Forest community's sustainable future

The staff work closely with two forest user groups: traditional healers and crafters

The staff work closely with two forest user groups: traditional healers and crafters

The Transkei’s Wild Coast is considered one of the last unspoilt wildernesses in the country. It is also one of the poorest. Situated in the Eastern Cape, this area has remained rural, with few urban or peri-urban centres and very few economic opportunities. 

Because the majority of the population doesn’t earn a formal income, there is heavy reliance on natural resources. Close to Port St Johns, the Ntusbane Forest was in danger of being eradicated. 

“When people eradicate a forest they don’t realise that they are taking apart their livelihood,” says Dr Jim Taylor, director of environmental education at the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (Wessa). 

Renewing the ecosystem would only solve a conservation issue. The Ntusbane Project realised that they needed to tackle the socioeconomic situation as well. Wessa biodiversity programme manager Mike Denison says: “We identified a specific opportunity to start projects in the area. We work on a co-benefit model: how can we bring social benefits that will also allow for ecological gain?” 

The project aims to restore and protect the forests of the area while  empowering the people who live there. The staff work closely with the forest community, in particular two forest user groups: the traditional healers and the crafters.  

“Natural medicine has a massive market in South Africa. It’s understood that if it was formalised, it would rank 10th on the South African stock exchange. It’s a source of income for many,” says Taylor.  

The other economic driver in the area is tourism. Many locals make their living as craftspeople, selling baskets, sculptures, furniture and jewellery. These items are also made using natural resources: reeds are gathered for baskets and mats; often, a whole tree is cut down to carve one sculpture. 

The project drew on local and indigenous knowledge and has therefore gone some way to securing and recording information that might otherwise have been lost. The team was able to use this information to develop management plans for forest conservation. 

A number of community associations, government departments, conservation groups and fisheries are also involved. By creating partnerships, the project also supports co-management. As Denison says: “It’s also about shifting the emphasis from government to community ownership, and making headway in overall sustainability.”

In keeping with uplifting the people in the area, the Ntsubani Project also work-shopped solutions for crafters who provide products for tourists. 

Intense training courses included how to dramatically improve sales, how to price products, responsible harvesting, as well as a 10-day internship with an acclaimed sculptor in Plettenberg Bay. The team also travelled to craft trade fairs and has now developed a craft retail outlet in Port St Johns. 

Taylor adds: “So often we see progress through a modernist lens: the problem is if you reject the life support system you lose your trees for oxygen, your rivers for life-giving water. There is a disconnect between the meaning of the resources for the future world.”