Heritage sites can be sustainably developed to benefit land reform beneficiary communities

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Meeting the aspirations of land reform beneficiaries while ensuring the preservation of land located in heritage sites remains a fairly complex process. However, conservation and socio-economic development can complement each other when land of high natural resource value is awarded to its rightful owners as part of the land reform programme.

The land restitution programme commenced in the 1990s to return ownership of ancestral land to claimant communities, where they were forcibly removed by the apartheid regime. The programme has been fraught with complexities, particularly in cases where the claimed land operates as a protected area of national and global importance.

Typically, when a claim is restored against a protected area, the beneficiary community has limited development rights over the area. This means that the community has to find agreement with authority that is charged with the management of the protected area before any development can be implemented inside the protected area. This has meant that communities are limited in terms of what they can do to develop the land.

The Bhangazi community, who successfully lodged a claim on iSimangaliso Wetland Park, is one such community. They were forcibly removed from the shores of Lake Bhangazi in the 1950s and 1970s where they resided in what is now a section of the land called the iSimangaliso Wetland Park World Heritage Site in KwaZulu-Natal. The 239 566-hectare park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.

Upon their land being restituted as part of the land reform programme, the community formed a Trust that will participate on matters related to the management of the claimed land on behalf of the community.

As one of the conditions of settling the land claim, the community is allowed to develop about 5 hectares of the restored land for tourism purposes. The Bhangazi community intends to develop a 60-bed lodge on the shores of Lake Bhangazi, in a way that has minimal impact on the surrounding environment. The construction of the lodge, rightfully called the ‘Heritage Lodge’ will commence next year, pending investment of R20 million from the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF). The investment is a government effort towards ensuring that claimants have funding to develop lodges in claimed land that is owned by communities.

Joyce Gumede, Chairperson of the Bhangazi CPA, captured the frustration of the community when she said, “While government has made efforts to support us in ensuring that we benefit from the land, land remains a very emotive issue for our people. There have been many restrictions relating to what can and cannot be done, given the protected habitat of the land, the trees and the wildlife. For example, we cannot live here anymore, as this land is now a World Heritage site, and several developments have been made on the land.”

She further highlighted that, the community cannot go into the park as and when they please, as they need approval to gain access to the land for juncus (incema) harvest, used for making traditional mats which are a big income generator for the community. The traditional mats are sold to tourists as souvenirs and used widely across the country for traditional ceremonies.

“While we now understand the implications of this site being a World Heritage Site, our desire is that the community benefits from this, as this is equally our land. We would like to have opportunities to access jobs and in turn begin to create jobs for future generations,” noted Gumede.

According to Bheki Manzini from Isimangaliso Wetlands Park, “Some of the access restrictions imposed on communities are designed to ensure that natural resources harvesting in formal protected areas is undertaken in a sustainable manner informed by relevant research to set up quotas and time of harvesting.”

Manzini noted, “Of importance in the land reform process on heritage sites, is to strike a balance in appeasing the needs of the community, restoring ownership of land to its rightful owners and upholding environmental conservation priorities to ensure long term sustainability of the natural resources.”

There are currently 14 claims that have been made on Isimangaliso Wetlands Park.

Piet Theron, an independent transaction advisor from African Safari Foundation appointed by Vumelana Advisory Fund to support the community to conclude commercial agreements for this development, points out that the complexities of managing a heritage site involves reaching a compromise between preserving a global asset, but doing so in a way that generates benefits for the people it rightfully belongs to.

He explains that “There will always be tension between stakeholders who wish to preserve the integrity of the surrounding environment and those who seek to develop the land to stimulate economic activity and create much-needed employment opportunities.

“These seemingly conflicting interests put the beneficiary communities and the other stakeholders at loggerheads. This often creates tension, because there is a developmental imperative that is pitted against a conservation agenda. If communities cannot extract benefits from these areas, they’re not going to see the value of the areas and the wildlife in this area” Theron says.

Vumelana is of the view that conservation and the need to develop the land does not have to be mutually exclusive but can actually complement each other.

In a bid to ensure that the community reaps economic benefits from their ancestral land while maintaining the integrity of the land, Vumelana is supporting a process to facilitate the establishment and running of the tourism business by securing the expertise that will market the business, giving it access to markets.

Vumelana has supported the community throughout the various stages leading up to the current status of the Environmental Impact Assessment. The next step will be a process to identify a private investor to partner with the community in developing its lodge.

“The tourism business will employ the local community from its 500 beneficiary households, and the business is expected to create other entrepreneurship and employment opportunities for the community across the value chain. So employment and entrepreneurship opportunities will be created during the construction phase and when the operations commence,” says Theron.

Explaining the Vumelana model, Mazwi Mkhulisi, Vumelana’s Programmes Manager says “Often the gap is in support, because the community needs assistance to translate the rights they have over the land to an investment-ready enterprise. The technical and advisory support helps to plug this gap and capacitates the community to make their land commercially viable within the existing environmental, social and governance frameworks”.

Mkhulisi who has been working closely with the transaction advisory team on this project, commented, “Our view at Vumelana is that the success of the land reform programme can be measured by how successfully we can enable communities to make their land productive. In the Bhangazi case, our support also serves a crucial purpose of preserving legacy areas while restoring communities dignity.”

By Vumelana Advisory Fund 

Vumelana means to agree with one another.

The Vumelana Advisory Fund (Vumelana) is a non-profit organisation that helps beneficiaries of land reform programmes to put their land to profitable use by establishing commercially viable partnerships between communities and investors. Vumelana was established in 2012 to support the establishment of commercially viable partnerships between investors and local community landowners to create jobs, income and skills. It aims, among other things, to demonstrate the value of Community Private Partnerships (CPPs) as a contributor to successful land reform. To date, Vumelana has facilitated 20 partnerships, putting approximately 87 800 hectares of land to productive use; assisting over 15 000 beneficiary households across the country.