The unique flora of the Cape is under severe pressure from human activities. Early conservation efforts focused primarily on state owned land, much of which had originally been acquired for land uses other than conservation. As a result the fynbos of the mountainous areas is generally well protected in a considerable reserve network that was established for forestry purposes and to ensure plentiful supplies of clean drinking water for the growing human population below. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the lowlands where centuries of intensive agriculture have resulted in monocultures over almost all of the more fertile areas and much of the remaining natural areas are infested by invasive (alien) vegetation.
Since the 1970’s there has been significant investment into scientific research in the fynbos. This yielded a remarkable body of scientific literature and expertise on the composition, biodiversity value, ecology and threats posed to the fynbos region. During the 1990’s there was a growing concern about the challenges facing the fynbos. South Africa’s political transition signalled its return to the international community and also meant that the country became eligible to access funds from the Global Environment Fund (GEF) facility. Through the Cape Action Plan for People and the Environment (CAPE) significant funds were mobilised for fynbos conservation and a number of far reaching, co-operative, multi-sectoral conservation programs were initiated. The stage was set in the fynbos and broader Cape Floristic Region for a quiet revolution in the way fynbos was perceived and how it could be sustainably utilised, appreciated and conserved.
I have been directly involved in one of these programs, the Agulhas Biodiversity Initiative or ABI as she is affectionately called. The target area, the Agulhas Plain, provides a microcosm of the issues facing conservation authorities throughout the fynbos region. Some 25% of lowland fynbos of the Plain has been transformed by agriculture, and of the remaining habitat, the majority is invaded to some degree by Australian wattles and other invasive species. The wattles were planted in order to stabilise coastal dune fields during the mid-twentieth century and have subsequently spread into the fynbos, outcompeting and throttling the indigenous flora. Critically almost all of the lowlands are in private ownership and only about 5% is formally conserved. Other threats include rapidly escalating urbanization, especially coastal resort development, drainage of wetlands, inappropriate fire regimes and unsustainable flower harvesting. Socioeconomic issues are amplifying the effect of these threats. For generations the plight of poor rural communities has been largely ignored. In many of the towns and villages poverty is rife and as much as half of the inhabitants are unemployed. My work at Flower Valley, Grootbos, and the Walker Bay Fynbos Conservancy as part of ABI focuses on providing sustainable nature based livelihoods for local people as well as protecting and restoring our unique natural heritage.
In the Conservation category of this blog I will report on conservation initiatives in general within the fynbos region, but with a focus on my hands-on experiences at Grootbos, Green Futures, Growing the Future, Walker Bay Conservancy, Flower Valley and ABI.