Protecting ecosystems while redressing land dispossession

With conservation sitting uneasily alongside redress in SA, attempts to ensure restitution for communities evicted from their land under apartheid – government-owned and private – have met with mixed success

Phinda Private Game Reserve in northern KwaZulu-Natal is not your average piece of bushveld. New species — the Phinda button spider, for example — continue to be discovered there; the reserve has a diverse habitat that includes the extremely rare sand forest; and it is home to a 1,500-year-old Lebombo wattle. It has also contributed to conservation efforts by relocating cheetah and endangered black rhino, among other rare species, to boost regional populations.

But Phinda holds another mark of distinction: it is the site of a land claim that has been a resounding success in a country littered with land restitution failures.

Conservation sits uneasily alongside redress in SA. Historically, it dovetailed neatly with systematised racial oppression under apartheid: when national parks and nature reserves were formalised or expanded, resident communities were booted out; and private game reserves were often established on private holdings that had previously been the site of dispossession.

As a result of the Restitution of Land Rights Act of 1994, communities who had been evicted from their land between 1913 and the end of apartheid had until 1998 to lodge claims for the return of their land or for “equitable redress”. While the return of government-owned conservation land was taken off the table, claimant communities could he case for six communities who received a combined R84m for their claims on land in the Kruger National Park). Alternatively, they could choose to receive land elsewhere, or enter into a co-management agreement with the government.

A number of the claims within protected areas were resolved through a combination of these, with communities entering into co-management agreements under which they would benefit from, for example, tourism income.

Co-management is a system that requires careful balancing of conservation with community interest. Joana Bezerra, an environmental science postdoctoral fellow at Rhodes University, writes on The Conversation website that co-management can fuel community resentment if it sidesteps the importance of cultural heritage.

“If the cultural and historical importance of the land aren’t taken into account, communities might not be fully committed to conservation measures,” she says. “In some cases, conservation agencies [have] used co-management agreements to reach conservation goals which, at times, were at the expense of communities’ needs.”

In the case of Phinda, a careful balance benefits the claimant communities as well as conservation efforts that began on this patchwork of former game farms and pineapple plantations back in 1991.

In 2007, comprehensive negotiations resulted in more than 9,000ha of the 13,000ha reserve being returned to the Mnqobokazi and Makhasa communities. Both community trusts signed a 36-year lease with &Beyond (then Conservation Corp Africa), with first rights to review for another 36 years, receiving R9m each for development within the reserve, and a monthly rental of R188,000 each (it has since escalated to a combined R528,300).

The view from Phinda’s Forest Lodge.
For the Mnqobokazi community, the decision to keep the land under conservation was economic, says community trust chair Jabulani Nxumalo.
“Phinda was well marketed domestically and internationally,” he says. In addition, the reserve’s proximity to the iSimangaliso World Heritage Site — an international tourist attraction — would provide “great opportunities … that not only help local economic sustainability but also [support] street vendors and increase job opportunities”.

The Mnqobokazi decided &Beyond should continue operating on the land, given its experience in the sector. But under the terms of the agreement, the company would also train community members in the commercial aspects of the business.

It’s gone beyond that: 129 members of surrounding communities have also completed employment training at &Beyond’s lodges, and more than a third of these continue to be employed by the company.

Since the resolution of the original claim, three pieces of land adjacent to Phinda have been returned to the communities — and subsequently leased to &Beyond to expand the reserve.

Nxumalo says the community trust last year distributed more than R1.1m directly to its 225 beneficiary households. It has also established a funeral scheme and bursary programme for school-leavers, paid for the electrification of 120 households and built a community hall.

&Beyond has also contributed to uplifting the community. Its nonprofit arm, the Africa Foundation, has built extensive community infrastructure, including facilities at 11 crèches and 15 schools; established a clinic; and arranged water supply and equipment for three farms. The foundation has taught crafting, business and financial literacy skills to locals; and through a training and mentorship programme it teaches artisanal skills and business acumen to contractors from the surrounding communities.

It seems obvious that communities who receive tangible benefits from protected land are more likely to feel invested in its ecological wellbeing — and Phinda, notably, has had just two rhino poaching incidents since 2016 (though a number of factors will have contributed to this). But to be successful, negotiations that give rise to co-management arrangements need to be inclusive of the broader community.

Phinda manager Simon Naylor says one of the biggest lessons the company has learnt is that “community development committees must be as representative and as apolitical as possible. It is important to include women, the youth, the educated sector [usually teachers], the traditional authority and local government in the core committee.”

And it’s about more than signing cheques. “You need to build trust with the development committees, other neighbours and conservation authorities. This takes time — and trust must be earned rather than bought.”

