Mkuze Wetland: The True Story

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Cattle graze the reeds that stand along the water’s edge of South Africa’s Mkuze wetland. The same collection of reeds will be used by local people to make roofing, mats, and baskets. Parts of other plants will become poles or firewood. Many families, including the growing amount of poverty-stricken female-lead households, depend on resources offered by the wetland and profits from tourism. Two main reasons why female-lead households are becoming more common to the area include men leaving to look for jobs, and illness. The search for jobs is an issue that has also struck other indigenous groups who are no longer able to subsist off the land. In this post I look into why this has happened, and the story of how.

The Mnqobokazi tribe was not always allowed to subsist off the land which now contains iSimangaliso Wetland Park. There is a long history of obstructed access to resources for local people. First, a segment of tribal land was labeled as forest reserve. In the 1970s, resident Mbila people were forced to leave the reserve by the military. After that, the area was deemed conservation land and resources were further confined. Locals could graze cattle and collect reeds from the reserve, but they couldn’t collect firewood or medicinal plants, set fires, fish, or hunt. These rules crippled local food security.

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The Mbila people adjacent to the wetland park were granted land in 1994, but the victory came with caveats. The land was still protected, meaning locals could not live there. Instead they were allowed to negotiate for involvement in resource management. Other groups that had also relied on wetland resources were not included in the deal. More than 300,000 hectares (abbreviate ha) of wetland were labeled as World Natural Heritage Site in 1999. It was not until 2007 that another group, the Mnqobokazi, were finally given back some 5,000 ha of their land, but it also came with the stipulation that it would be managed for conservation. Not only did tribal groups face continuous difficulty in accessing land due to the state, but also they were competing for land against commercial farming.

“Today, Mnqobokazi is surrounded by protected areas on three sides: the Mkuze Game Reserve, established in 1912, the Phinda Reserve, a commercial wildlife reserve developed in the 1980s, and the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.”Addressing Trade-offs… in the Mkuze Wetlands, Ecology & Society

Local people had conflicting reactions to a proposed fence in 2005 that would surround the wetland park. The purpose of the fence according to the iSimangaliso Authority was to protect the wetland from people but also to protect local people from potentially dangerous species that had just been introduced to the park. These included elephants, white and black rhinos, and buffalo. Although many people were accepting of the plan, others were concerned over access to wetland resources for themselves and cattle. Community members were optimistic about tourism-related jobs but hesitant about how profits would be divided once tourism began, and about whether or not they would be compensated for the loss of land.

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The conservation and development groups, iSimangaliso Authority and Lubombo Spatial Development Initiative, planned to offset financial difficulties that locals would incur due to the loss of land by (1) teaching crafting skills to provide women with solid monthly income, and (2) building gardens for food to eat or sell to tourists.

The craft group started in 1996. By 2009, the group had only 3 of its 20 original members, but gained 6 new ones. Women had left because of other jobs, sickness, or demanding quality requirements. Members were content with the results of the group but wished for new, younger members. Basket-making through the group was the main source of income for some women. Although an increasing demand for baskets from tourists would provide the group more financial stability, pressure on resources could lead to a shortage of ilala palms, whose leaves are typically used in basket-making. Although the tree is not cut down in the process, members of the group mentioned that it was getting harder and harder to find big palms suitable for weaving, especially on communal land. At the time of the study, women were still using ilala leaves from within the park. Adding a fence and prohibiting local access to park would inhibit the group’s ability to weave with local resources.

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The iSimangaliso Authority built two communal 1-2 ha vegetable gardens outside the wetland park in 2003. When interviewed, locals thought the purpose of the project was to help them support themselves, or keep them busy with something useful. The project goal had actually been to create a reliable source of food for the impoverished, build farming skills, potentially develop a new tourism-related revenue stream, and build connections between the community and the park. Garden membership by the organization in charge was selective and some people who showed interest could not take part. Some villagers did not believe they would be able to meet supply and quality demands for tourists using the gardens.

Harvest was good for the first year at both gardens, but declined in the years following. The locations chosen for gardening were close to peoples’ homes, but soil fertility was not ideal. The first garden was challenged by financial support issues, a lack of working equipment, and poor communication, organization, and attendance. The second garden suffered from improper irrigation and poor location, but participants were pleased with the project organization and cooperation and had even built a nursery.

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Overall, communication between organizations and local people is necessary in conservation projects. However, the relationship between government and “the governed” shouldn’t end there. There needs to be mutual respect and understanding of other peoples’ way of life.

The story of what has happened at Mkuze wetland unfortunately mirrors some other indigenous groups’ situations, such as the Chol-Maya in Mexico or Ngobe in Panama, whose environmental ties to land have also been broken down by the pressure to develop and conserve land. Truthfully, indigenous groups tend to use sustainable land management practices, and their land is more at risk of degradation if they lose that property to large companies who use less environmentally conscious techniques. This issue of indigenous land-grabbing by large corporations is being studied by many scholars, but there is a crucial need for activism. This article was written using information from the Mkuze wetland study by A.C. Dahlberg and C. Burlando published in Ecology & Society in 2009.

Hope you enjoyed this article! I’m aiming to address the topic of indigenous land rights into my Masters thesis work because a lot of tribal groups subsist on wetlands (or used to). Have you heard of similar issues before? Comment below! Have a wonderful weekend, Jess 🙂

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