History has taught us that segregation of any type should be avoided, especially if we want diversity to flourish. This is as true for conservation as it is for human beings. Very few places on this planet are completely devoid of human interference, and as the human population continues to expand the pressures on these areas and every square inch of ground will only get greater. Thankfully, conservation ideologies are evolving, as we realise the limitations of only considering dedicated conservation areas as a way of protecting biodiversity and ecosystem services and move towards a multifaceted land use approach. This is illustrated in Aichi Target 11 of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Strategic Plan for 2011-2020 which calls on parties to achieve 17% coverage of terrestrial areas and 10% coverage of marine areas by both protected areas and ‘other effective area-based conservations measures (OECMs)’.
OECMs otherwise known as Conservation Areas are defined as “is a geographically defined area other than a Protected Area, which is governed and managed in ways that achieve positive and sustained long-term outcomes for the in-situ conservation of biodiversity, with associated ecosystem functions and services and where applicable, cultural, spiritual, socio-economic and other locally relevant values”, World Commission on Protected Areas. At a National Level, OECMs work hand-in-hand with protected areas allowing for alternative mechanisms to area-based conservation. This allows for more inclusive conservation approaches, as together with protected areas OECMs have the potential to create an enabling environment for private and communal landowners to engage in a conservation landscape with flexibility. Additionally, OECMs are intended to form part of integrated conservation landscape, contributing towards a mosaic of area-based conservation options which recognise and promote land already contributing towards biodiversity conservation, providing buffer zones for protected areas, creating ecological corridors, bolstering climate change adaption and securing investments into sustainable use areas.
Across the forestry landscape you will find numerous formally Protected Areas dedicated to the conservation of a species, ecosystem service or type. This, however, is just a fraction of the natural and semi-natural area we have within the forestry landscape, which is a patchwork mosaic of planted compartments, indigenous forests, grassland and wetlands, fynbos and riverine ecosystems. All of which form a network of corridors and channels that link protected areas both inside and outside of the forestry landscape.
The Belfast Wetlands is a great example of this, 3 500 ha of wetlands within a larger forestry plantation that forms a network of corridors linking the Greater Lakenvlei Protected Environment with Langkloof Private Nature Reserve. Camera traps revealed the greater Lakenvlei wetland to be the first ever recorded breeding site for White-winged Flufftails in South Africa, of which there are estimated to be only 250 breeding pairs left in the world. They, like many other wetland birds, use the wetlands as steppingstones along their migratory routes. Indeed, if you stop and take time to look at these wetlands you begin to see the treasure trove of biodiversity they support and the host of ecosystem services they provide.
Wetlands are South Africa’s saviour when it comes to the conservation and purification of water. They prevent flooding by soaking up the water that comes rushing down from the mountain rivers and streams, which they absorb like a sponge until it is ready for releasing. In this time, they help purify the water, ensuring the quality of water leaving a wetland is far greater than that of the water entering it. In a water scares country that recently felt the impact of extreme flash flooding, the importance of these natural water management systems could not be more relevant.
Unfortunately, wetlands are also the most threatened and unprotected ecosystem type in South Africa. Wetlands were once used solely for our benefit, with little regard to the impact this was having. As a result, we have been left with a fragmented habitat, yet even this has huge conservation potential if correctly managed and the Belfast Wetlands are a great example of this.
SAFCOL actively manage their plantation landscape not just in a sustainable agricultural manner, but also ensuring that plantation management does not adversely impact on the large tracks of natural habitat found amongst the plantations. These are then actively managed in favour of their biodiversity values and ecosystem functions and services. There are incredibly strict management plans in place that ensure the natural areas are adequately protected at the meeting point between the two. This is done through the use of buffer zones and management plans to limit encroachment.
As well as providing important habitats for critically endangered species and forming part of a larger wetland system that supports ecosystem functions and connectivity, the Belfast Wetlands also offer ecotourism opportunities for people to explore, appreciate and learn to value this very special environment.
This multifaceted approach to land management is not just a more realistic approach to conservation, as it opens a wealth of new conservation opportunities that stretch beyond the traditional ideology of separate conservation spaces and combines social, economic and environmental benefits. SAFCOL was approached by Kruger to Canyons Biosphere Region, through the project implementers Birdlife SA to conduct an assessment of conservation areas that fall out of formally protected areas. SAFCOL agreed to the engagement and assessment. This was a pilot project and Belfast wetlands was one of 9 potential OECMs being considered asa way of ensuring nature stewardship beyond formally protective area.
For anyone wanting to know more about this incredible project or OECM status, please take five minutes to watch the beautiful and powerful video commissioned by Kruger to Canyon on behalf of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) and their collaborators on the Belfast wetlands
Source: Forestry in Focus