The Vhembe Biosphere Reserve (VBR) is located in the most northern districts of the Limpopo Province of the Republic of South Africa, covering five local municipal areas of the Limpopo Province; Blouberg, Musina, Makhado, Thulamela and Mutale. The VBR includes the northern Kruger National Park north of the Shingwedzi River, and borders the three neighbouring countries of Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. The VBR is the largest biosphere reserve in South Africa, with a surface area of 30 701 km . The eastern border is formed by the Mogalakwena River and the southern border extends roughly from just south of the Blouberg – Makgabeng and Soutpansberg Mountain Ranges, across the Luvuvhu River catchment, to the east. The northern and eastern boundaries are formed by the international boundaries with Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
With a population of approximately 1.5 million people of which ~97% are rural residents, the VBR contains a complex interplay of cultural groups representing a rich, but diverse, cultural heritage. These groups exist within a socio-political post-apartheid-regime in an area of the country with extraordinary biodiversity and several sensitive eco-systems. Our biosphere reserve was designated in 2009 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and this is the first periodic review spanning the 10 years from 2009 to 2019.
Biosphere Reserves are established in recognition of the relationship between man and the natural world
- The Soutpansberg is one of the least known but most bio-diverse areas in Southern Africa. Unfortunately there is no legislative protection of this hidden wonder. This led to a move by a group of landowners in the Western Soutpansberg to establish the Soutpansberg Conservancy in the mid 1990’s. It soon became clear that there was a need to for a much broader vision for the entire sub-region, which had to include the entire spectrum of stakeholders.
- It was also realized that in order to conserve areas such as the Soutpansberg it was essential to be able to demonstrate to all stakeholders and in particular the many poor local communities in the region, the benefits of conservation.
- The UNESCO Biosphere concept provided an ideal tool to achieve all the above objectives. The Biosphere concept is best described as follows, “Biosphere Reserves are established in recognition of the relationship between man and the natural world.”
Conservation, Development and Logistics are the three key functions of the Biosphere
- Conservation – which aims to identify areas that are important to "contribute to the conservation of the hierarchy of bio-diversity, including landscapes, eco-systems, species and genes". The attached plan highlights such areas.
- Development – the definition of development in the context of a Biosphere is to “foster economic development, which is socio-culturally and ecologically sustainable.” All Biospheres therefore accept and encourage development within their areas. Historically environmentalists were prone to draw a "hard-line" boundary between areas of environmental sensitivity and areas of development. Biospheres are more flexible instruments that encourage a greater degree of flexibility. For example, Biospheres identify within each of the Core, Buffer and Transition Zones, sub-zones that are "critically sensitive, "sensitive" and "non-sensitive".
- Research – aims to foster support for research, monitoring, education and information exchange related to local, national and global issues of conservation and development.
VBR faces challenges such as poverty, sensitive environments and land restitution
- The VBR is largely rural with the majority of its stakeholders consisting of relatively poor local communities having few economic opportunities. Thus poverty alleviation is a high priority.
- There are a number of sensitive environments, which also include culturally important "sacred places" which need to be conserved for future generations. On the other hand, vast reserves of minerals, mainly coal, have relatively recently been identified and the challenge is to assess how and/or if, which of these deposits can be exploited while ensuring the long-term sustainable conservation and simultaneous development of the VBR.
- The bio-diverse Soutpansberg has no current legal protection to ensure that its unique environment is conserved.
- The Biosphere must benefit the local stakeholders in a tangible and sustainable manner.
- It is important to ensure the introduction of a successful land restitution programme, which must include skills transfer and capacity building.
- To meet the above challenges will require the establishment of an effective and acceptable management system.