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Returning rural folk to their roots as environmental custodians

Responding to the trend of Swazis to ignore environmental conservation in favour of exploitation, several Swazi government departments are taking steps to encourage Swazis to become the environmental stewards they once were.
James Hall

Once upon a time, say social anthropologists, Swazi rural people (who were the only kind of Swazis there were) acted as custodians of the verdant hills, fertile valleys, and hot, dry, lowveld that was teeming with game. But when a modern central government created a welfare state that essentially ensured the livelihoods of peasant farmers residing under chiefs, survival no longer depended upon the sustainability of their immediate environs. First, the game animals disappeared, and then serious environmental damage occurred due to pressures of an expanding population.

Winnie Shongwe, a 45-year-old widow in KaGusha in the kingdom's southern region, shares the confidence of her neighbours when she predicts: "Government will never let us starve. If we take all the wood from the forest, so there is no forest left, government will not let us go without firewood."

Anthropologist Kevin Dube notes: "In the old days, people knew their lives depended on the productivity of their environment. No one wants to live in a place that has been environmentally compromised, but overpopulation is changing the way Swazis interact with their environs."

Led by the Ministries of Agriculture and Natural Resources, efforts are underway to reconnect Swazis with their natural surroundings so that they can preserve their environment rather than see it as a source of resources free for the taking without any thought to the consequences of such misuse.

The approach has already succeeded with game animals, which are now considered by many Swazis to be more valuable alive than as cooked meat. Ted Reilly, dean of Swaziland's nature conservationists, says: "Before the first game park was established, lion, elephant, and most other game had been hunted to extinction. We imported these animals, and reintroduced them to the kingdom. But we knew it was not enough, and they'd be in danger of getting killed, if we did not educate people to new realities."

By offering employment to the rural poor who live next to game parks, conservationists were able to promulgate a message that an impala may be good in the pot for a night's feast, but can earn revenue every day it is alive by bringing tourists in to see it -- tourists who spend money that pays Swazi salaries and supports many businesses.

The problems facing wider environmental protection are more complex. Minister of Agriculture Roy Fanourakis enumerates: "Too many people depend on finite resources like forests for firewood, pastureland for grazing, and agricultural land for farming. There used to be a balance, a harmony. We need a return to that."

What Swaziland is seeing is a destructive domino effect in which a natural resource that is depleted negatively impacts other vulnerable parts of the environment. Overgrazing of hills leads to vegetation depletion and soil erosion. When rains come, topsoil and cattle dung are washed into streams, polluting the main water source for rural people. Consequently, bore holes are drilled in such numbers that the subsurface aquifers are depleted at an accelerated rate.

Meanwhile, population pressure forces new families to move onto marginal land previously shunned as unproductive, but which in its natural state sustained a thriving ecosystem. When this delicate land is damaged, desertification soon follows.

The improvement of health care available to Swazis has also had the unintended consequence of lessening the traditional people's need to look after their environment.

Gogo Mabusa, a traditional diviner-healer, relates: "In the past, only one way existed to cure ailments. We found medicinal barks and roots, and mixed them to heal people. Now, it is easier to go to the clinic and get pills. People no longer rely on the forest as their clinic. They are forgetting about the umutsi (medicinal) roots. They don't look after places where these grow anymore."

Urban expansion and migration of rural people have also encroached upon wild areas, leading to a depletion of the kingdom's biodiversity, according to a report released this year by the Ministry of Agriculture.

The ministry, however, intends to "take back" Swaziland's environment from neglect by reacquainting peasants living under chiefs, who constitute 75 per cent of the population, with their traditional roles as environmental custodians.

Field officers such as Jabulani Dlamini are adding environmental awareness to the lessons he usually teaches promoting modern agricultural techniques. If instruction fails and people persist with harmful practices, he is empowered by new natural resources legislation to fine violators.

"A person must have the permission of a chief before he can cut a tree on national land," says Dlamini. "Too many of our indigenous trees that are so important to our culture are disappearing."

Wood carvers enjoy a free supply of raw material by taking indigenous hardwood trees. Once an indigenous tree is burned in a cooking fire, it is gone for good, environmentalists note. That was permissible at a time when the supply seemed endless. But that is not the case now, especially when community-based tourism is taking hold.

Mduduzi Mnisi, who runs a backpacker and adventure tourism service, says: "A part of what my clients pay me is given to the chiefs, and I tell the chiefs there will be no clients if they have no unspoiled places to go. The communities will lose the revenue just when they are starting to depend on it."

The Ministry of Agriculture is employing rural youth to preserve the environment by combating a growing menace, the encroachment of alien plant species. Squads of machete-wielding youths are slashing their way through growths of heavy-proliferating chromolaena odorata shrubs and bugweeds.

Such "invasives" crowd out and suppress all other plants, and in some areas have completely replaced a diversity of indigenous plants. Hearty chromolaena, known locally as "wandile," can take over farmland and replace grass in pasturelands if not removed.

The problem is most acute in the eastern Lubombo region, near the Mozambique border. However, Mlawula Nature Reserve in the region has succeeded in controlling, if not entirely eradicating, invasive growths, and is showing communities how this is done. Wild animals such as kudus and impala have died after eating chromolaena, impressing peasant farmers who see their cattle herds similarly endangered.

"This is the best education, when people see with their own eyes how they are jeopardized when something goes wrong with the environment," says Mark Vilakazi, a game ranger.

Agriculture authorities say traditional farmers are receptive learners, and can adapt to changing circumstances. Today, that means a return to an age-old respect for surroundings. Says Chief Malunge of Nyangeni in Central Swaziland: "My people are discovering again that the environment is more valuable intact than taken apart to be use bit by bit until nothing is left."

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