Ecologists mull future of wetlands in poor countries

One of Africa’s biggest and most endangered wetland areas is battling to find the fine balance between saving its unique ecosystem and saving its impoverished human inhabitants.

Swamplands and vegetation in the Greater St Lucia Wetlands Park in eastern South Africa are being battered by local communities dependent on the 260 000ha protected area to survive.

”It is a very, very complicated situation,” said ecologist Jan Sliva, who was among about 100 experts from 25 countries meeting here this week to discuss ways of conserving wetlands and fighting poverty.

”There is a huge dependence from the local community. We need a flexible approach to try and solve this. Only with cooperation from the local community will it be possible,” Sliva told Agence France-Presse.

A small part of the Saint Lucia park is covered with peat swamp forests, formed through the accumulation of organic material in oxygen-poor soil.

Its most important function in the ecology system is its huge ability to store carbon, but it also offers fertile soil for local farmers who plant anything from bananas to sweet potatoes or spinach in the swamps.

Some sell it to nearby markets, others use it to feed their families.

Either way, as a result, ”some swamps are already damaged completely”, said Sliva, who works for the International Mire (peatland) Conservation Group which has drafted a proposal to save the Saint Lucia swamps.

”But what else are we supposed to do about food and money?” asked Indoda Zikhali, a local member of the community who has been farming in the swampland for the past 10 years.

The sweat trickling from his wrinkled face, the 71-year-old man stood ankle-deep in the murky waters, working on his plantation in the smothering subtropical heat.

”I have two wives and 15 children to feed,” he said, speaking in his mother tongue isiZulu.

”Do they expect us to sit at home every day, without any money, without any food?”

Jane Madgwick, chief executive of Wetlands International, which organised the three-day gathering, said the only way to deal with the problem was to ”develop a more people-focussed approach”.

”It really is a valid concept to combine wetlands conservation with poverty reduction,” she said.

Wetlands International is hoping to set up a development organisation within the next two months to get a Dutch-funded project up and running in Saint Lucia.

The plan is to provide an alternative source of income to the 500 000-strong local community living on the fringes of the park.

This includes getting them involved in tourism inside the park, as well as construction and maintenance of buildings, and also creating craft markets.

If the project gets off the ground, it would be a first in Africa.

”It really is a challenge. We cannot say in advance whether we will be able to achieve our goal but are going to try our best,” said Sliva.

At the moment, there are about 200 illegal farmers inside the park.

”We’re actually supposed to be arresting people but we are reluctant to do that,” said Robert Mfeka, conservation manager of the Sodwana State Forest within the park.

”There’s great poverty here. It’s difficult to say to somebody, stop collecting your food from this place, go and starve.”

In the past three years that he has been working in the park, he has seen the local community double in size as many retrenched mineworkers return penniless from Johannesburg.

The situation is worsened by South Africa’s sky-high HIV/Aids rates, coupled with unemployment hovering at around 30%, causing more than half of the population to live below the breadline. – AFP



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Fienie Grobler
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