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The Eastern Cape has the highest level of biodiversity in SA. As such, it is important to protect the province’s flora and fauna from habitat loss, alien species, pollution, human activity and overconsumption. 

To achieve this, many nature reserves and protected areas have been established.

From the Silaka Nature Reserve close to the northern border, to the Garden Route National Park in the south, the province has an abundance of areas in which reserves have been established alongside communities.

The Dwesa-Cwebe Nature Reserve on the Wild Coast is 5,450ha of hills and grassland interspersed with woodland and patches of forest supporting a diversity of animal and bird life.

To this add the 19,293ha Dwesa-Cwebe Marine Protected Area that supports many marine species. The level of biodiversity in both the marine and land environments is important in sustaining local livelihoods and tourism.

Residents who make up the local community in the area are mainly amaXhosa who have lived here for hundreds of years and for whom the land holds historical, cultural and livelihood significance.

This community makes use of a range of natural local resources including thatch, sand and clay, wood, reeds, plants, bush meat, fish and shellfish to sustain and maintain livelihoods. Grazing resources are also important.

When reserves such as Dwesa-Cwebe were established, the vested interests of local communities was not always well considered.

While the balancing of human activities vs protecting the environment lies at the heart of conservation discourse, this can be problematic for communities who depend on natural resources.

The proclamation of protected areas in the form of national parks and provincial nature and game reserves in SA has led to dispossession, relocation and restrictions on entry for local communities.

They have been deprived of or limited from accessing the natural resources contained within the borders of these reserves.

This has led to fractured relationships with reserve management, where communities may view conservation rights and the economic advancement of few as more important than their rights, needs and best interests.

In a postapartheid era, it is essential to devise strategies promoting a more inclusive, participatory and human-centred approach to conservation.

Interventions are required where the management of reserves and parks work with communities to harmonise preservation aims with community livelihoods.

A range of laws and policies have been introduced to promote conservation objectives while advancing the land reform agenda.

In the case of Dwesa-Cwebe this led to the establishment of Community Property Associations (CPAs). The main objective of the CPAs was to provide for community participation in the management and use of land and natural resources in the reserve. A study was conducted among members of the Dwesa-Cwebe CPA to determine if they experienced a sense of inclusion, ownership and meaningful participation in the management and protection of the reserve.

Community members felt they were seen as unequipped with skills related to nature reserve management. A lack of historic access to educational structures lies at the heart of this perceived inadequacy.

Community members believe they possess indigenous knowledge of the area and that this knowledge could be used in management of the reserve.

There is merit in this, both in terms of promoting a more inclusive approach to knowledge management and fostering a deeper sense of commitment to conservation management objectives.

Community members also highlighted a lack of consultation in relation to activities directly linked to their daily lives, such as shellfish harvesting and grazing access.

Again, this is a call for the recognition of indigenous knowledge in contributing towards conservation practices.

Community ownership and participation in the management of reserves should promote sustainable development through providing incomegenerating opportunities.

It was reported that while Dwesa-Cwebe was generating revenue, CPA members were not aware how this money was being used.

Transparency should prevail and community members should understand how income generated is used. Further, greater participation in the management of the reserve could allow CPA members to identify revenue-generating opportunities that could be funded, and a portion of the revenue directed towards community development initiatives.

It was also found that community participation largely takes place through consultation forums. Members do not see these forums as truly participative.

A more bottom-up consultative approach would allow for greater discourse and understanding of the roles, responsibilities and accountability of different stakeholders.

There is an imbalance in the relationship between the CPAs and reserve management. It seems a brittle relationship that is not based on trust.

Active participation of local communities leads to more interest and involvement in conservation initiatives. Focusing on community participation in conservation has ecological and socioeconomic benefit.

It is therefore important that the management and conservation of nature reserves focus on realising win-win outcomes and minimising tradeoffs between environmental and socioeconomic considerations.

It is only then that nature reserves such as Dwesa-Cwebe will be able to truly conserve the biodiversity of our provinces and preserve the rights and interests of the people who reside in these areas.

This article appeared in The Herald (South Africa) on 8 March 2022 written by LUYOLO MAHLANGABEZA and LOYISO ZWELAKHELuyolo is a lecturer and research supervisor in the Faculty of Business and Economic Sciences at Nelson Mandela University. Loyiso is a former student in the Faculty. This article is based on a paper originally published by the authors in the Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences. The views are those of the authors and not Nelson Mandela University.