Supporting local communities through biodiversity conservation

Monday, May 23, 2022

Government has once again demonstrated its commitment towards ensuring that local communities are supported and uplifted whilst also ensuring that the country’s unique natural environments and resources are conserved.

Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, Barbara Creecy, demonstrated this commitment through the formal launch of the Thohoyandou National Botanical Garden on Sunday as part of the International Day for Biodiversity celebrations.

International Day was celebrated under theme: “Building a shared future for all life,” which was aptly captured during the launch’s proceedings.

According to the Minister, the establishment of the Thohoyandou National Botanical Garden paves the way for future initiatives that aim to protect the country’s precious biodiversity and simultaneously uplifts and supports local communities, whereby South Africans continue to learn to build a shared future for all life.

“Conserving and restoring ecosystems, such as wetlands, rivers, and catchments, can reduce the disastrous impacts of extreme weather events, including floods and droughts,” Creecy said.

The Thohoyandou National Botanical Garden supplements South Africa’s network of national botanical gardens by contributing approximately 82 hectares of the Soutpansberg Mountain Bushveld. With only a mere 2.2% of this threatened vegetation type currently under formal protection, the declaration and launch serves as a conservation win for the country and its people. 

Situated within the Vhembe Biosphere Reserve, the largest biosphere reserve in the country, the garden is home to a number of unique butterfly species, insects and threatened plant species. Of special importance, not just to conservation but also to the local communities are the various plant species that have important medicinal properties and value.

“South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) envisages that the plan for the Thohoyandou Garden will increase its educational value, financial viability and the interest and support of visitors, tourists, and the local community. We envisage the garden design where the choice of species represents multiple values of plants to the people, communicated in highly innovative, yet culturally appropriate ways,” said SANBI Chairperson, Prof Edward Nesamvuni.

The botanical garden is expected to play a role in highlighting and promoting indigenous plants that are used for food, African arts, medicine, perfumes, traditional architecture, horticulture, and agriculture, and a garden that serves to increase the connection between people and biodiversity.

The infrastructure that the garden hosts will serve as a biodiversity centre for the province, showcasing traditional botanical garden features and scientific research facilities.

“As a nature-based, cultural and scientific tourism attraction, the garden will contribute to the socio-economic development of the area, supporting the surrounding communities including the youth, students and local businesses. In addition to the conservation and socio-economic value that the garden has, it also holds insurmountable cultural significance especially to the Mphaphuli community members, who live in and around this area,” the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment said.

Garden to support communities

The land, now included under the conservation estate of the country, was part of a land claim lodged by the Mphaphuli and Tshiluvhi communities, who were forcefully removed from their land in the past.

“These communities by agreeing to the governments offer of being financially compensated for their land and allowing their land to form part of a greater initiative, had already identified and appreciated the essence of what Building a shared future for all life, meant,” the department said.

This garden will continue to support communities by ensuring access to the ancestral gravesites and ruins; ensuring that there is historical acknowledgement through the naming of structures in the garden, including traditional designs adapted from the rich traditional knowledge of the Mphaphuli Community.

The garden will also host workshops for traditional leaders and healers to raise awareness around sustainable harvesting of medicinal plants; local students will also benefit from educational programmes; and overall, the garden will create temporary job opportunities for the local communities. 

“South Africa is equipped with a number of interventions to address the challenges faced by biodiversity and the negative impacts that has on people. Strategic implementation of these interventions and its translation into impactful actions will assist in maintaining a holistic approach to conservation whereby the relationship between nature and people is at the forefront,” the department said.

One such strategic policy intervention is the National Botanical Gardens Expansion Strategy published in 2019.

“The Strategy aims to firstly, establish at least one botanical garden in each province; secondly to ensure that all biomes are represented in the establishment of new botanical gardens and lastly to expand existing national botanical gardens as we have recently done for the Harold Porter National Botanical Garden in the Western Cape,’’ Creecy said.

The establishment, future developments and improvements to the Thohoyandou National Botanical Garden will be aligned to this strategy. –

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