UNESCO: United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization

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Cape Town: Garden Wonderland in the Midst of Urban Sprawl
The Cape’s townships adjoin the Rondevlei Nature Reserve
© Peter Coles, Paris
Instead of building fences around its unique fl oral heritage, Cape Town (South Africa) explores new ways to involve inhabitants in conservation
Despite their romantic names, Cape Town’s tough townships like Lavender Hill are not places many Capetonians are likely to venture. Yet, a few hundred metres away, down a surprisingly quiet, tidy street, is the Rondevlei Nature Reserve. Once inside the gate, a haven of tranquil beauty opens up. A kingfi sher dives off a tall reed; pelicans, spoonbills and pink fl amingos mass on the banks of a vlei (lake), and, as night falls, a couple of hippos rise like submarines to wallow and graze.

In Cape Town ‘urban’ and ‘natural’ worlds oft en coincide – or collide. Table Mountain, the heart of the city, is slap in the middle of business and up-market residential areas. Yet it is home to Fynbos (pronounced fain-boss), a unique vegetation, and the main component of the Cape Floristic Kingdom – the world’s richest, and geographically smallest, fl oral kingdom (plants confi ned to a geographical area). Some 9,600 species can be found in an area the size of Portugal, 70% of them endemic (found nowhere else), while 1,406 are listed in the World Conservation Union’s (IUCN) Red Data book of endangered species. While the Cape floral region was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Natural Heritage List in 2004 for its unique fl ora and fauna, the region also has no less than two biosphere reserves – Kogelberg, just to the east of the city, and the West Coast Biosphere Reserve.

The proximity of this plant biodiversity ‘hotspot’ to an urban area poses obvious conservation problems, especially given Cape Town’s open access policy to its national park – which means no fences and few pay points.

Conservation challenges are multiplied many times over by an explosion of economic migrants from the rural Eastern Cape in search of jobs, arriving at a rate of about 45,000 every three months. Under apartheid, black Africans were not allowed to live in central Cape Town and were confi ned to townships on the urban edge. Since the late 1980s, though, almost a million (mostly Xhosa people) have settled on the city’s outskirts, many in the township of Khayelitsha. Th ese vast slums of tiny houses and tin shacks stretch as far as the eye can see, across the fragile dunes and seasonal wetlands of Cape Flats.

Involving communities

The Cape Floristic Kingdom is the richest in the world
© Peter Coles, Paris
But the Cape Flats are also part of the Cape Floristic Kingdom. Yet, to the new arrivals, it looks like ‘scrubland’ - an ideal place to put up a makeshift home. “How do you look aft er biodiversity in a context of extreme poverty, where local communities have little history of involvement in conservation?” asks Tanya Goldman, Project Manager of Cape Flats Nature.

One response, she explains, is the City of Cape Town’s Integrated Metropolitan Environment Policy (IMEP), adopted in 2001, according to which “there doesn’t have to be a choice between environment and people. You can protect the environment in a way that supports peoples’ needs.” At the heart of the IMEP is a Biodiversity Strategy, implemented through a network of 261 areas that should preserve a minimum of Cape Town’s unique biodiversity. For the moment, Cape Flats Nature is concentrating on four experimental sites.

One, the Edith Stephens Wetland Park, is a modest but promising start. “The City has started to get the message that they won’t fi nd support for conservation in the Cape Flats by fencing people out,” says Tanya Goldman. “Sustainable conservation management has to win the hearts, involvement and understanding of the surrounding communities.” Two of the other three pilot sites are more of a challenge, though. Both the Wolfgat Nature Reserve and Macassar Dunes are sensitive areas. Spectacularly beautiful, and studded with arum lilies, they are also where gangsters dump their victims’ bodies.

While Cape Flats Nature is working with traditional healers at Macassar Dunes to grow medicinal plants between the shacks and the dunes – to act as a buff er against further sprawl – Brett Myrdal, Manager of Table Mountain National Park, has a more controversial proposition – housing. He wants to see “a middle class community from the townships overlooking the coastal area.” But, he says, “Environmentalists don’t see housing as part of a conservation solution. Th ey see it as a threat.” What if, in the end, both were right?

Facts and figures

  • In 2005, 49% of the world’s population is living in urban areas. In 2030, that figure is likely to reach 60.8%. The proportion is higher in industrialized countries (74.9%) than it is in developing countries (43.2%). By 2030, those figures will have risen to 81.7% and 57% respectively. And by 2007, for the first time in history, more than half the world’s population will be living in urban areas.

  • In 2004, forests covered 29.6% of the world’s total land area. But between 1990 and 2000, 9.4 million hectares of forest per year were lost to deforestation.

  • In 2004, 2,791 species were listed as endangered, 1,490 of them plants and 1,301 animals.

    Sources: FAO, United Nations, World Conservation Union, World Bank

  • See also:
    Peter Coles
    Europe and North America Latin America and the Caribbean Africa Arab States Asia Pacific