Professor Peter Taylor at the University of Venda finds himself in a rather unique position. He occupies the first Research Chair awarded to his institution, which is also the only university that is situated inside a biosphere reserve.
The Chair in Biodiversity Value and Change in the Vhembe Biosphere Reserve (VBR) is tasked with studying and contributing to the development of this unique natural habitat.
The VBR covers five local municipal areas of the Limpopo Province. They are Blouberg, Musina, Makhado, Thulamela and Mutale. A portion of the Kruger National Park, north of the Shingwedzi River, is also included.
The VBR is largely rural and the majority of its stakeholders are relatively poor local communities with few economic opportunities. Thus poverty alleviation is a high priority.
There are a number of sensitive environments, which also include culturally important “sacred places” that need to be conserved for future generations.
On the other hand, vast reserves of minerals, mainly coal, have relatively recently been identified and the challenge is to assess how and/or which of these deposits can be exploited while ensuring the long-term sustainable conservation and simultaneous development of the VBR. Taylor explains that the Chair’s work is as much about studying and cataloguing the biosphere’s many species and characteristics as it is to develop planning around land use and conservation.
He terms the Chair the “brain” of the reserve as it is busy creating a geographic information system to host a spatial database of the reserve and also convenes the Vhembe Biosphere Reserve committee.
The work therefore consists of both fundamental research into preserving this natural heritage as well as engaging with communities that live within the reserve’s boundaries.
This engagement is an important element of conserving the biosphere because it creates an understanding and appreciation of the impact communities could have if they undertake environmentally-destructive farming or practices.