The marriage between poverty and biodiversity conservation remains troublesome. For many, the notion of simply loving plants and animals in natural landscapes is as preposterous as entering into a marital relationship.
This is, first, because poverty of the pocket determines the state of the heart. A good marriage, happy couples will attest, rests entirely on commitment, a shared value system and common responsibilities.
When nature does not provide material benefits that lead to individual gain, then quite often low-income earners become less supportive of nature-conservation ideals than high earners. As such, South Africa's high level of unemployment signals bleak prospects for nature conservation.
Even with good "marriage" contracts, such as Section 24 (environment) of the Constitution, the National Environmental Management Act suite of legislation (Nema), and South Africa's obligations such as the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species, on-paper commitments may require tough-love implementation measures during rocky patches.
Second, mobilising pockets and hearts for nature involves not only the government and its citizens, it necessitates the involvement of others such as non-governmental organisations, technical experts and the international donor community.
But successful multiple partnerships require consent and mutual, practical understanding.
The services and benefits of protecting biodiversity are numerous. They include nonmaterial aspects relating to social opportunities for recreational, spiritual and psychological wellbeing. They also include support for soil formation, retention and productivity; provision of fish industries, firewood supplies and medicinal natural resources; and the regulation of water purification in wetlands and river systems.
The South African Risk and Vulnerability Atlas, released by the department of science and technology in 2010, illustrates that the impacts on biodiversity are intensifying. And the 20-year protected area expansion target presented in the national protected area expansion strategy of the department of environmental affairs aims to increase land-based protected areas from 6.5% (7.9-million hectares) to 12%.
How can this be achieved?
Incentives have been proposed as an innovative way to conserve nature. But raising finance for nature through tax incentives is not a stand-alone solution to stem an emerging crisis, nor is entering into innovative contractual income arrangements through land-stewardship agreements and community-private partnerships.
They are bound by values that justify conservation for commercial gain and they defer responsibility from individual citizens, factoring out the nonmaterial value of appreciating nature for nature's sake. If implemented without foresight, these kinds of schemes can be vehicles for crime and corruption (typically harder to prevent and prosecute). This is because their implementation is highly context specific, prone to external influences and administratively exhaustive across several government departments at municipal, provincial and national levels.
Perhaps it is time to review the value system and partnerships, entailing a paradigm shift from nature conservation to nature protection. This means effective use of legislation by South African and international law courts. It may also mean enforcing tougher penalties and more stringent compliance to get across the message that nature is not something to be messed with.
The protection of South Africa's biodiversity is bound by the relatively young Nema legislation. Its effectiveness, value and relevance should continue to be tested by legal minds to establish precedents and ultimately drive up environmental standards.
More pronounced governance is required. This includes the uptake of responsibilities associated with co-ordination between law courts and environmental authorities in government institutions; policy coherence and common understanding and approaches; more technical and analytical expertise and thought leaders in government; and faster decision-making in the institutions mandated to protect nature and ensure sustainable development.
A bold response to the reinstatement of anti-rhino-poaching fences is an excellent test case for the quality of South Africa's environmental fundamentals.
Being able to reflect and adapt to new circumstances with firmness ensures a functional and efficient marriage with nature conservation. This is possible only if clearly defined value systems affirm commitments.
Dr Janice Golding writes in her capacity as an honorary research associate at the Plant Conservation Unit, University of Cape Town