BirdLife South Africa coordinates the Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBA) Programme (a BirdLife International Programme) in South Africa, which are priority sites specifically for birds, but also for other biodiversity. IBAs more often than not include privately owned, multiple-use landscapes, supporting biodiversity, people and development. Of South Africa’s 122 IBAs, more than 60% is unprotected. One of the biggest challenges for BirdLife South Africa is to obtain legal protection to safe guard IBAs from unsustainable development. The South African government published the National Protected Areas Expansion Strategy of South Africa (NPAES, 2008) to address the expansion of the protected area estate, and meeting biodiversity conservation targets, as well as sustainable development objectives. It also outlines the mechanisms by which to achieve this, one of which is Biodiversity Stewardship. Biodiversity Stewardship provides a policy-enabled, cost effective conservation tool to expand the protected area network through voluntary legal agreements with private landowners. The NPAES and Biodiversity Stewardship Programme provide the opportunity for BirdLife South Africa to formally protect priority IBAs and assist to meet development objectives. BirdLife South Africa, in partnership with provincial government and environmental organizations, has been engaging landowners towards declaring over 100 000 ha of Protected Environments (a formal protected area) in priority grassland, wetland and estuary IBAs. These declarations will meaningfully contribute towards conserving these habitats, whilst maintaining livelihoods from livestock farming, agriculture and tourism; ensuring food and water security, and mitigating for climate change. They are visionary and once finalised will go down in South Africa’s history as a true representation of inspired good governance.
IBAs need protection in a development and production landscape: Over 60% of South Africa’s IBA network is not protected. South Africa’s protected area network cannot be extended through the conventional proclamation of state owned land as nature reserves or national parks. Conventional protected areas are also impractical in these large, multiple-use landscapes, where development objectives are prioritized and conflicts exist between land distribution, mineral resource extraction, agricultural production and biodiversity conservation.
In a developing country where resources for conservation are limited and often in conflict with other development objectives, Biodiversity Stewardship offers a viable alternative to increasing the protected areas network while maintaining (and often improving) the economic viability of existing land use practices in production landscapes. Biodiversity Stewardship allows and assists landowners to manage for the parallel objectives of economically-viable land uses (e.g. agriculture, game and livestock farming and tourism), improved habitat condition, and biodiversity conservation.
Biodiversity Stewardship is unique in that it allows protected area expansion into privately owned land. Biodiversity Stewardship is supported by enabling legislation under protected area expansion and fiscal benefits, and is achieved through collaborative government-private sector partnerships.
By protecting important habitats such as grasslands and wetlands through Biodiversity Stewardship, development objectives such as carbon sequestration to mitigate climate change, water security and food security are achieved, while additional development through job creation in tourism or land management are created.
Biodiversity Stewardship is reliant on collaborative partnerships between government and private sectors, as well as a receptive land owner community. It also needs to be flexible in its approach to adapt to local conditions.
While partners have been effective at declaring sites as protected areas, there remains a question around post-proclamation sustainability. This is because a model for supporting and maintaining these sites is still to be developed. Also, certain fiscal benefits are still underused, and these need to be better defined and made accessible. The model is also still very reliable on provincial government capacity, and new models need to be explored to develop Biodiversity Stewardship outside of government constraints. Conservation NGO support to provincial governments is essential in declaring protected areas using Biodiversity Stewardship.
This Biodiversity Stewardship model has now been adopted by most NGOs and provincial government departments as a means to extend South Africa’s protected areas network. Since 2004, 31 new protected areas have been proclaimed.
In 2014 BirdLife South Africa was instrumental in the successful proclamation of the Mpumalanga Lakes District Protected Environment, consisting of 16 different land owners, covering 60 000 ha of critically important and highly threatened grasslands and wetlands, using the Biodiversity Stewardship model. This is a production landscape, and has become one of the largest sites where agriculture, tourism, and conservation ends are met under one protected area.
BirdLife South Africa is currently working at six other sites, consisting of approximately 50 000 ha, where it hopes to proclaim priority IBAs as protected areas using Biodiversity Stewardship. It intends to further expand this work to other IBAs, as well as develop new Biodiversity Stewardship models to increase the sustainability of this Programme.