SA gets serious about its grasslands

13 July 2010

National and provincial officials responsible for environmental affairs have signed the Grasslands Declaration, committing the government to the conservation of South Africa’s grasslands – the second largest biome in the country, and one of the most threatened.

The declaration was signed last week by Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Buyelwa Sonjica and provincial ministers from Gauteng, North West, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Free State, Kwa-Zulu Natal, Eastern Cape, Northern Cape and the Western Cape.

Taking active measures

The declaration is an effort to collaborate in good faith to pursue biodiversity targets and objectives in securing and sustaining the ecosystem services of the grasslands biome.

It also intends to take active measures to involve a wide range of interested and affected parties, including local communities and resource users, in the management and conservation of biodiversity in the grasslands biome.

“The goal is to sustain and secure biodiversity and associated ecosystem services of the grasslands biome for the benefit of current and future generations,” said the Department of Environmental Affairs in a statement last week.

Second largest biome

The South African grasslands biome is the second-largest biome in South Africa, covering an area of 339 237 square kilometres, and it occurs in seven of South Africa’s nine provinces.

The grasslands biome is one of the most threatened biomes in South Africa, with 30% irreversibly transformed and only 1.9% of the biodiversity target for the biome formally conserved.

Sonjica said that grasslands contain the economic heartland of South Africa and produces the bulk of water needed to sustain human life and underpin economic growth.

The grasslands biome provides essential ecosystems services, such as water production and soil retention necessary for economic development, and contains important biodiversity of global and domestic significance and value.

“Several of South Africa’s priority river catchments occur in the grasslands biome, including the Thukela River catchment,” said Sonjica. “Good management of South Africa’s mountain grasslands will result in more water released back into the river catchment system in the form of 12.8 cubic meters of water in winter river flows.

“In rand value, this equates to between R18-million and R88.7-million per annum.”

Grasslands Programme

The government established the Grasslands Programme to protect and conserve grasslands. The Grasslands Programme is managed through the South African National Biodiversity Institute in collaboration with the Department of Environmental Affairs.

Given that the ecosystem services and biodiversity of the grasslands are found across the biome and cannot be secured only through formal conservation areas, the programme’s unique conservation approach includes working with various production sectors to reach conservation targets.

Alternative approach

The Grasslands Programme seeks to implement an alternative approach of mainstreaming by working in partnership with the agriculture, forestry, urban development and coal mining sectors to secure and sustain grasslands.

In Wakkerstroom, Mpumalanga, commercial and communal farmers are committing to manage their land in a way that protects biodiversity through stewardship. The Programme is also working with land reform beneficiaries whose land contains important biodiversity.

The Grasslands Programme and Forestry South Africa (FSA) are working with forestry companies to have set aside 37 sites comprising approximately 427nbsp;000 hectares for conservation.

“This is an important step the commercial forestry sector is taking to conserve biodiversity rich land and protect the water production value of the grasslands,” the department said. “The significance of this action is that collectively these sites will extend the area of the grasslands biome under formal conservation by almost 5%.”

Conservation in urban areas

To conserve significant sites for biodiversity in urban areas, the programme is working in partnership with Gauteng’s municipalities, including Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality (The greater East Rand).

“The signing of the Grasslands Declaration will strengthen cooperative governance and fast track initiatives underway to protect grasslands in Ekurhuleni,” the department said.

Ekurhuleni still has relatively high ecosystem services value linked to the wetlands in the area. Ekurhuleni is located on the continental divide and is therefore in the upper part of at least three water catchment areas.

One of the initiatives that have come off the ground in Ekurhuleni is the Leeupan Regional Park Project in Boksburg, just north of the N17. The project is aimed at rehabilitating an existing wetland to a functioning ecosystem.

In addition, an environmental education precinct centre will be established to create meeting space for surrounding communities and allow them to engage in environmental and recreational activities.

SAinfo reporter

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