It all began after a field trip to the desert. In 1997, a South African youth group traveled to the Richtersveld to see the legendary San petroglyphs on rock walls along the Orange River. They arrived to discover the ancient engravings plundered and, in some places, destroyed. Spurred by their children's experience and the destruction of their desert homeland by diamond mines and overgrazing, communities
in the Richtersveld moved quickly to protect their remaining natural and cultural resources.
Instead of a reserve or national park, the Richtersvelders sought to create a conservancy where they could manage use of the land, safeguard biodiversity, and create economic opportunities for their community. Fewer than ten years later, with support from Conservation International (CI), the Swiss Development and Cooperation Agency, EcoAfrica, the Global Environment Facility, and others, the Richtersveld Community Conservancy today protects some 39,500 acres of the mountainous desert, part of southern Africa's Succulent Karoo Biodiversity Hotspot, and helps ensure local ownership of the land for future generations.
A Melting Pot of People and Species
The Richtersveld, one of the biologically and culturally richest deserts in the world, straddles the western border of South Africa and Namibia. The region is home to numerous communities including the semi-nomadic Nama people who have been herding livestock in the desert for thousands of years.
Boasting high levels of species diversity and endemism, the Richtersveld is known particularly for its botanical richness. Of some 2,700 plant species, roughly 21 percent are endemic and 80 percent are succulents plants with leaves and stems full of water that are well adapted to dry habitats. Each spring, this vegetation blooms in a spectacular display that attracts tourists from around the globe.
Marred In Search of Diamonds
The desert soil harbors not only ecological wealth but also economic opportunity. Only portions of the mountainous landscape are unscathed by commercial diamond mining. Even in national parks, old mines remain operational until they prove economically unviable. Of South Africa's entire Atlantic coastline, about two-thirds are scarred by abandoned mines and huge dumps that are visible from space.
Additionally, more than 90 percent of land in the Succulent Karoo is used for grazing, including much of the Richtersveld. Two-thirds of the hotspot are significantly overgrazed.
Richtersvelders for the Richtersveld
In the face of economic decline and hardship, the Richtersvelders' decision to pursue conservation as a land use rather than prohibit activity to protect the land was a significant one. The community conservancy was formed out of a participatory process that still includes almost all sectors of society.
By 2003, a management plan was devised, staff members were appointed, and the conservancy was in business. Instead of diamond mining, it supports sustainable agriculture, managed ecotourism activities, scientific research, education for children, and local environmental initiatives.
The first of its kind in South Africa, the conservancy has become a model for locally managed conservation and development. Already, neighboring communities have converted their parks and reserves into locally managed conservancies.
Conservation Knows No Borders
CI recognized the unique opportunity in the Richtersveld to marry conservation with economic growth and the promotion of human welfare, and it supports the conservancy in a variety of ways. EcoAfrica has been instrumental in the conservancy's development since 1997. Other partners in the initiative include the German government-funded Transform Programme, the Global Environment Facility, and the South Africa Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism.
The conservancy also helps CI and its partners link various conservation entities along the western coasts of South Africa and Namibia to form a biodiversity conservation corridor that safeguards entire ecosystems. Equal in size to the neighboring Richtersveld National Park, the Richtersveld conservancy doubles the amount of protected area in the desert. Together, they form the largest tract of conservation area in the region and will connect to the emerging Greater !Gariep Transfrontier Conservation Area.
"That the Nama have been raising livestock for as long as they have in an area earmarked by conservation authorities as one of the most botanically diverse in the region, is testament to the sustainability of their traditional management techniques," says Rowena Smuts, the program manager for CI's Wilderness and Transfrontier Conservation Program in Southern Africa "The project's success is mainly due to the persistence and vision of the local community members."