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South Africa’s Cape Floral Kingdom: Protecting Endangered Species, Improving Lives in one of the World’s Most Biodiverse Regions

  • The United Nations recognizes portions of South Africa’s Cape Floristic Region as a World Heritage Natural Site
  • Climate change and rapid urban development threaten the Region’s rich biodiversity
  • A World Bank-supported project financed by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) has helped increase land conservation and create local jobs

CAPE TOWN, December 7, 2011—Rachel Abrahams was born and raised in the valley town of Kluitjieskraal in South Africa’s Western Cape province. She’s raised four children and seen friends and family struggle to find permanent employment in this mountain community known mostly for its fruit industry.

“Most people are unemployed in this area except for harvesting,” says Abrahams. “Famers do have some staff that stay on the farms, but a majority of people are just seasonal and work for six months of the year.”



For permanent work, says Abrahams, speaking her native Afrikaans, many locals must go several miles to the town of Tulbagh to the canning and processing plants there.

But in recent months, Abrahams has found a way to make a living for herself and other members of her community by taking into her own hands responsibility for the land around her home, and the trees and plants indigenous to it. Literally.

Abrahams is the supervisor of the Kluitjieskraal Nursery, a small open-air nursery in the village of Worchester. She, along with seven other women and two men, raises and nurtures over 20,000 indigenous tree saplings to sell to local farmers. The plants are of varying varieties and have names like Rooies, CapeHoly, Olienhout and Breeriver Geelhout (Wide River Yellow Wood in English).

These aren’t just any saplings. Abrahams’ “babies,” as she calls them, are trees indigenous to South Africa’s Western Cape province, many of them critically endangered. Once they reach a certain size, local farmers buy them and replant them on their land in an effort to stop erosion, rehabilitate rivers and restore plant species native to the Cape.

Protecting a Global Good

The nursery’s activities—restoring native plant life and in some cases removing alien species from the environment—as well as the jobs it provides and the people managing it are part of a wider effort aimed at ensuring the conservation of South Africa’s Cape Floristic Region, or Cape Floral Kingdom, and by extension improving the lives of the people living within it.

The work got underway with support from the World Bank through the Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Development Project, a recently completed $US9 million project designed in partnership with the South African government to mainstream biodiversity conservation into economic development and poverty alleviation. Other partners include the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

Stretching from Greater Cederberg in South Africa’s Northern Cape Province, around the Western Cape and into the Eastern Cape as far as Baviaanskloof, the Cape Floral Kingdom is one of only six floral kingdoms globally, and is among the world’s 25 most threatened biodiversity hotspots, according to Conservation International.

“The Cape Floral Region is the most biodiverse, non-tropical hotspot in the world,” says Rhett Smart, Stewardship Officer for the Cape West Coast Biosphere Reserve, one of about two dozen global, national and local organizations working together to ensure cooperation around, and conservation of, the Floral Kingdom. Plant diversity is particularly high here—the region is home to more than 9,600 native species, 70 percent of them found nowhere else on the planet.

Despite global recognition of the region’s importance, many of its plant and animal species remain under threat of extinction. The natural vegetation of the region’s lowlands has been removed to make way for agriculture and urban development; ecosystems have been damaged by over-extraction of water, frequent fires and the invasion of alien plants; and wilderness areas have been divided reducing populations of plants and animals. A total of 1,736 native plants are now considered critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable.

Climate change is also having an impact.

“Changing weather patterns affect already stressed ecosystems, reducing the ability of their species to survive over the long term,” says George Ledec, Lead Ecologist in the World Bank’s Africa Region and team leader for the biodiversity project. “On the other hand, establishing land corridors with native vegetation enables many of these species to adapt to climate change by gradually shifting to more favorable sites.”

According to Ledec, certain ecosystems can also lessen the damage from storms by reducing erosion and flood damage, thereby enabling human communities to adapt to climate change. Rich natural plant life, and the untilled soil beneath it, also stores carbon which helps with climate change mitigation; it can also have monetary value in the form of carbon credits.

Countries like South Africa must put in place mechanisms to deal with future climate changes, according to Mandy Barnett, coordinator of the C.A.P.E. program for the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), the agency implementing the biodiversity project.

“We don’t know what the climate future is going to be,” Barnett says. “We’ve got models that are telling us that across the Cape Floristic Region some areas are likely to be drier, some areas are likely to be wetter but we don’t know the timeframes.”

“What we’re saying,” she adds, “is where biodiversity can help is the more we can look after ecosystem services the more we can mitigate against future climate change impacts.”

Serving as a Steward of the Land

The Cape Floral Kingdom covers an area of almost 90,000 square kilometers. Government owns some of the land, but more than 80 percent of biodiversity occurs on privately-owned land. To ensure biodiversity conservation of these private areas, SANBI is working with landowners and farmers to make them stewards of the land.

Under the C.A.P.E.-supported stewardship program, landowners are encouraged to designate some of their land for long-term conservation and to refrain from cultivating these areas. Options for participation levels range from Nature Reserve (the strictest category) to Protected Environment, to Conservation Area (the most flexible category). Participating landowners are eligible for a variety of benefits, including tax incentives, technical assistance, and services that include the clearing of non-native vegetation and improved fire management; these benefits help to offset the income forgone by farming within a reduced land area.

“The project’s work to wed conservation efforts with boosting livelihoods lies at the frontier of sustainable development,” said Ruth Kagia, World Bank Country Director for South Africa. “We are proud to be a partner with South Africa in implementing this program which is achieving positive results on the ground.”

To date, 58 stewardship contracts have been signed with private land owners for conservation management. This has increased the area of endangered and critically endangered biodiversity under conservation by almost 300 percent.

On a hot Monday in June, Land Stewardship Officer for the City of Cape Town Ulricha Irlich stands on a large, privately-owned swath of land in South Africa’s West Coast Biosphere Reserve. She and her partner Andre Rossouw, and Botanist Rupert Koopman, are out assessing the value of the land for conversation. Following her assessment, the team will report their findings to a protected areas review committee, which then determines the level of engagement and type of contract with the landowner.

“We’re looking at alien species, we’re looking at the composition of the veldt—is it in good condition or bad condition? – the variety of species, are there any threatened or endangered species,” Koopman says. “Are there any rivers or streams, and the soil type.”

One of the private estates the team works with is the Klein Constantia Estate on the Cape Peninsula, one of South Africa’s largest winemakers and a member of the project-supported Biodiversity and Wine Initiative. Viticulturalist Stiaan Cloete oversees wine production on the 150-hectare estate and joined the stewardship program more than a year ago. Cloete has helped the owners set aside some 22 hectares for conservation, much of it covered with native fynbos vegetation.

“We’ve isolated 22 hectares that we’ll keep [for conservation purposes]; we’re not going to develop it at all,” says Cloete. “We’re doing it by ourselves, but it’s nice to have the BWI with us just to bring some expertise. They’ve got the right context and funding that can help us to get into these areas and really try to reestablish the fynbos.”

Going Forward

With a strong foundation of conversation management in place, the South African government is now working on a new 10-year strategy. Plans include increasing conservation areas through stewardship, encouraging income-generating activities for Cape residents, promoting public awareness of biodiversity and mobilizing additional funding from domestic sources with reduced reliance on outside funders.

“The first couple of years laid quite a good groundwork and framework,” according to Jennifer Souza, coordinator of the Greater Cederberg Biodiversity Corridor. “Going forward, it’s about sustaining the work we’ve done…but also looking at new opportunities. What are the gaps we weren’t able to fill…and what are the new areas of development.”


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