Phinda may be an exemplar of mutually beneficial collaboration at the private level, but it’s a model that would seem to have shown some success in government-owned protected areas too.

If the Kruger National Park is the SA National Parks’ (SANParks’) crown, then the Makuleke Conservancy, at its northern tip, may be its brightest jewel. A landscape of dramatic gorges, ancient baobabs and spectral fever tree forests, the roughly 240km² region forms just 1% of the Kruger, yet represents a hefty 75% of its diversity.

The area has been part of the park since the 1960s, when the people living there were forcibly removed. When their land claim was successfully resolved in 1999, the community was not permitted to return, but it was granted co-management of the land with SANParks, and involved in the appointment of rent-paying concessionaires.

Sam Dalais of Return Africa, one of Makuleke’s two tourism concessionaires, says the company has “a vigorous and ongoing programme to advance community members into skilled positions”. Most of its field guides and several senior managers are drawn from the roughly 65 community members who work there.

Return Africa pays the Makuleke communal property association (CPA) 10% of its revenue, with a minimum fee guaranteed, regardless of performance (Dalais says exact figures are confidential). Guests also donate funds to the Makuleke CPA; this year alone, they gave more than R210,000 to “drop-in centres”, where children can do homework, play sport and be given a meal.

“We also buy a range of goods and services from Makuleke and other suppliers from the local area,” Dalais says, suggesting that this “is a significant contribution to the local economy”.

It’s a claim that’s difficult to verify. Makuleke is often held up as a shining example of successful co-management, and as a win for the community and environment. But without hard numbers — Return Africa, its co-concessionaire Rare Earth and the CPA itself were not forthcoming on this — it’s hard to quantify the effect in the lives of those community members who haven’t secured employment in the reserve.

A !Xaus Lodge game drive vehicle.

Like the Makuleke, the Khomani San were forced to make way for a national reserve during apartheid. In their case, they were banished to the barren edges of the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park (now part of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park). A ban on hunting in the park forced them to abandon their self-sufficient way of life.

In 1999, the Khomani San land claim was settled, together with that of the Mier people, who’d also been removed from the park. Though they were not able to return, nearly 60,000ha was demarcated as the !Ae!Hai Heritage Park, to be jointly managed by SANParks and the two communities. There, Khomani San children and teens are taught traditional knowledge and culture at a veld school, though the frequency depends on available funding. And community members are allowed access to the land at any time (though this requires a vehicle, which most don’t have).

!Xaus, a luxury lodge jointly owned by the Khomani San and Mier, was established within !Ae!Hai in 2007. Though the Khomani San CPA has received only R910,742 in direct earnings since then, the lodge does provide employment (typically eight or nine jobs for each community) and an opportunity to showcase Khomani San culture to the world.

At any given time, there are also eight crafters living at the lodge making curios. Not only is this a lifeline in an economic wasteland (they’ve made more than R1.4m since the lodge opened); it’s also a way of keeping age-old skills alive.

And things are looking up, with visitor numbers likely to grow: the “Khomani Cultural Landscape” was declared a world heritage site in 2017; and last year !Ae!Hai was designated an “international dark sky sanctuary“, putting it on the map for astronomy tourists. Construction will soon begin on a new SANParks rest camp, named after the late Khomani leader Dawid Kruiper.

A profit-sharing agreement will ensure the CPA receives a guaranteed income of R600,000 a year.

Elsewhere, the claim has been less successful. The Khomani San were given six farms outside the park as part of the claim settlement. But a lack of capacity and oversight, factional conflict and allegations of corruption and mismanagement have put the future of these at risk, dashing hopes that they may offer a path out of grinding poverty.

Green shoots have begun to emerge as a result of external assistance. The Peace Parks Foundation, among others, provides funding, technical support and capacity training. Government has also provided a R20m grant through the environmental protection & infrastructure programme to develop infrastructure on the farms, to ensure participation in the wildlife economy.

In 2012, Erin — one of the six farms — received game from the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, and a tented camp was built to attract both hunting and eco-tourism. Though earnings do not yet cover Erin’s full costs — and salaries of its eight full-time staff are covered by donor funding — the farm provides much-needed employment in a region where jobs are scarcer than water. During hunting season, its staff complement swells by an additional 24 workers.

Though the viability of the Khomani San’s various income-generating initiatives is far from assured, the boost in funding and technical support over the past decade suggests the prospect of the community transcending apartheid’s devastating legacy is slowly improving.

• I have visited the Makuleke concession as a guest of Return Africa and Rare Earth, as well as !Xaus Lodge as a guest of TFPD. I visited Phinda as a guest of &Beyond.

An edited version of this article appeared in Financial Mail’s 9 January 2020 edition under the heading “Land: SA’s conservation conundrum”.


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