosystems downstream, let alone meet the water needs of people and agriculture. There is too little water to expand forestry and agriculture.
To ease this crisis, in 2001 the Cabinet approved the removal of 24 000 hectares of forestry plantations, placing the land in the Blyde River Canyon reserve, but this decision is being reviewed. There is political pressure to replant about 4 000 hectares of the northern reaches of the Sand River catchment area.
Local nongovernmental organisations such as Award have long championed the repair of the Sand River irrigation system, which would make a rapid contribution to water availability. But it is mired in bureaucratic inertia and remains unfunded. What is making a difference are the public works programmes to rehabilitate wetlands and clear alien vegetation in the upper Sabi and Sand catchments. Such programmes improve downstream water availability and create jobs.
Community leaders, private landowners, NGOs and government departments are coming together to develop a master plan to maximise the benefits of conservation for local people and protect ecological systems in the area. The plan is premised on securing a significant equity stake for communities in the conservation sector through the land-claims process and a network of conservation corridors linking communal land and private reserves.
Local communities will benefit from traversing fees paid by tourism operators, a greater spread of tourism spend, improved water availability and quality in rivers, improved grazing for domestic stock and sustainable harvesting of plant products and deadwood.
The successful resolution of land claims is critical. Uncertainty regarding claims has led to underinvestment in the four provincial nature reserves near Bushbuckridge. The negotiations are nearly complete: all claimants have chosen to enter co-management agreements with the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Authority and to pursue the economic benefits of conservation-based tourism.
Still, a major overhaul of the management of the reserves will be needed to make them successful tourism operations.
One possibility for Bushbuckridge Nature Reserve is a partnership with the private sector to make it a stronghold for rhino breeding, with highly secure fences owned and maintained by the local communities.
The private sector has a vital role to play. The Kruger Park generates an estimated R230-million a year, and private reserves generate even more. Bulking up local procurement by working with local farmers and service providers would allow more local tourism spending.
R175-million will be invested in building a retail, logistics and information centre on land owned by the Nhlangwini community next to the Kruger Park. The Nhlangwini land will be used for an innovative wildlife corridor, allowing animals to move between the Sabi Sand private reserve and Kruger Park. Similarly, the Bayethe Nxumalo and amaShangaan communities have shown a willingness to support a corridor linking Sabi Sand to Blyde River Canyon.
The biggest challenge to implementing the plans will be institutional capacity. Resources to strengthen capacity include the nearby Wits Rural Facility and the South African Wildlife College does excellent research and training. NGOs such as Award can play a key role in promoting models of development linked to ecological integrity. The success of integrated approaches to conservation in the Kruger-to-Canyons biosphere reserve shows the way.
For the region's people, the stakes are high. Failure to achieve the right synergies between development and the environment will destroy the wildlife economy, Bushbuckridge's lifeblood. Hopefully, a stable and committed coalition of players and community leaders can marshal the necessary capacity for integration.
Crispian Olver is a director of environment agency Linkd, which has worked in the Bushbuckridge area