Improving the relationship between man and nature

Facing drought, low growth, pressure to meet international climate change accords, and a need for skills development and employment, South Africa needs to develop systems in which environmental sustainability and economic development build each other and cease to be treated as conflicting objectives. This is work that is being tackled by the Unesco Biosphere Reserves and the Man and Biosphere Programme (MAB) that governs them.

South Africa has eight registered biospheres that cumulatively cover 8.4 percent of the country’s land area. Representatives of these projects, along with representatives from four other initiatives on the brink of becoming official biospheres, came together with the Department of Environmental Affairs this week to discuss how to promote and implement the values of biospheres in South Africa.

Biospheres are not nature reserves. At their core is a conservation area that includes only environmentally sensitive human activity but the total biosphere area reaches beyond these to include farming, industrial and residential areas. It is an interaction. The goal is not to cut people off from natural resources but to improve the relationship between man and nature so that the necessities of both can be met.

In the Limpopo River Basin – home to 18 million people – the water supply of the Limpopo is already fully allocated with no room to grow. Mines and other industrial projects are not able to start or expand due to the lack of available water licences.

The USAid Resilim Project has taken it upon itself to address water security in the Limpopo Basin. It has identified key high altitude catchment areas where water production is 100 times greater per hectare than the rest of the basin. These areas are covered by biospheres giving them a crucial role not just in conservation, but in securing the area’s economic potential.

The role of these biospheres will be to engage local communities, businesses, and municipal stakeholders to implement projects that have a more sensitive impact on water resources. In this way the biospheres will improve health standards, aid job creation, and raise living standards beyond their own jurisdictions. It is a prime example of how biospheres and the MAB programme enable development, rather than hinder it. Economic and environmental goals are not mutually exclusive.

During the formation of the Greater uMngeni Biosphere Reserve – one of the four awaiting registration – the three municipalities surrounding it recognised that biospheres are a strong aid to their work. The proposed area for the biosphere grew to encompass them and the project now covers 2 287km2 and includes 19 towns. Using a combination of core and inhabited areas, the reserve is able to take highly polluted water coming out of the Midmar Dam and transform it into water of natural quality by the time it reaches Albert Falls Town 12km downstream. In the Gouritz Cluster Biosphere Reserve Spekboom is grown in vast plantations and sold for carbon credits.

Solutions rolled out

The Cape Winelands Biosphere has spent the year developing simple food gardens that can be grown on concrete and infertile soil. Along with training programmes, these solutions are being rolled out in townships to enhance food security, improve vocational skills among the unemployed, and through greening of the townships, prevent effluent run off into the local rivers. In partnership with Athenee Action Humanitaire based in Luxembourg, they have also rolled out a two-year eco-educational programme to educate thousands of youth to start their own green economy businesses. Areas of focus are tourism, recycling and urban farming.

Biospheres are not a ring-fence but a relationship. While sitting as a fly on the wall in their meetings I was impressed by the level to which they were promoting collaboration. Of the 120 countries that have biospheres, South Africa is the first to set up a biosphere trust that links all biospheres in the country to work as one aligned unit. There is strong emphasis on local collaboration and breaking down the silos among municipalities, farmers, businesses and the general public.

It’s a philosophy that should find its way into our lives – how do we build platforms to work together and challenge the status quo on seemingly conflicting problems?