Article | 02 Sep, 2022

Meet with inspiring PANORAMA Solution Providers: Ayanda Cele, Responsible for Land Reform and Biodiversity Stewardship Programme at WWF South Africa

Ayanda Cele, Responsible for Land Reform and Biodiversity Stewardship Programme at WWF South Africa, is joined in this conversation by Cécile Fattebert of the IUCN Protected and Conserved Areas team.

I would like to talk about the solution 'Empowering Custodians of Biodiversity Stewardship' that you published on PANORAMA and submitted for the Pathfinder award last year. What makes this solution successful in a nutshell, could you please share with us? 

The programme that I submitted last year focused on the Mgundeni community under the traditional leadership of iNkosi Mabaso near a small town of Utrecht in Northern KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. Mgundeni is one of the 19 communities that are part of the WWF’s land reform and biodiversity stewardship programme. They signed an agreement to conserve part of their biodiversity-rich land in the vast grassland’s biome of the region. The area is home to critically important birds, frogs, and snake species, some of which are protected. This significant landscape also falls under the strategic water source area of the Enkangala Drakensberg with numerous national freshwater ecosystem priority areas (NFEPA) wetlands. The communal stewardship contributes toward the protection of freshwater water systems in South Africa, including Bivane River that runs across the Mgundeni property as a major tributary to the Pongola river system. But what makes the biodiversity stewardship project with the Mgundeni community significant? Firstly, it was the willingness of the landowners through their traditional leader iNkosi Mabaso who approached the conservation sector for advice on how to protect their land. They observed changes on the landscape, including their deteriorating wetland needed an intervention!  

The site was assessed and found that it is rich in biodiversity and falls within the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (EKZNW) Protected area expansion and ecological corridors of species movement and climate change adaptation. So, the eagerness came from the land owners.  

As one of the WWF representatives working with the community, I also noticed that the project created immense collaboration between government departments, private sector, civil society, and the community.  

What we did on the ground was to establish a monthly advisory forum. All these sectors sit together every month to discuss not only conservation objectives but also what's happening within the community towards rural development. This community owns a total of 1472 hectares, with 455 hectares allocated to conservation. However, it is well known that species know no boundaries. Therefore, the management of the property needed not to focus on one portion but on the entire property belonging to this community, and this brings more benefits to the land owners and species movement. I think that was the game changer.  

When one goes to communities like Mgundeni, they find that one of the main challenges they face is lack of funding for activities on the ground. So, one needs to source funding first before they can implement any practical work. We managed to secure funding from a GEF/UNDP to kick off the whole project. We did a lot of analysis and studies that no other projects have done before. The studies helped to explore business opportunities for the community who mostly farm with livestock.  

Livestock is an indicator of wealth in rural areas and we assist farmers in enhancing and upgrading their land and improving their livestock health so that they are able to access commercial markets where they can sell their cattle. When this is sorted, they are able to take care of their community needs, and the conservation of the land is automatically taken care of.   

Nowadays, if you visit the area, you can count over 20 cranes and other important species foraging along with homesteads. The elders are even teaching the young ones not to kill these birds because they help our project to succeed. Of course, it will never be a one shoe fits all but a number of initiatives are working towards sustainability. The project is recognised as the only successful land reform project in the entire province of KwaZulu-Natal in terms of natural resource management. This was witnessed in 2021 by the Department of Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs when they were looking for a wetland that is in good condition. Minister Ravi Pillay chose the Mgundeni (Mabaso) community to host a climate change event looking over the community wetland.    

What benefits have you observed being a finalist at the Pathfinder Award? 

Ayanda Cele: The benefits listed on the award document have been realised both on the ground by the community members as well as the conservation sector. In most cases, government departments have limited resources. When they want to pilot projects, they look for projects that have stakeholders with a national recognition as they are guaranteed of sustainability for long-term use. Overall, we have realised the benefits, and the solution also enhanced our understanding of the project.  

If you look into the future for 10 to 20 years, what is your vision for the KwaZulu-Natal Utrecht NP? 

Ayanda Cele: We are currently revising our agreement for the Protected Area expansion strategy. To be specific, this is a ten-year community environmental protection project. We envisage that this approach will move forward for the next ten years. The community is dynamic and vibrant, and they are trying to bring in other revenue sources to generate income for social economic improvements. For example, they want to plant cannabis on their property, develop lodges and produce indigenous food for visitors, and try to involve the neighbouring country communities in exchanges. They feel that visitors are interested in the area as a whole not just in the people. They also want to produce a booklet explaining their journey and encourage other landowners to follow suit. This is what they want to do in the next 10 to 15 years. We'll keep working with them, and we're looking to achieve even better things in terms of veld (refers to an open landscape in Southern Africa that is used for pasturage and farmland) management as it ensures sustainability. The children from these communities benefit from these activities. Parents can now afford to send their children to other more advanced schools away from home with the money raised through these projects. 

What have you been doing with livestock, will it be continued? 

Ayanda Cele: What we have been doing with the livestock will continue. We've also established a vegetable garden because 70% of livestock owners are men. In contrary the vegetable garden project involves many women and youth. So, we're trying to reach a gender balance. 

Would you like to continue working with alternative livelihoods that go into developing a community-based project and continue the conservation work? 

Ayanda Cele: Yes, we’ve just been informed that we received funding to start a “spring protection” project in Mgundeni and the neighbouring communities of Thekwane and Ndlamlenze who are also part of the biodiversity stewardship. In most cases, rural people harvest rainwater during the summer months but in winter they are forced to collect water from the rivers, fountains and springs, competing with livestock and in some cases even with pigs. The spring protection project is fantastic as it means that these communities will have access to clean water within their reach and in large quantities without having to wait long hours. The “spring protection” project will separate the springs into two sections, where the upper will be for people to collect water from a tap for human consumption and the lower part will be for livestock. If we take care of the community needs, the conservation side takes care of itself.  

Do you have any recommendations for the actors of the global conservation sector? 

Ayanda Cele: If we want to see more rural economic development, especially in developing countries, we need to invest funding and institutional knowledge into rural communities, and ensure that we upscale and upgrade the existing knowledge the communities possess. When it comes to biodiversity richness, South Africa is in the top three countries with highest biodiversity. Therefore the country is mandated to conserve biodiversity and make a meaningful contribution towards protected area expansion.  It was realized that there is a lot of rich biodiversity outside the state protected areas in properties that are in the hands of rural communities. I think it only makes sense to allocate more resources in rural community projects for the future of our society. WWF advocates for people to live in harmony with nature, and we don't want a situation in which iconic species are not generating income for the locals. I think working in rural communities and creating those benefits is the way to go.  

What are the specific investments that would be important for creating these benefits? What should the people and policymakers do? 

Ayanda Cele: I think policymakers should employ a bottom-up approach. They cannot go to these communities and say, “let’s do a spring protection project”, only to find that the project is not relevant to a particular community. The policymakers must analyse and find out what's the key important need for the community members. The activities must be aligned with conservation but identifying and creating a sense of ownership is very important because you want to have an exit strategy. We'll be working with these communities over many years into the future. That’s the most significant achievement. I think everyone dreams of it!