The awareness was there 40 years ago, but it wasn’t until 2010 that the landowners around the Marico river basin came together and formed the Marico River Conservation Association. Its goal is to protect the headwaters of the Groot Marico, Klein Marico and Molopo rivers. It’s not just the water you can see that is important; they also aim to protect the dolomitic aquifers that lie underneath North West province.
“We have some of the best waters in the world and we’re working together to try and preserve this,” explains landowner Daan van der Merwe. “The Marico provides water for three countries: South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana. But as time goes on we’re under constant threat of development and mining prospects. It was imperative we did something, otherwise there would be nothing left for future generations.”
The Marico River Conservation Association has tangible action plans. Recently they submitted documentation to the United Nations Organisation for Education, Science and Culture to be awarded biosphere status. If granted, it will not only preserve the core 66 000 hectares that make up the association, but additionally a further 380 000 hectares and 120 landowners will receive ongoing legal protection. They will know if their application is successful at the end of June 2018.
The biosphere status will also add support to ongoing projects; the association has various alien vegetation and wetland clearing programmes in place. These activations provide ongoing skills and job training for local communities.
There are also eco-tourism initiatives in place. The head of the Marico is one of the largest dolomitic aquifer systems in the country and besides it’s obvious life benefits, it is a pristine natural river system. In some parts the water is so clear that diving at great depths is possible.
“We are working very hard to keep the area pristine,” says Van der Merwe. “There are areas of land within the proposed protected area that are still completely untouched. Our primary concern is we don’t want miners coming in and prospecting or finding small pockets of minerals that will lead to complete ecological degradation for a relatively small [financial] return.” Legal — and illegal — mining poses a serious threat for water conservation in the area.
The association is in it for the long haul. Recently it entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with North-West University. Through research, planning of conservation and social development projects the university is deeply engaged and supportive of the Biosphere Reserve Initiative.
“By harnessing the underlying environmental, human and economic potential of the area, we create, communicate and deliver sustainable, integrated value to our designated natural environment, focus groups, and society at large,” adds Van der Merwe.
The North West province has often fallen foul of developers promising short-term economic returns. Politicians support these to claim that immediate economic bump, but those projects often leave behind broken ecosystems and river systems that no longer bring life to their surrounding areas.
Groups such as the Marico River Conservation Association have a longer-term vision — one that fights for healthy ecosystems. Their work is critical.